There’s Only One Lisa Leslie

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When I saw Lisa Leslie dunk, it made me cry. I’m serious. When’s the last time you cried after seeing a dunk? It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.

But that wasn’t the most impressive thing I’ve ever saw Lisa do. I was far more impressed by her work ethic. Most people never saw that side of her. I never coached anyone, man or woman, who wanted to get better more than Lisa Leslie did. That’s what makes her legendary. She was great enough to take it easy and still be better than almost anyone. Instead, she hustled harder than anyone else. And that’s one of the reasons her name is being called this weekend in Springfield.

Before anyone in LA was awake, Lisa was working on her game. The Lakers practice facility’s main court was reserved for the Lakers each day at 7 a.m. That’s when Kobe, Shaq, Derek Fisher and the guys would roll up to the gym.

Lisa Leslie got there two hours before them.

As her coach for almost six years, I would meet Lisa at the practice facility at around 5 a.m., four days a week. She was always ready to go. She was never late.

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When you saw Phil Jackson watching from above the court, that was our cue. You knew it was almost time for the Lakers to take the court. We’d wrap up and Lisa would go straight to a personal trainer who was waiting there – they’d do weights and conditioning. Sometimes she went to the sand dunes to run. By 10 or 11 a.m., Lisa had done more than the average NBA player would do in a day.

I think it motivated Lisa that she had to arrive before the Lakers just in order to practice. Often, she would still be there after they left.

Lisa makes me think of what the word “professional” means. A “basketball player” is content with staying at one level and riding out whatever talent they have. A “professional basketball player” wants to improve every year and get better. I’ve known a lot of each. I won’t name the mere players. Magic, Kareem, James Worthy and Lisa Leslie … those are the true professional basketball players. They got better every year.

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Lisa was a student of the game. She was the rare basketball player who made it a point to learn something new every year. One year it was getting her more refined as a low post player, the second year was working on her free throws because she was getting fouled a lot (even though she shot 77 percent, she wanted to be at 90 percent). The following year, she wanted to work on three-point shooting, so we improved that area. All we did was shoot threes. Imagine a dominant big man today shooting threes, a couple hours a day, four days a week, before anyone’s even awake yet. Not sure it would happen. But that was Lisa. The next year after that, she came to me and said she wanted to learn why Hakeem Olajuwon was so good in the post. She wanted to do Olajuwon’s moves. So she watched tape of him non-stop. She worked on perfecting the Dream Shake.

Lisa liked to go play pickup ball with the guys on Magic’s traveling team over at UCLA. These were good, good players. Some of the best players in LA. She was the only woman there. I would go along, too, and I would just ask the guys not to play too physical with her. The size difference would make it too easy for them to push her off balance. But then I’d add, “Don’t think she can’t play.” Some of them listened to that advice, some of them didn’t. Let me tell you, she used to kick some of their asses. And you could tell — because about two games in, some guys would go into that over-competitive mode and start playing her physical. She was in their head.

Lisa’s game improved a lot from playing with guys. It helped her in two ways. One, if she could get her shot off on a guy, she definitely was going to get a shot off in the WNBA. And two, if you can handle a guy banging on you, there’s probably no woman that can throw you off balance. She always welcomed playing at a higher level in order to improve.

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Lisa had a lot of inner strength, and in that sense she reminded me a little of myself. I wasn’t the bulkiest guy, but I could stand my ground. I was wiry. People used to ask me all the time how I went up against 250-pound guys and stronger. It’s hidden strength, it’s that strength where you’re able to hold a position. Lisa had that “You’re Not Moving Me” strength. She did her weight work as religiously as anyone else I’ve seen.

Lisa made basketball into a true profession. Before her, it was just women playing pretty much the same size — so it was jump shots or drives to the basket. Lisa changed all of that — because here was a girl who was 6’5” who could step out and shoot threes, dunk the basketball and control the game with her shot blocking ability. No one had seen that before.

Kareem’s dominance made people want to outlaw the dunk. Lisa changed the game in a similar way. When you played Lisa, your game had to change. You couldn’t come to the hoop because she was going to block it. Coaches had to approach the game differently.

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After Lisa, young girls wanted to be centers. A lot of ladies didn’t want to play center at the time because they wanted to be guards like Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. Lisa was down in the trenches, and that’s not considered a glamorous game. But that was Lisa. I think the greatest title for a book is hers — Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You. Because you could sit there and think she was soft, but she was going to bring the pain to you.

Lisa always admired our Showtime Laker teams. She asked a lot of questions: “What did it take for us to become Showtime? What were the team dynamics like?” Well, it took a lot of work. We practiced hard, we pushed each other individually, we wouldn’t let anybody slack off. When someone was down, you’d help him up. When somebody wasn’t doing his job, you’d help him up. If Magic wasn’t playing hard, you would say something to him. Didn’t matter that it was Magic. She took a lot of mental notes.

I surprised her one time when I compared our ’80s Showtime style of play with the WNBA, rather than the current NBA. In today’s NBA, if I’m supposed to dive on the ground, man, I’ve got my contract, I don’t want to get hurt. I’m not diving. It wasn’t all about money and contracts back then like it is today.

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The purity we had during Showtime — you see that in the WNBA. The women play a freer style. They are more fundamentally sound. They play harder.

Jerry West used to tell me, “Coop, you know what? Play for the love of the game. The money will come.” You look at these guys making millions and millions of dollars today, and half of them aren’t even worth that. But they wouldn’t be this successful if we hadn’t done what we did in the Showtime era. Lisa and her peers — the founding class of the WNBA — is going to have the same impact. Future players are going to reap the benefit of a bigger paycheck, a bigger level of fame, a bigger league. That’s coming.

But let me tell you about Lisa’s dunk. I was coaching, so I had a sideline view. Courtside. Best seat in the house. I knew it was going to happen sometime that season because of the training she was doing to prepare for it. When the opportunity came in that game, I saw the whole play developing three steps ahead, but it still caught me by surprise on an emotional level. For her to be the first woman professional athlete to dunk in a game, it was so exciting. But as a dunk, it was a major dunk. She was way above the rim and she bent it when she followed through. I just sat there for a second, and then I was suddenly tearing up and jumping up and down.

Lisa Leslie shies away from labels, but she was the face of the league. Lisa fundamentally changed the game of basketball for women. There will never be another Lisa Leslie. I couldn’t be prouder to say I was her coach.

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