Lisa Leslie : She’s a Charmer With a Warm Smile and Bubbly Personality Most of the Time, but on the Court She’s a Terror

Times Staff Writer

Sitting down, Lisa Leslie hardly looks the intimidating type. With her warm smile, stunning brown eyes and youthful exuberance, she could easily have been the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little 16.”

But that impression quickly changes when the Morningside High School junior takes the basketball court. Then it’s easy to see how Leslie could strike fear in opponents.

At 6-5, she would be considered tall on a boys basketball team. Against high school girls, most under 6 feet, she looms like a giant.

She earned the nickname “Dunkin” for doing exactly that against Manual Arts in Morningside’s season opener, becoming the first girl to slam dunk in a high school game and only the second to perform the feat in the history of U.S. women’s basketball, according to scout Len Locher.


And her exceptional skills are only part of her arsenal. She can gain an edge with mere presence.

Although she says she never intentionally tries to intimidate an opponent, Leslie admits she’ll go for the jugular if she senses fear.

“I can tell when people are intimidated,” she said. “They start to look at each other. Whenever I see a weakness, that’s when I feel it’s time for me to take over because they’re scared of me.”

It was Leslie’s presence that spelled doom for Redondo in last Friday’s Ocean League game at Morningside. After she scored three straight baskets in the opening minutes, Redondo center Vanessa Vogelsang came to the bench during a timeout and reportedly told Coach Tim Ammentorp: “I can’t play against her.” Ammentorp, upset with her attitude, benched Vogelsang for the rest of the game as the Lady Monarchs romped to a 77-11 win.

The 6-2 Vogelsang entered the game averaging 25.3 points, tops in the South Bay.

“Leslie intimidated everybody in the gym,” Ammentorp said. “We had people get their shot blocked and immediately look to throw it out (of the key). We had people who didn’t want to bring the ball up court. There were people open, but we wouldn’t throw it because Leslie was standing there.

“I’ve never seen a girl who can dominate the game as she does.”

Locher, director of Western Girls Athletic Services, rates Leslie the third-best high school girl ever to play in Southern California behind former prep All-Americans Cheryl Miller (Riverside Poly) and Teri Mann (Point Loma).

That’s elite company.

Miller, considered by many the finest women’s player ever, starred at USC and led the U.S. to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. She holds Southern Section records for most points in a career (3,446), most in a season (1,197) and most in a game (105). Mann, a burly center nicknamed “Baby Moses” (after Moses Malone), guided Point Loma of the CIF San Diego Section to an unprecedented four straight state titles in 1984-87.

“She’s improved a great deal over the last year,” Locher said of Leslie. “Right now she’s without a doubt the No. 1 underclassman in the country.”

That, of course, translates into a tremendous amount of recruiting interest in the Morningside center.

“I talk to about three coaches almost every other day,” Leslie said. “It doesn’t bother me because if I don’t want to talk, I won’t.”

Leslie, who carries a solid 3.5 grade-point average, says USC, Stanford, Tennessee and Auburn are the colleges currently at the top of her list.

“We’d have a hard time keeping her out of the boys starting lineup,” said Ron Randle, co-coach of the Morningside boys team.

Leslie’s success is part God-given, part hard work. She gets her height from her parents. The late Bernard Leslie was 6-4 and Leslie’s mother, Christine, is 6-3. Both played basketball in high school.

But to think that Leslie’s talents are solely the result of heredity, is to make a mistake. Since the seventh grade she has spent long hours in the gyms of Carson and Inglewood.

She got her start in organized basketball on an otherwise all-boys team at Victoria Park in Carson. As a 12-year-old seventh-grader she was 6-2 and the tallest member of the team.

“I towered over everybody,” Leslie recalled. “All of the guys were about 5-8. They knew me from shooting around. They would always say, ‘Hey Lisa, want to play with us?’ So I played with them. I got put on a team and I didn’t know what to expect at first. But it wasn’t hard to adjust.”

First, though, she had to earn the respect of her male teammates.

“When I played my first game, they wouldn’t give me the ball,” she said. “The coach had to tell them, ‘Hey, give Lisa the ball.’ They got me the ball and we won.”

Leslie was named most valuable player of the team, the first of many honors to come her way.

A varsity starter as a freshman, she developed into a force near the basket for Morningside last season and was named to the All-CIF Southern Section 4-A first team after averaging 21.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 6.1 blocked shots. Her play helped the Lady Monarchs to a 33-2 record, the 4-A and Southern California titles and the runner-up spot in the state Division I tournament.

Out from under the shadow of graduated senior Shaunda Greene, last year’s 4-A co-player of the year, Leslie entered this season on several All-American lists. She’s fulfilling those expectations by averaging 24 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks. She was named MVP of all three tournaments the Lady Monarchs played in last month--Morningside, Oakland Miramonte and Santa Barbara.

“She’s an all-around dominating figure right now,” said Morningside Coach Frank Scott, whose team is 13-1, 3-0 in the Ocean League and is considered among the top 10 teams in the nation. “She’s almost unstoppable.”

Ammentorp, the Redondo coach, says he knew Leslie was headed for greatness during her freshman season.

“In the summer before her freshman year, my assistant coach said they’ve got a girl who’s going to be an All-American,” Ammentorp recalled. “And I said, ‘Come on, coach. Let’s get serious.’ By the time the basketball season came around, I knew he was right.

“Shaunda Greene was a great basketball player, but Lisa is so tall, she’s such a force. You can’t take the ball inside against her because she blocks it. She has amazing timing for somebody as young as she is. And you can’t guard her because she turns and has nice touch around the basket. You have to have somebody who’s almost her size to have any chance against her.”

Ammentorp believes Leslie’s statistics would be more impressive if she did not play on a balanced team, one that includes heavily recruited senior guard Jo Jo Witherspoon.

“If Lisa were on our team, she would probably score 50 points a game,” he said.

Leslie doesn’t mind sharing the wealth with her teammates. Her primary goal is to return to the state Division I championship game and reverse last year’s disappointing 53-52 loss to Oakland Fremont. The Lady Monarchs have not lost to a California team this season, their only defeat coming to highly regarded Southern High of Louisville, Ky., 52-50, in the final of the Santa Barbara Tournament.

“I really don’t see any team in California beating us,” Leslie said. “If someone beats us, it’s going to be a big upset.”

A loss in league play would go beyond the realm of an upset. It would be mind-boggling. Morningside has won 61 consecutive league games, most by lopsided margins. The Lady Monarchs’ three Ocean League wins this season have been by 43, 66 and 29 points.

Leslie complains that the easy competition sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate.

“It’s pretty hard because Coach Scott wants us to go out there with the same intensity as we would if it was a hard game. But it’s hard for me to go in there and dominate if the girl isn’t defending me very hard. We have to keep the intensity up in practice. Going against each other in practice is harder than the games we play.”

Leslie learned about grueling practices from her cousin, Craig Simpson, a former basketball player at Dorsey High. During eighth grade, Leslie says she spent nearly every night in the gym taking instructions from Simpson.

“I’d do my homework and then go to the gym,” she said. “Working with my cousin is how I got my skills. I told him I liked basketball, and that was it. He made me do all kinds of things.”

The regimen included conditioning drills: jumping rope, doing push-ups and sitting on a wall with her legs tucked up to strengthen stomach muscles.

“I remember being upset and saying, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore,’ ” she said. “And he’d say, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. You can either do it or this is the end of your basketball career.’ He wasn’t going to let me come to the gym anymore.”

Leslie stuck with it, and it paid dividends when she entered high school. Although she appears gangly, Leslie displays the skills of a conditioned athlete. She can post up inside, but she also handles the ball well for a big girl and has the quickness to defend guards.

Locher says the combination of height and athletic ability are what make Leslie such an outstanding prospect. However, the scout says she needs to increase her bulk and strength.

“She has to develop more of a physical game,” he said. “She has trouble playing against more physical kids. It doesn’t hurt her in high school, but on the college level she will have a rough time. She has trouble playing against pounders.”

Leslie figures she has time to prepare for college. After all, she still has more than half of her junior year remaining, a long summer of off-season basketball and her senior season to look forward to. She will try out for the Olympic Festival team in April, keeping her sights on making the 1992 Olympic team.

And there’s always the possibility she may grow another inch or two. That, she says, wouldn’t upset her. Sure, she’s been the target of teasing because of her height, but Leslie says she has never desired to be shorter.

“It never bothered me because my mom is tall,” she said. “My mother always told me, ‘Someone is going to say something negative, but small minds you don’t pay attention to.’ I’ve been taller since kindergarten, so I’ve dealt with it my whole life.”

Now other basketball players are dealing with it. And coming up short.