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A NEW LISA ON LIFE : Olympics and WNBA Give Leslie a Chance to Show Her Stuff

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The call, between NBA Commissioner David Stern and Laker owner Jerry Buss, according to Buss’ son, John, went something like this:

Stern: Jerry, we’re going to start up a women’s league and we want you to be involved.

Buss: Sure, on one condition.

Stern: What’s that?

Buss: We get Lisa Leslie.

Done.

And that’s how it is at the Forum, where the Lakers’ women’s team, the Sparks, are being preened, primed and prepped for this afternoon’s Women’s NBA opener with the New York Liberty.

True, the WNBA’s catch phrase is “We got next.”

But at the Forum, it’s also, “We got Lisa.”

It is a natural state of affairs for everyone. She was born in Gardena and grew up in Inglewood, achieving basketball prominence as a 6-foot seventh-grader, then adding to it at nearby Inglewood Morningside High, not far from the Forum.

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The 6-5, 24-year-old willowy USC alumna and Olympic gold medalist is the Sparks’ foundation, their cornerstone and the repository for all their lofty aspirations as the eight-team league makes its debut this weekend.

Concurrent with all this, Lisa DeShaun Leslie launches a pro basketball career she hopes will make her the most recognized female athlete in the country.

And even better: the most highly compensated.

Her agent, Leonard Armato--who also represents the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal, the Houston Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon and former pro football player Ronnie Lott--says Leslie will earn $1 million to $2 million this year, roughly half of that from her NBA personal-services contract.

Not bad for a career that doesn’t start officially until today.

He said Leslie, 24, has stepped into the spotlight of women’s sports at precisely the right time.

“There’s been a revolution in women’s basketball, you could see that plainly at the Olympics,” Armato said, referring to the U.S. women’s Olympic team’s 60-0 world tour and sweep of the Olympic tournament.

“I was in Atlanta; I could sense something powerful was going on, and so could a lot of other people. Twenty years ago, women were cheerleaders. Now, it’s OK to be an athlete. There are some very interesting social dynamics going on here.”

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Armato, who also represents beach volleyball standout Holly McPeak, was fascinated by Leslie at Atlanta.

“I talked with Shaq when I got back from Atlanta and I asked how he felt about us representing Lisa, and he immediately gave me the thumbs-up sign,” he said.

“Bruce Binkow from our staff contacted her last summer and she came in for a long talk.

“She listened to us tell her what we thought we could do for her, then she told us she’d insist on being treated as important to our company [Management Plus Enterprises of Santa Monica], that she wanted to be given just as much attention as our male clients and that whatever we did for her, we’d do at the highest possible level.

“We agreed to that, and she signed on.”

Said Binkow, “We all agreed she fit exactly the type of client we want: the athlete who represents the convergence of sports and entertainment.”

Armato’s first job was enriching Leslie’s Nike deal.

“Her old deal is expiring right now and the new one will replace it,” he said. “Outside her WNBA deal, it’s the best thing she has right now.”

He wouldn’t estimate her Nike income, but others peg it at about $500,000.

Armato said he negotiated her WNBA contract and indicated by grimace and other gestures that it was a long, difficult negotiation. Leslie makes the WNBA maximum player salary of $50,000, but her personal-services contract with the league will earn her about $1 million this year.

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Two of her Olympic teammates, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes, have similar deals.

She also has an endorsement deal with Pepsi and tie-ins with all 10 WNBA corporate sponsors, companies such as American Express, Kellogg USA and General Motors.

(There is a slight problem with GM. At the moment, she’s driving a white Mercedes-Benz, with the license plate LL WNBA.)

Even before she signed, Leslie had done some modeling and in the works is a Lisa Leslie web site on the Internet.

What about the movies? She has read some scripts, but nothing has grabbed her yet.

Armato: “Is she the next action hero? We don’t know yet.”

The Leslie theme, Armato said, combines the images of her “hard-edged competitive side and her softer, feminine side. Lisa wants to show everyone that those two elements are not inconsistent.”

Her marketing potential, if the WNBA becomes a hit, is off the charts, he said.

“We feel she can get to the point where she can have a global impact.”

New York sports marketing veteran Marty Blackman says the plan will work, providing four things happen.

“She has to remain no worse than the best or second-best player out there,” he said.

“And she also has to continue being likable and show great character, not embarrass anyone.

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“She has to be able to make a great oral presentation with people.

“The fourth thing is that extra spark to her personality, that factor you can only describe by saying you got it or you don’t. Arnold Palmer has it. Tiger Woods has it. It’s that extra something that would carry her beyond.”

As for the first point, Spark Coach Linda Sharp sees no problem.

“She’s the premier player in the world,” Sharp said.

And she probably will continue to be so--at least until 1999. That’s when Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw turns pro.

Leslie, easily the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation in 1990, picked USC. Her teams, under first Marianne Stanley and then Cheryl Miller, made it to the NCAA tournament four consecutive years. As a senior, she was named the NCAA’s player of the year, even though USC didn’t make it to the Final Four.

She credits Stanley for her early basketball development, notably omitting Miller.

“My three years with Marianne gave me a great basketball foundation,” she said.

When Stanley refused to sign what she said was an unfair contract offered her by USC in 1993, she allowed her old contract to expire, and left. She filed a sex-discrimination suit, one that remains on appeal.

Miller was hired, infuriating Stanley, Leslie and many others in women’s sports who believed Miller had taken advantage of Stanley’s predicament.

“If Marianne had retired, that would have been OK,” Leslie said this week. “But to take the job under those circumstances. . . . I had a problem with that.”

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By her senior season, Leslie’s game had a certain grace and elegance to it. She had a way of making a power drive to the basket look like ballet. But in 1995, in her only European pro season, she added fire.

Those who had watched her at USC and then saw her next in 1996 could see a dramatic difference. She had become aggressive at both ends of the court, blocking shots and generally being a defensive intimidator.

“I learned early in that one season in Italy that I had to change my game,” she said.

“In Europe, no one is expected to play much defense. It’s an offensive game, but they don’t call a lot of fouls. So I was getting knocked around quite a bit.

“I began lifting weights five days a week instead of three, like at SC. I just got stronger, and that changed my game mentally more than anything. For the first time, I could move big people around.

“All my life I’d heard people talking about ‘my potential’ in basketball. In Italy, for the first time, I understood what all that meant. When I got stronger, I could play very well against bigger, older and more experienced players.”

And unlike the experiences of many other U.S. women players, Leslie thoroughly enjoyed overseas basketball.

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“I loved Italy,” she said.

“I loved the people, the food, everything. I love to talk, and you know how Italians love to talk. I became fluent in the language in casual conversation. Even now, I love walking up to Italians and starting a conversation.”

Her toughest post-Olympic decision, she said, was whether to sign with the WNBA or the American Basketball League, which already has completed a season.

“With the ABL, I could have played with my best friend from the Olympic team, Dawn Staley,” she said.

“They wanted to put us both in Richmond. Then, when I got into serious negotiations with both leagues, there were two things that tilted it toward the WNBA. I could play in L.A. with the WNBA, and I could see possible problems with my modeling with the ABL.

“The ABL had a restrictive contract that would have impacted my modeling, and I didn’t want that.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Opening Day

Sparks vs. New York

* Time: 1 p.m.

* Site: Forum

* TV: Channel 4

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