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The Other Leslie Is Something to Behold

Ten years of carrying women’s professional sports on her shoulders, and only once a game do those shoulders bend.

A lifetime of representing the empowerment in women’s athletics, and only once a night does she show her true strength.

It happens before every Sparks game at Staples Center. It happens during the introductions.

Like every starter, Lisa Leslie runs to the center of the court and hands a basketball to a child from the stands.

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But, unlike anyone else, she drops to one knee, hugs the child, and whispers into an ear.

“God bless you,” she says. “Always give your best.”

The child, usually nervous and wanting to run off, stops and listens. The parents of that child, expecting an athlete’s apathy, stop and stare.

Memories happen. Photos happen. Maybe even a bit of inspiration happens.

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Then, and only then, does Lisa Leslie play basketball.

“It’s easy for me to hug those children,” she says, “because I used to be one of those children.”

She still is, forever will be, Los Angeles’ own, the Morningside kid who grew up to epitomize the one thing this city loves in its sports heroes.

For 10 years, she has loved Los Angeles back.

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“This city, this sport, this is who I am,” she says.

This is why I stopped by Staples Center on Tuesday to watch her play what could have been her last game of her best season.

It was the Sparks against the Seattle Storm in a WNBA first-round elimination game, and, no, it wasn’t exactly trendy or particularly hip.

More people might have read a column about the Angels playing host to Boston. Certainly, more people were watching the Dodgers in San Diego.

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There were probably more USC and UCLA football fans in chat rooms than the announced 8,259 attendance at Staples Center.

None of that matters. None of that makes Leslie’s mission any less important in a city that embraces the diversity found in the stands, and the female role modeling found on the court.

In her own way, what Lisa Leslie has done here for 10 years makes her one of the most influential pro athletes in this town’s history.

With an ability that has led to two most-valuable-player awards and two WNBA championships, she is one of the five best women’s basketball players in history.

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With a personal touch that includes staying long after every game to hang with fans -- plus more personal appearances in a week than most local stars do in a season -- she is also one of the most embraceable athletes in history.

“I always think, this could be the first time somebody has seen the Sparks, and I want to make that experience special for them,” she says. “How hard is it to slap a kid’s hand? How hard is it to give somebody a minute of your attention? I’m blessed to have that chance.”

Leslie did it all again Tuesday, overcoming a scoreless fourth quarter to jump a pick and put a hand in the face of Seattle’s Sue Bird, altering a potential game-tying shot in a 68-63 victory that moves the Sparks to the Western Conference finals.

Then, afterward, she ran to the courtside seats to celebrate with her family and friends, and then ran to the other side of the court to celebrate with fans, then finally entered the locker room, the last one there, as always.

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Sometimes the team waits 15 minutes for Leslie to join them for a postgame speech from Coach Joe Bryant. Her loved ones wait much longer.

“The average wait for her after a game is an hour, or an hour-and-a-half,” says her husband Michael Lockwood. “She does things for everybody. It’s just who she is.”

Is it any wonder that she is the only athlete in Los Angeles who plays on a surface bearing her name?

In the four baseline corners of the Sparks’ court, it reads, “Lisa Leslie Court.”

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The Sparks surprised her with it last month on her birthday.

“You cannot measure the inspiration she has brought to this city,” says Johnny Buss, the team’s president. “She captures everything that any town would want in a local hero.”

Leslie cried, then hid her face.

“Usually they only do that for dead people, don’t they?” she says.

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It’s a live spot, though, especially across from the Sparks bench, where her husband sits.

Any time an opposing player catches the ball over Leslie’s name, Lockwood shouts, “Don’t shoot it, you can’t make it from there!”

Her recent marriage to Lockwood, a UPS pilot, is part of the changes that some say will eventually pull her from the game.

She has two stepchildren now. She has a part-time home in Dallas. She just turned 34.

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Even her name has officially changed, her driver’s license now reading, “Lisa Lockwood.”

“She’s old school,” says her husband.

She says she’s not ready to quit. She’s going to play in Russia again this winter. She is still part of the U.S. team for which she won three Olympic gold medals.

“This is my responsibility,” she says. “I’m an athlete who has been blessed with a chance to bring different groups of people together: Different races, cultures, economic classes. If we can get them together and feeling happy for a couple of hours a night, how great is that?”

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As even those who have no interest in this column or this sport must admit, that’s pretty great.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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