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Leslie Enjoys Finest Hour

Times Staff Writer

What a season Lisa Leslie is having.

Familiar words. For 10 seasons, the 34-year-old center who grew up in Inglewood has been a star for the WNBA.

But for Leslie, who takes the court tonight in Madison Square Garden as the Sparks’ lone representative in the All-Star game, this may be the best season of her life.

And that’s saying something, considering she led the team to two championships.

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As usual, she is a statistical storehouse -- the WNBA’s fourth-leading scorer this season at a career-best 20.1 points a game, and among the top five in rebounding (9.4), blocked shots (1.67) and double-doubles (nine).

Leslie agrees there may be something special going on.

“From an individual perspective this could turn out to be my best year,” she said, with no trace of boast. “When you look at my numbers, definitely. To me it’s a sign I continue to improve. So, honestly I’m not too surprised.”

Improvement over last season wouldn’t be hard. Despite a groin injury, which can heal only with rest, she pushed herself and played all 34 games. Not surprisingly, she averaged a career-low 15.2 points. Her 7.3 rebounding average was her lowest in a full season.

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But career years aren’t produced in a vacuum. The Sparks, who have seven new players including four rookies, are the surprise leaders of the Western Conference and hold the league’s best record at 16-5. They’ve gotten this far not just because of Leslie. Six-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw is a scoring threat any time she has the ball. Playmaking guard Mwadi Mabika, healthy after missing parts of two seasons with leg injuries, is averaging 9.4 points per game.

With the season she is having, Leslie is satisfied that she still has plenty of ball left to play.

“I am very goal oriented,” she said. “I’m always finding things I can’t do in this game and want to do them. I strive for it.”

For example, Leslie said, when she first entered the WNBA her primary move was to use her left shoulder to turn away from a defender and shoot with her right hand. But over the years she has learned to shoot the hook shot with either hand; drive to the basket from the free-throw line; shoot the three-point shot; and this season, become a better passer.

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“It’s like I can now see the game in slow motion,” said Leslie, who is averaging a career-best 3.4 assists.

Still, it’s not like Leslie’s resume needs polishing.

She is the league’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and on June 25 became the first WNBA player to score 5,000 career points in league play.

In 2001, she became the first player to win all three MVPs -- for the regular season, All-Star game and playoffs.

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She was the playoffs MVP again in 2002 when the Sparks won their second title.

In 2004, she again was selected MVP for the regular season and defensive player of the year.

Throw in three Olympic gold medals and two FIBA world championships as a member of the U.S. national team and it has been a career anyone this side of Sheryl Swoopes would kill for.

Fortunately for the Sparks, it’s a career not yet on the downside.

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“Absolutely no question, this is the best I’ve seen her play,” said San Antonio Coach Dan Hughes, whose Silver Stars were on the wrong end of Leslie’s career-high 41-point game on June 25. “And I would have said that before the pretty good games she’s had against us.

“The thing I appreciate about her is she finds a way to self-motivate herself. She’s a good student of the game and she has such a high standard, and that something has motivated her from last year. I’ve seen her in Charlotte, in Cleveland and I’ve seen her here. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better total package than what I see right now with Lisa in regard to leadership, performance and controlling the game as a dominant player can.”

Mabika, who has been Leslie’s teammate since the league began in 1997, agrees.

“Each year she gets better and better. Out of the 10 years in this league she’s probably had only two bad games. And I mean games, not years,” Mabika said.

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“She still has that energy. She comes out every single night wanting to be better. That’s the heart of a champion right there. You don’t have that many people that will bring it every single night. But she is one of them.”

But if Leslie isn’t worried about diminishing desire, last season’s injury was cause for concern.

She put the blame on herself for the groin injury, which came in training camp, because she had not done her normal training in the off-season. Instead of her usual rigorous workouts, she worked as a studio analyst for ESPN’s coverage of women’s college basketball.

“I know I wasn’t playing well because of injuries. I couldn’t jump, rebound or box out all on one play,” Leslie said. “The injury was as deep of a pulled muscle as you can have. I did the ice tank every day before games but did not heal until after the season.

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“My uncle Craig told me if I come back the way I played last year it was time to retire.”

Instead of retiring, she gained an emotional anchor.

In November, she married Michael Lockwood, a former basketball player and a pilot for UPS. They have talked about starting a family, but Lockwood told her not to put basketball aside just yet.

“I got the feeling at first she thought I wanted her to stay home and be a wife,” he said. “I made it clear that with basketball you have a small window to play, and there was no reason for her not to play until you’re not having fun. I told her, ‘There should be nothing you are worried about, I will be in your corner. You play until you are ready to stop.’ ”

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When they returned from their honeymoon, Leslie went to work. She and Lockwood spent their mornings in the gym to work on shooting and other basketball drills. Her afternoons were spent with a personal trainer to restrengthen her body.

By January she was feeling better, and went to Russia to play winter ball. “It was a gut check,” said Leslie, who helped her Moscow Region team Spartak win the European Cup championship. “In the beginning there were still certain movements I couldn’t do. But eventually I became pain free.”

When she returned in May, it was obvious to Sparks Coach Joe Bryant that Leslie was ready.

“Last year it was different because injuries do take their toll,” Bryant said. “But she came in this year in super shape.”

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Bryant and his assistants have been careful not to overuse her. Leslie is averaging less than 30 minutes a game after averaging a career-high 34.2 minutes in 2002, and 32.2 minutes last season. Bryant is also moving her around on offense instead of just having her camp under the basket.

“We’re trying to put her in positions to be successful,” Bryant said. “We don’t want her just to stay down low and bang, bang, bang. We want that Muhammad Ali kind of thing -- float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. So we don’t let her get beat up. We put her in positions to move and groove.”

Despite no longer having DeLisha Milton-Jones, Nikki Teasley, Latasha Byears and Tamecka Dixon -- all components of the championship seasons -- at her side, Leslie and the Sparks are thriving. She gives the credit to Bryant, who was an assistant before being elevated this year.

“I recognized Joe as a ball of fun and energy as an assistant, constantly teaching us different ways of seeing the game. But I wasn’t sure how he’d do as head coach,” Leslie said. “But what we’ve got is a coach that doesn’t like you on a train track. There is some structure, but we also figure out things for ourselves. Not just run a play but a smart play. Don’t let the game predict your movement.”

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Although Leslie’s contract is up at the end of the season, team President Johnny Buss has said he wants her to play her entire WNBA career with the Sparks.

It’s doubtful Leslie will decide anything until after the season. She will play for the U.S. in the FIBA World Games in September, and may take a run at a fourth Olympic team in 2008.

For now, she wants to see this season play out. Of the Sparks’ final 13 games, 10 are on the road. So even with a 3 1/2 -game lead in the Western Conference over second-place Sacramento, nothing is guaranteed.

“Player for player, this team has one of the best relationships off the court and wants to win on the court,” Leslie said. “The most challenging part of the season is coming up, but I believe we have the pieces to do it.”

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And maybe, there’s another WNBA championship ring out there with her name on it.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where she ranks

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Lisa Leslie’s rank in the WNBA in selected statistical categories:

2006

Points per game (20.1) ... 4th

Rebounds per game (9.4) ... 3rd

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Assists per game (3.4) ... 16th

Blocks per game (1.7) ... 3rd

Field goals made (155) ... 2nd

Field goals attempted (298) ... 4th

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Field-goal percentage (.520) ... 9th

Free throws made (107) ... 1st

Free throws attempted (157) ... 1st

Steals (26) ... 16th

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Double-doubles (9) ... 1st

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ALL-TIME

Points (5,155) ... 1st

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Points per game (17.5) ... 5th

Rebounds (2,738) ... 1st

Rebounds per game (9.3) ... 2nd

Blocks (670) ... 2nd

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Blocks per game (228) ... 2nd

Total minutes (9,506) ... 2nd

Source: WNBA


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