The finish line, apparently, is in sight for a basketball icon. Lisa Leslie of the Sparks, WNBA pioneer and four-time Olympic gold medalist, is expected to announce that this will be her final season in the league, according to sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The Sparks are scheduled to hold a news conference this morning. They declined to comment on the development.
Leslie, 36, has been a cornerstone of the WNBA, helping guide the Sparks to two WNBA titles and being named the league’s MVP three times. She broke yet another barrier in 2002 when she became the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game.
“She’s an icon,” said basketball legend Ann Meyers Drysdale, a Hall of Famer, television analyst and general manager of the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.
“It would be the end of an era in the WNBA. There was Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie.
“She was one of the young players coming in, and for her to sustain and play at that level for 12 years . . . she literally got better every year.”
Her WNBA career has been incomparable. She was the first player to reach the 3,000-point mark, in 2003. A year earlier, Leslie led the Sparks to their second WNBA title, and she was MVP of the finals and the All-Star game.
She went out in nearly picture-perfect fashion on the international stage, winning another Olympic gold medal in Beijing in August. What apparently will be her final international game was a 14-point, seven-rebound performance in the final against Australia.
Repeating that same sort of finish in her final season with the Sparks will be a considerable task. The season opens in June, and teammate Candace Parker is following in the off-court footsteps in Leslie, expecting her first child this spring. Leslie missed the 2007 season when she had her daughter Lauren in June of that year. The Sparks are expecting that Parker will play this season, and she has been quoted in media reports saying she intends to do so.
This means there will be no shortage of dramatic story lines for the Sparks this season. But Leslie’s looming retirement will be front and center. The 6-foot-5 Southern California native first grabbed headlines when she scored 101 points for her Inglewood Morningside team in 1990. Leslie stayed closed to home for college, helping USC reach the final eight of the NCAA tournament twice, in 1992 and 1994.
Meyers Drysdale praised Leslie as an “unbelievable mother and wife,” and summed up what the end of Leslie’s playing career meant to the game, in a larger sense.
“It’s sad for women’s basketball,” she said.
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Leslie by the numbers
Career averages for Sparks center Lisa Leslie (11 seasons):
*--* FG% 3P% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG PPG 467 318 694 9.3 2.4 1.4 2.3 17.4 *--*