Leslie accomplishes another basketball first
Lisa Leslie has a long history of being first.
The three-time WNBA MVP was the first to dunk in a WNBA game, the first player in WNBA history to record 6,000 points, the first female basketball player to win four consecutive gold medals and the first player to win the regular-season MVP, the All-Star Game MVP and the Finals MVP in the same WNBA season.
Last year, Leslie became the first former WNBA player to invest in a WNBA team when she joined the ownership group of the Los Angeles Sparks, the team she played on for 11 years.
Next month, Leslie will take part in another first: her first WNBA draft as a team owner. The Sparks will have the first pick in the draft after a disappointing 2011 season. It's the first time the Sparks have had the top pick since 2008, when the team selected Candace Parker.
"It's great for our franchise," Leslie said. "I think it's much-needed with me retiring and Candace having really the weight of the world on her to do well. With her injuries, we've just had some really tough seasons that we're not used to having, so it will be great to see."
Leslie feels good about her team's prospects.
"We obviously can pick a player who will be able to come in and add to our success," Leslie said. "I can't say who, but I believe the choices we have are great."
Leslie will be at the Final Four, both as a fan and a team executive. She will have a meet and greet with fans at 1:45 p.m. Sunday at Tourney Town before signing autographs at 2:30 p.m. at the Capital One Fan Zone.
Then, Leslie will head off to the semifinals (6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN). Though both games will be chock-full of talent, with four No. 1 seeds advancing to Denver, Leslie has her eye on one semifinal in particular.
"I'm excited about seeing Baylor and Stanford in the Final Four," Leslie said. "It will be a great matchup. I think that will be a very telling game of talent and just watching [Stanford's] Nnemkadi Ogwumike and [Baylor's] Brittney Griner face off. Those two players play at a very high level. They're obviously the two best college players -- or two of the four. It will be great to see them match up."
Leslie has stayed involved with the Sparks after her retirement in 2009, particularly with the team's sponsors. As a result, the transition from player to owner has been fairly smooth.
"It was just a great fit for me in terms of a business move and really establishing myself as a businesswoman to be a part of the Sparks in more of a management and business role," Leslie said. "I think ownership was really the best fit for me to be a part of, to give back and to really try and create more awareness around our team."
Though Leslie makes everything look easy, there have been a few hiccups as she gets used to her new role.
"I've been able to see [the differences] wearing a different hat as opposed to being a player, where the concerns are obviously a lot different," Leslie said. "It's also played a part in how I communicate, what I say on Twitter, who I respond to.
"As an owner, I have to remember that I'm not just representing myself as a player anymore and there are certain things I probably shouldn't chime in on. For example, when the guys were in the lockout, I'm like, 'Yeah, let them play!' and I thought, 'Oh, oh, oh yeah, I probably shouldn't encourage that.' I'm learning as I go, but I'm really enjoying having the position that I have."
Leslie, a wife and mother of two who received her MBA after retiring from the WNBA, also has another venture in the works. This weekend, she launches the Lisa Leslie Basketball and Leadership Academy in Los Angeles. The for-profit academy, which will be run in conjunction with the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, will provide tutoring, basketball and life skills to boys and girls ages 7 to 18.
"The academy is something I've always wanted to do," Leslie said. "People have asked me for many years to participate, lend your name, and I've said, 'No, I'm not really that type of person' because I value my name and what I've created toward my brand. Now I have the opportunity and the time to be available twice a week for the academy on Wednesdays and Saturdays."