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Leslie Falls Into Basketball, But Doesn’t Fall Down

July 22, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ When you’re the tallest 12-year-old around, you’re supposed to play ball. Even if it makes you cry.

Lisa Leslie stood 6 feet when she was 12. She more or less started playing basketball because it was something tall people were supposed to do.

``I was a crybaby. I didn’t like sports,″ said Leslie, the starting center on the U.S. women’s team. ``That first year when I played, we played outdoors and I told the coach if I fall, I’m quitting. I never fell and we went 7-0.″

And so a basketball player was born, one who would score 101 points in one half of a high school game in California, then become an All-America and national player of the year at Southern Cal.

Now, Leslie is one of the most recognized figures in the game. At a graceful 6-5, muscular yet slim, with sharp features and a glistening smile, she could be a model, which, in fact, she is. Leslie signed a modeling deal in June and already has been featured in Vogue magazine.

She also has signed with the new American Basketball League, which is to start play in the fall. For now, though, despite all her skills on the court, she’ll make modeling her first priority after the Olympics.

``I wouldn’t mind it,″ she said. ``You don’t have to sweat.″

Sweating is something Leslie definitely didn’t like as a youngster in Inglewood, Calif. Nor did she care much for pain. A cousin, Craig Simpson, set out to change that when Leslie reached the eighth grade.

``He said you have to listen, so I would never rebut anything he’d say,″ Leslie said. ``Except the first day. The first day I started working with him, he made me do these pushups and I’d think, `Well, I’m not going to do this.′ And he said, `I’ll tell you what, if you don’t do it today, we’re never coming back and you’re not going to play.′

``So I waited and thought about it and said, `OK, I’ll do it.′ From that day, my whole attitude changed.″

Simpson, five years older, drove his cousin hard. Pushups. Situps. Footwork drills. He encouraged her to shoot baskets every chance she got. When the boys in the ’hood would gather for a game, Simpson would send Leslie over to play with them.

That presented a bit of a problem _ at first.

``The boys wouldn’t pass it to me. I had to steal the ball from my teammates,″ Leslie said, laughing at the thought. ``I could shoot. My cousin taught me how to shoot. So I stole it and made the basket and then they started throwing it to me.″

The following year, when Leslie was 14, she was 6-2 and playing on a summer team with girls who were 17 and 18. She more than held her own.

``I think I developed playing with those boys,″ Leslie said, ``listening about how to post up, getting your elbows out. If you want the ball, call for it.″

She has done it well enough to become one of the best players in the world _ maybe the best in the eyes of some. After watching Leslie finish with 24 points and eight rebounds in a pre-Olympic game, Italian coach Ricaardo Sales remarked, ``I think she may be the best player I’ve ever seen in women’s basketball.″

While that takes in a lot of territory, there’s no question Leslie is among the elite. She led the U.S. team in scoring on its 52-game warmup tour and scored 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting in her Olympic debut against Cuba on Sunday, despite sitting out 9 1/2 minutes after getting hit in the head.

Her best move is a spin to the baseline after posting up, but she also can hit 3-pointers and drive while facing the basket.

``You have to have a counter move, and I think every great player does,″ said Leslie, who can dunk, but hasn’t in a game yet. ``I’m not saying I’m a great player, but I’m trying to be.″

U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer defines great players as those who lead their teams to championships. Or, in this case, gold medals. Between now and Aug. 4, Leslie will get every chance to do that.

``There’s no doubt she’s extremely talented. There’s no doubt she’s extremely bright,″ VanDerveer said. ``Now her challenge is to stay focused for these two weeks, stay healthy, put the hammer down and compete. I think we’re going to see the best of Lisa Leslie.″

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