FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
She was already six feet tall by the time she was in the sixth grade. WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie was able to turn those gangly limbs into one of the greatest female athletes in history. Last year was a big one for Leslie. She took the 2007 season off to have a baby. But now she's back with a new teammate and a new book, titled "Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You." Joining me in our studios at NPR West, Lisa, thanks for joining us.
Ms. LISA LESLIE (Basketball Star and Olympic Gold Medalist): Thanks for having me. I'm so excited.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about when you first realized you had a passion for basketball.
Ms. LESLIE: That's a good question. I think I realized I truly had a passion for it by ninth grade. I started pretty late, playing basketball in the seventh grade, considering, you know, I'm a professional athlete. So I think seventh grade was just kind of like, OK. I'll do it as long as I don't fall down. Eighth grade is where I really had this grueling, like, drills, and really understood what it took to play basketball. Because my cousin would just take me through all these drills like sit on the wall, do push-ups, and I was thinking, OK. I just came to, like, play with the ball. And then I really realized by ninth grade, like wow. If I really perfect this game, I could get a free scholarship and go to college, because my mom couldn't afford to send me to a four-year university. And then maybe I could possibly travel the world. So ninth grade was when I truly realized this is what I wanted to do, and I truly had a passion for it.
CHIDEYA: You talk at various points in the book about playing with boys or playing with men. What is it like to take the court - and of course, the foreword is by Magic Johnson. Apparently you've gone out and played with his buddies every now and then?
Ms. LESLIE: I have. I have. In fact, in the book "Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You," it was important for me to show that - it's not necessarily a basketball book, but I did give a few stories and anecdotes of when I played basketball with Magic and his team. Magic actually had a traveling team. And so it was right after he kind of retired. He would always have this team, and they'd go overseas and play internationally. So I didn't go with them on trips, but when they'd practice, Magic allowed me to get into the practice. And he put me on his team. And it was great because they treated me like one of the guys, but were very respectful. But I was just like, don't go easy on me, you know. I would play like a two-guard, because I'm six-five, and in the NBA, six-five is the point guard or the two-guard, versus, you know, in the WNBA, six-five, we're the forward and the centers. So the positions are pretty different.
But it allowed me to become much more versatile, a lot stronger, reading the defense. And Magic, I mean, Magic is Magic. He's great. If you have the opportunity to play with him, I mean, you take that. So he was so great with letting me train with them every single day. And I'd just come, show up on time, warm up on the side, and jump into the drills.
CHIDEYA: Let me back up a little bit. You, in this book, have a lot of your childhood, including the pretty phenomenal story of how your mother decided to be a long-haul trucker. How did that affect your life as a child?
Ms. LESLIE: As a kid, I think I became - one, I grew up pretty fast because I had to become very responsible for my little sister who - we're eight years apart, so I was about, you know, nine and 10 years old taking care of a two-year-old, you know. And also, I think it really helped me to be a little bit more protective and streetwise. Because we lived in Compton, California, and we had to, kind of, I wouldn't use the word "walk the streets" but, I mean, you had to kind of cross into the main street to get to church, to get to the liquor store, you know, to get to the fish market where we used to go get french fries. So everything kind of put you out there in the neighborhood, where you had to learn the ropes of the neighborhood.
So I'd say it did force me to grow up a little fast, but in a good way, where I was wise, you know. My sister and I, we crossed the street, stayed, you know, near the lights if it got dark on our way home, get inside the house, you know, when it got too dark, hanging out with the right people. You had to make decisions at an early age because my mom wasn't there to say, you know, this is who you play with. This is who you don't play with. It was kind of like we had to do that on our own. And when you have to make those decisions, I just think at a young age I had to see the world, you know, a little bit sooner than some kids do. Some kids are not conscious of what's going on.
CHIDEYA: As you moved through life into college ball, through the Olympics, into the WNBA, how do you think your mindset about the world changed, or how did you change?
Ms. LESLIE: Well, I think different incidents made me more aware that - I think, at first, I was very secluded in the sense I didn't realize, like, there was an Olympics and that, you know, other countries were coming and playing sports and, you know, the wars and stuff, other than what you learn in school. It just didn't quite click in that these people and areas still existed. So I think as I grew up and got a chance to play basketball and travel the world, like you said, I became so much more aware of culture and my own culture, and what I was missing in my own culture, and also what I didn't have any idea of other people's culture. And then I think secondly was, you know, I became so much more aware of racism, which I wasn't - I think, in California, you know, again, I think I was just in my own world. You know, being in the inner-city, I was around a lot of blacks, Hispanics, a few white people that are in my own family because we have a very mixed family as well. So I never really looked at people or was taught, you know, about so many differences that cause so much racial tension.
CHIDEYA: We got a chance to talk to coach Vivian Stringer about her memoir, which came out.
Ms. LESLIE: Yes.
CHIDEYA: And she had been through family illnesses and the death of her husband and all these things. But she said that the comment, the Don Imus comment about "nappy-headed hoes," referring to her team at Rutgers, was the toughest thing she'd been through. How did you feel when that statement was made and hit the news?
Ms. LESLIE: I felt saddened again. I felt like, wow, are you serious? Like, here we are in 2007 and once again, I don't know if at times, we - and I say we, I don't know if black people or just we Californians or we some people - just feel like, wow, we've really passed that point. Like it doesn't really exist, or you don't experience it so much, that I guess when we do experience it, you're just like, you feel like you have to take another step back.
CHIDEYA: What do you see coming up? You've done modeling, been to the Olympics, you know, obviously you're a wife and mother. What do you see coming up for you?
Ms. LESLIE: I have the Lisa Leslie Basketball Academy, which is great because I never wanted to lend my name without being able to give back to the youth myself. And this is a place where the kids can come out and play. And they will be able to learn and go through drills. And I also have a camp. Also I see me doing public speaking. I really think that our youth needs to hear positive stories like mine, and just see that it doesn't matter what your situation is at home.
I come from a single-parent, you know, everything wasn't all hunky-dory at home. We didn't always have money. But we had love. And we've had, you know, our goals set. My mom's always told us that we can be anything. And I think that it's important for kids, no matter what their situation is, to hear those stories. So public appearances, I like doing that and speaking. Again, I would love to win a fourth gold medal because, well, that's just what I do. So I'm looking forward to going back to Beijing and hopefully winning a fourth gold medal. And I don't know, maybe more deals or something, something that makes money and helps people. I love that.
CHIDEYA: Well, we've loved having you on. Lisa, thanks so much.
Ms. LESLIE: Yes. Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: That was L.A. Sparks superstar Lisa Leslie. She's author of a new book, "Lisa Leslie: Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You." And she joined us in our studios here at NPR West.
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