(L-R) Tina Thompson, Tamika Catchings, Lisa Leslie and Ruth Riley salute during the medal ceremony after receiving the gold medal for women's basketball at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 on Aug. 28, 2004 in Athens, Greece.
Lisa Leslie remembers the exact moment she determined that Team USA was not going to lose an Olympic game.
It happened in 1994, shortly after the U.S. fell to Brazil in the semifinal of that year’s FIBA World Championship in Sydney, Australia.
“Dawn Staley and I were on the world championship team as the young players, and our team lost to Brazil,” Leslie said. “And at that time, we had to ride the bus back with the Brazilians to the hotel. They commenced to shave their coach’s head on the bus because they bet him, wildly, that if they beat Team USA, they could shave his head. We got off the bus and I called a team huddle and I’m like, ‘Never again. We will never, ever lose.’”
She proved good on her word.
Leslie’s U.S. teams played in 32 Olympic basketball games and won all 32 of them. She earned four gold medals in four straight Olympic Games. And in her four gold-medal matches, Team USA won each by double digits.
And she didn’t just win. Leslie was one of the most dominant players in the sport’s history, leaving a trail of records behind, 10 of which still stand as U.S. Olympic women’s basketball records. And that’s to say nothing of her 11-year WNBA career with her hometown Los Angeles Sparks, from which she retired in 2009 as a three-time MVP, two-time champ and the league's all-time leader in points and rebounds — as well as the league’s first player to dunk.
In 2015, Leslie was enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Her basketball accomplishments can now add another item, as she will be inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2019. She becomes the second women’s basketball player in the Hall, joining former teammate Teresa Edwards, who was inducted in 2009.
Two years after that indignity at the 1994 World Championship, in which the U.S. ended up with the bronze medal, Leslie made her Olympic debut in 1996 as part of the star-studded team that won a gold medal in Atlanta and created a wave of popularity that helped launch the WNBA a year later in 1997.
“Experiencing my first Olympics on U.S. soil was amazing because we had so many American fans chanting U-S-A,” Leslie said. “I remember that Olympic moment of entering into that stadium. It was so cool.”
She was Team USA’s leading scorer in Atlanta, setting a U.S. record for most points scored at one Olympic Games (156 points, 19.5 per game). That included a team-high 29 points in the gold-medal game against Brazil.
But she points to two close wins in pre-Olympic exhibition games against Russia — a comeback from 30 points down in a Russian gym she says “had to be 20 degrees below zero,” and a tight game in the U.S. decided by one point — that fueled the resolve of the 1996 team.
“Those moments were the moments where you understand the character of your team,” she said. “You built an attitude where you were never throwing in the towel.”
She especially recalls the pressure the U.S. team put on itself in 1995 and 1996 while training for the Atlanta Games, the pressure that anything less than a gold medal would be unsatisfying.
“I think that fight and that will to win, but also that fear of not failing our country, was always in the forefront of our mind,” Leslie said. “But in a very selfless way. That’s probably what I love most about playing with that team in 1996 more than any other team I’ve ever played on in my life, was that we were so unselfish and truly about the next person.”
One of those 1996 teammates was point guard Staley, paired with Leslie as roommates during training camp. That began a long-lasting friendship between the 5-foot-6 guard and the 6-foot-5 center. They learned each other’s quirks and personalities in those tight spaces.
“She wasn’t as neat as you’d think for someone who dresses really nice,” Staley recollected. “You’d think she would have an immaculate room. But I taught her how to be immaculately organized when it came to having a roommate.”
Both players still laugh when they remember building their bond.
“She’s from Philly and I’m from Compton,” Leslie said. “But you know, it was just a match made in heaven since we both had the same desire and will to win. Thank God I was a great catcher because she was an excellent passer.”
Their relationship grew to a point where they didn’t need to use words to communicate.
“Lisa and I, we used to give each other looks,” Staley said. “There was a look that she gave me that said: ‘I’m ready to take on our opponents, I need you to get me the ball so I can carry you to this victory.’”
As Leslie remembers, her teammates were there to pick each other up off the court as well.
She highlights a specific memory, when every member of the team was required to meet at a set time for a three-mile run outdoors in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, winter.
Leslie, who fesses to being a “California girl,” recalled her nose running then freezing on her face during the test, and that she just could not meet the required time in the altitude of Colorado Springs.
“So, when we made our first trip to North Carolina — below sea level — coach said if I couldn’t make the run there, my whole team was going to have to redo their three-mile run,” she said. “And my teammate Nikki McCray came out and ran the miles with me. Just that kind of love and support. I appreciate each and every one of those women.”
In many ways, Leslie grew up along with Team USA. When she went to her first Olympic Games in 1996, she was a 24-year old just two years out of college at USC. By her last Games in 2008, she was a 36-year-old new mother, having given birth to her daughter Lauren just 14 months before.
Returning to the Games after childbirth, she had something new to prove.
“To become a mom and to try to make it back to the top is very difficult to do,” Leslie said. “Just the realization that wow I’m not the same, my body’s not the same, and really fighting through the fears of somebody recognizing I’m not the same was probably what fueled me to try to be at my best, to try to lead the best I could.”
She accomplished that mission, winning her fourth gold medal to wrap up a legendary USA Basketball career.
Leslie enters the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame with her name firmly entrenched in the U.S. Olympic record book, including for single-game scoring from her 35-point game against Japan in 1996. Three times she was named USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year — 1993, 1998, and 2002. And she still owns four of Team USA’s top 10 single-game scoring performances.
When asked about Leslie’s legacy, Staley didn’t hold back.
“I think she’s the best,” Staley said. “And I know people will argue with that because we’re seeing so much great basketball. But if Lisa didn’t do the type of things she did, there wouldn’t be bigs that are doing what they’re doing right now.”