Day in the life of Lisa Leslie
LOS ANGELES – Lisa Leslie opened the bedroom door and emerged in sweatpants, a tank top and bare feet. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. It wasn’t quite 7 a.m., but the most recognizable woman in professional basketball might as well have been operating on a 24-second shot clock.
She padded across the living room floor, ducked into a room across the way and soon began her day with what has become the equivalent of layup drills.
“Dirty diaper,” Leslie cooed as she changed her 13-month-old daughter.
Two decades after she scored 101 points in the first half of a high school basketball game and eight years after she became the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game, Leslie, 36, has burnished her long and distinguished résumé with another notable entry: working mother.
She has joined the ranks of an estimated 25 million American women who juggle responsibilities at work and home. Whether the Los Angeles Sparks contend for the WNBA title and whether the U.S. women’s basketball team wins the Olympic gold medal next month in Beijing could depend on how masterfully Leslie performs her own juggling act.
In addition to serving as team captain of the Sparks, she is the starting center for the U.S. national team that is favored to win its fourth consecutive Olympic title. She will battle against the best basketball players in the world and an affliction she refers to as “Mommy Memory.”
At times since giving birth, Leslie has struggled with short-term memory the way Shaq struggles with free-throw shooting.
She’s the same quick-witted and engaging woman who earned a degree in communications from the University of Southern California and later got a master’s degree in business administration. But now she sometimes forgets names. And sometimes forgets plays.
“Those are the type of moments that are embarrassing for her, rightfully so,” Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. “She does have other things on her mind. As a pro athlete, that shouldn’t be the case. But she’s a first-time mom, so you have to expect that.
“She’s working through it, and we’re working through it.”
A recent day spent with Leslie offered a glimpse of the challenge she faces. It also proved that the three-time MVP of the WNBA has met her match: Lauren Jolie Lockwood.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
Lauren’s long legs are a given, considering Leslie stands 6 feet, 5 inches and Leslie’s husband, Michael Lockwood, stands 6-7. Lauren also has a sweet but feisty disposition that anyone who knows Leslie on and off the court might expect.
Shortly after the diaper change a week ago, Leslie put her daughter into a high-chair, dipped a spoon into a bowl of oatmeal and guided the spoon toward Lauren’s mouth.
Lauren turned her head.
Leslie moved the spoon.
Lauren turned her head again.
“This happens every morning,” Leslie said with a slight grin.
She dabbed oatmeal onto a small piece of wheat toast and held it out for Lauren, who finally opened her mouth, ate the toast and waited for another piece.
“Is that good?” Leslie said. “Mmm.”
Leslie turned to the nanny, who arrives at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and accompanies Leslie when she takes Lauren on road trips.
“What time is it?” Leslie asked.
It was 7:18 a.m.
“I gotta go,” she said.
But Leslie hovered for another five minutes. She counted from one to 10, sounded out letters and proudly watched as Lauren responded.
“She’s advanced at everything,” Leslie proclaimed, and the nanny, Stephanie Wilson, relayed a story that demonstrated Leslie’s competitive instincts extend beyond the court.
One morning they were watching TV, and on came a segment about an 18-month-old child. The host of a morning show held up cue cards. The child read them aloud.
At 18 months.
Leslie turned to Lauren.
“OK, baby, we have to get on it,” Leslie said. “You’ve got to be able to read, too.
“A … b … c …”
With Lauren ready to watch Elmo and the clock reading 7:23 a.m., Leslie grabbed a bowl of oatmeal, the toast left uneaten, and a bottle of water. It was time to head to practice – though she already was running too late to get treatment on her sore ankles – and to focus on what loomed.
That night, the Sparks would play the San Antonio Silver Stars, who arrived in Los Angeles with the best record in the WNBA. The Sparks had started the season 10-3, and with three Olympians – Candace Parker, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Leslie – they looked like strong contenders for the WNBA title. But their season was unraveling.
The Sparks had lost five of their last seven games, including the past two by 18 points each.
“Things aren’t going good,” Leslie muttered earlier that morning. “We’ll get it fixed tonight.”
The predicted turnaround would start in earnest during morning practice scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Staples Center, the Sparks’ home arena. With most of her teammates already on the court, Leslie stepped onto the floor at 8:35 a.m. She took a few shots and started clapping. Taking their cue, the other players started clapping in unison, gathered around the Sparks’ logo at midcourt and moved into a tight circle.
“Three, two, one,” they counted. “Focus!”
So began a 90-minute session, mostly preparation for plays they expected to see that night against the Silver Stars, and it ended as Leslie brusquely announced, “This is a great time to realize that we’re not the best team right now. In case you didn’t get the memo, we’re not in first place.”
Soon it was back to the apartment, where Leslie and her family are staying in Marina del Rey, Calif., while their nearby house is being remodeled. Not long after Leslie got back, her husband walked through the door with a vacuum cleaner in one hand and an oversized floor fan in the other.
“How’s it going honey?” Leslie asked.
“Oh, man,” he sighed.
Lockwood has overseen the remodeling while also taking care of his real estate projects and all of the family’s business affairs. Leslie’s mother and youngest sister also pitch in, occasionally babysitting and cooking, in an exhibition of family teamwork.
Before long, Leslie was standing in the small kitchen and preparing chicken, baked potatoes and green beans for her husband. She knows he likes home-cooked meals. With the food in the oven, she sat down with her own lunch – chicken, rice and corn – and shared it with Lauren.
“One, two, three,” Leslie began counting, because the teaching lessons rarely stop.
By 1:30 p.m., it was naptime – for Leslie.
THE NIGHT SHIFT
Leslie got 90 minutes of sleep before squeezing in some more time with Lauren and heading to the Staples Center. Once again, she was running late. Coming off the two lopsided defeats, the Sparks were due at the arena at 4:30 p.m., an hour earlier than usual, to review tape and go over their recent lapses.
Leslie picked up Milton-Jones. Just after they pulled into the underground parking entrance at the Staples Center in her black 750 Li BMW, Leslie’s cell phone rang. “I’m here,” she said. She hung up, looked at Milton-Jones and half-grumbled, “Four forty-five is the best I can do.”
Cooper is generally accommodating, in part because Leslie worked so hard in the offseason to get herself into shape. For weeks, she’d met him at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, then worked out in the afternoons and, at the coach’s request, played pickup games against men on the weekends. One Saturday, she called Cooper and said she couldn’t find a babysitter.
“Just bring Lauren,” he told her.
So that Saturday morning at a local gym, Leslie played pickup games against the men while Cooper played with Lauren.
“I’m Uncle Coop,” he said recently.
With tipoff for the Sparks’ game against San Antonio about 20 minutes away, Uncle Coop and his team emerged from the locker room. Leslie instinctively scanned the stands.
Lauren arrived with her daddy right after the national anthem, a little later than usual because Lauren burped up on her dress and Lockwood’s shirt just as they were ready to leave for the arena. Lauren’s mother, Christine Leslie-Espinoza, and younger sister, Tiffany, were in their courtside seats and ready to move into action if needed.
At a recent Sparks game, the team came out for the second half and Leslie looked into the stands. Lauren was crying.
Leslie drifted over to her mother’s courtside seat. Lauren was sitting in nearby seats with Leslie’s grandmother.
“She’ll be fine,” Christine Leslie-Espinoza assured her. Leslie rejoined the layup line, glanced into the crowd again and now Lauren was wailing.
With that, Leslie broke away from the layup line and walked into the stands.
“Get back onto the court,” her sister hissed.
“No,” Lisa shot back. “Something’s wrong with my baby.”
Once in Leslie’s arms, Lauren quieted down. Daddy arrived moments later with a bottle of warm milk, and Leslie returned to the court.
“Thank you for telling me,” Cooper said upon recently learning the details. “I’ll have to chastise her for that.”
No need. Leslie is the first to chastise herself – at least when it comes to her play on the court. In the two blowout losses before the Sparks’ game against San Antonio, she’d missed 15 of her 20 shots from the field.
During a pep talk the day of the San Antonio game, her husband told her, “Start off aggressive. Don’t be denied.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s what I need to go back to.”
More than 14 minutes into the game, however, Leslie was scoreless. She finally scored on a layup with 6:23 left in the half, and the Sparks headed to the locker room at intermission leading 35-33.
Late in the game, with the Sparks’ other two Olympians leading the way, they pulled out to an eight-point lead. But the Silver Stars looked poised for one last run.
Leslie took over. In a span of 61 seconds, she scored on two putbacks and fired a pass to Milton-Jones that resulted in an easy layup and a 12-point lead. The Sparks were on their way to a 75-62 victory.
Leslie finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and a huge smile.
The fans stood and cheered as the final horn sounded, and Leslie headed toward the courtside seats for her postgame ritual: She greeted her husband with a hug and a kiss, then she kissed Lauren.
Leslie brought her daughter back to her mother, did a quick TV interview and headed toward the tunnel leading to the locker room.
“Lisa, Lisa, Lisa,” young fans screamed as they reached over the metal railing and held out T-shirts, caps and basketballs for her to sign. She obliged as many as she could while inching her way toward the locker room.
She was the last player to arrive.
ONE FINAL ASSIST
Wrapping ice bags around her knees, she answered questions from reporters, aware of her clutch plays in the final minutes but unaware of something else.
Cooper had called a 10 a.m. practice for the next day, the same day the team would leave on a 13-day six-game road trip, and players quietly sulked. Leslie followed Cooper to the coaches’ office room for a private talk.
More than an hour later, after a book signing session – Leslie’s recently released biography entitled “Don’t Let The Lipstick Fool You” is a quick read and an engrossing account of her life – she climbed into her car and steered onto the near-empty road that soothed her as she headed home.
She checked her iPhone. She had a text message from Mikaela, the youngest of her two stepdaughters, who wrote to congratulate Leslie on the victory and inform her about the postgame spread at home.
“Michael picked up McDonald’s for dinner,” Leslie said with a grin, but she was looking forward to something else even more.
Leslie revealed she had persuaded Cooper to cancel practice and give the team a day off. But she knew she would catch flak from Uncle Coop if the team dogged it during its next practice.
The working mom was willing to take that chance.