Considered a pioneer of the WNBA, Lisa Leslie became the first woman to dunk in a professional basketball game when she threw down an open-court jam for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2003. Since then, the 6’5” two-time WNBA Champion, three-time league MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist, has elevated her game above the rim to the owners box, becoming the WNBA’s first ex-player-turned-owner after her 13 year career. Leslie is in a unique position, and her duties often fall in marketing and being a global ambassador for the game of women’s basketball, all the while raising two children with her husband.
This season, the basketball icon is teaming up with UPS as a brand ambassador to introduce the Team Performance Index (TPI), a data-driven ranking that measures balance and overall efficiency for all 340 NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams– as well as all 345 men’s teams. Being a Jane-of-all-trades is nothing new to Leslie. It’s just part of her continuous pursuit of excellence.
Life+Times: Your recent partnership with UPS is an interesting one. How did the opportunity come about?
Lisa Leslie: I was actually really excited to team up with UPS and talk about Team Performance Index. I think the TPI is huge. I think that you can use it for any job, but clearly in basketball, the numbers don’t lie. To be the best, it takes preparation and team performance and ranking statistically, when you look at it based on numbers, it really tells you that USP is into the numbers and efficiency and teamwork.
And just to share a story with you, when I would play for Team USA, we actually did the exact same thing when Tara VanDerveer was our coach –the coach from Stanford– we looked at basically our TPI [laughs] for each individual player, but this is obviously looking at the whole team, but it really does break down player for player. And it was a self-motivation that I found, when I looked at my shot selection and field goal percentage and rebounding, was I getting enough offensive rebounds and it made me box out more and getting steals and block shots. And I found out that I became a more efficient player because I was aware of the numbers. So, when you look at the logistics about the overall game, it helps me play smarter and faster and I think this is what the TPI does.
L+T: The index is based on six statistical components that indicate a team’s overall success. It gives fans an interesting and unbiased perspective to consider, especially when measuring how smaller or mid-size programs stack up to the more traditional women’s hoops powers.
LL: When you look at the numbers for these teams and how their ranked, obviously we know that Baylor and Connecticut are two of the top teams in the country, but also you can look at their performance index and it shows that. But I think what you also get from that is some of the teams that are not ranked like an Albany and Great Danes that’s up there at No. 8, but it also shows you were really solid basketball is being played.
L+T: The women’s game has come a long way. Your career has helped it to elevate the sport and make it become popular across the globe.
LL: Oh, thank you.
L+T: You’re welcome. How do you see the game moving forward with the likes of Brittany Griner and Skylar Diggins and the crop of newcomers?
LL: I’m very happy where women’s basketball is and where it’s going to continue to go. When you talk about Brittany Griner, she’s just an exception to the whole world of the game. I think she’s the next player when you talk about the game evolving and what it could be at her size and with her athletic ability and understanding of the game. I think she’s just really an impressive player that’s really changing the face of it, obviously, with her ability to dunk and then just the 76 blocks she has on the season already and we haven’t even gotten into tournament play, I feel really good about it. I think Odyssey Sims is another great player and Skylar Diggins…I can’t praise her enough for the player and person that she is. And then you have Elana Delle Donne…I mean she might be the BEST player, [laughs], I can’t say for sure because I have to see them match up, but between her skills and what she’s able to do out there on the perimeter and on the inside, also with her shooting percentage, it’s kind of hard to deny.
I feel like as you look around the country, women’s basketball is continuing to get better. Players are moving faster. They’re able to crossover. And their defense. It takes time. And we’re always compared to the men, but we’re definitely making strides at a rapid pace, now that we have sort of this opportunity to make a career of this sport. Now that a lot of players are looking like they want to play in the WNBA, that they want to go play overseas, and they can see that this is a career that they can really make a living from, I think the game will continue to improve.
L+T: How has your transition been from being a player for the LA Sparks to currently sitting on the board as co-owner?
LL: I think for me, I always say that “I played basketball.” That’s what I did, but that’s not who I am.’ I always been a person who loves education and learning, so when I received my undergrad in communications, I wanted to be on television, originally I wanted to cover weather [laughs] but it later shifted to sports and I do more than talk about sports and lifestyle and being a mom. And then when I went back to get my masters in business, the idea of, ‘Here I am making money, how do I want to invest it? What do I want to do with it.’ Again, it all comes back to being efficient and getting that knowledge of how to be smarter and to excel. So for me learning the business, I always participated with the WNBA and the LA Sparks in many business meetings with the payroll, with our sponsors and trying to sell our product and bring in sponsors. It was really a natural transition for me then to move from player to being co-owner of the team because I feel I can have a huge impact again and still bring in sponsors and getting support for our league and our team specifically.
L+T: With March Madness kicking off, which team, is your favorite going in?
LL: It’s always tough. I’m obviously out of the Pac-10, Pac-12, family and this is probably the first year where I felt that this is probably not Stanford’s year. I feel like Chiney Ogwumike is doing a fantastic job but I feel like Stanford is just not quite their with the players that they have. When I look at Baylor, they’re doing a great job, but when I look at their TPI rankings, they’re No. 2, so I don’t know if I should fall out by the numbers, which I usually do stand by, but I think when look at, you know there’s always the haves and the have not’s and when I look at Baylor and Connecticut last year, I would find that the Huskies are a little bit hungrier and Geno is doing everything he could to combat Brittany Griner in the middle and clogging it up. But I’m a pick Connecticut this year, just because I think they’re the underdogs.
L+T: You’re a huge advocate for education and health and fitness. Speak on your role as an ambassador to education.
LL: I have always been an advocate for education and kids getting the best education. I spoke out about that when I was in school. I used to always say ‘if I’m a top perform in school, why do I struggle with Standardize Testing?’ Is there something wrong with our school or is there something wrong with our education system?’ So when you speed forward and now that I have kids, it’s sort of the same stance, because we can afford to move to where the best schools are, what about the kids and families who can’t afford to do that? I don’t feel that kids should be locked into an area because of a zip code. I think they deserve the right to get the best education possible and I think for us as parents, government officials and legislation, should allow kids to have that opportunity. I just became a spokesperson for AFC, American Federation for Children, and I’m trying to be the voice for the kids and just say ‘Hey, this is an area we should look at and figure out a way we can make it happen regardless.’ This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a kid’s issue. And they deserve a school of their choice.