WNBA star aims to shed light on women athletes

Lisa Leslie knows the value of peripheral vision and a well-placed shot. She's used both to shoot to the top of the statistics and popularity charts in a relatively young professional basketball career. Now, this newly dubbed league MVP is using the expanded vision so characteristic of her stint in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) to bring her life mission to television in a new way. Her goal is to raise awareness of women's athletics. This summer, she's working on an episode of the Disney Channel's new show, "The Jersey," about a magical sports shirt that teaches children lessons.

Leslie, a University of Southern California graduate

and a former member of the winning 1996 United States Olympic women's basketball team plays herself in the episode. In the story, a teenage boy ridicules Leslie's team, the Los Angeles Sparks, and then finds himself magically transported into the game as Lisa Leslie.

"I thought it was a great concept when I heard it," Leslie says, "and I was really excited that Michael [Galeota, the male star of the show] chose to put our jersey on, because we do have a lot of skeptics."

Including Michael, for a while. "When I first saw the script," he says, "I was like, Michael Jordan or Patrick Ewing." He admits he had to think twice about female athletes.

That, says Leslie, is the main reason she took the role, along with taking her first step toward broadening her own performance horizons into acting. She says this is a perfect combination of her desire to lay a foundation for a post-basketball career and, while she still can, shed some new light on the need for media coverage of women's sports.

"One of the biggest obstacles to women's sports becoming more popular is that consistent coverage," she says, "so that you can turn on your TV and find out how the WNBA did, just like with men's games."

"If you come and watch us play, you'll be hooked," she says, explaining how important it is for the game to be seen.

Tommy Lynch, producer of "The Jersey," says that the current interest in women's sports, sparked in part by the Women's World Cup soccer competition in July, makes the show a perfect opportunity to point out what men and women share.

"Sports," he explains, "is the single common thread that holds us all together in this country. It's a huge experience of commonality within the family, and we wanted to do something" that broke down gender barriers.

"I've seen a new attitude about girls and sports," says John Walsh, senior vice president and executive editor at the all-sports channel ESPN.

The sports maven says the time is ripe for female role models for both sexes. His own son, he says, now "hums the theme song of the WNBA." He says the turning point for today's women athletes was the passage of Title IX a generation ago, which banned gender discrimination in federally funded academic and athletics school programs.

"That was the single-best thing that happened to women's sports," he points out. Now, he says, all it takes for the media coverage of women's play to catch up to the men's are athletes such as Leslie.

"She can be a real leader because of her skills and the maturity she has about being a role model," Walsh says.

Leslie, who also models for the Wilhelmina Agency, says that while she's on a mission to change perceptions about female athletes, she's not bitter about the attitudes men hold toward women athletes.

She prefers to change minds a few at a time.

"I play pickup [games] with all men," she says, "and we start up a game with 'Who got the girl?' "

She laughs as she recalls the inevitable course of the action. "By the time I've hit, like, the last six of seven shots, you know eight points and the game is nine, then everybody's like, 'No, switch, switch, I get her this time.' "

The 6 ft., 5 in. Leslie says that the consistent media coverage the women's soccer team received during the Women's World Cup tournament is a key to turning around mainstream attitudes about women players.

"We're really making a change here," she says, adding, "I don't mean to sound sexist, but sometimes men really have to change their perspective about the sports and what women can do."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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