A WNBA first: Dunks aren't just a guy thing

Her face could pass for that of the Somalian supermodel, Iman. Her high-beam smile could match basketball icon Magic Johnson's, tooth for tooth.

The svelte look and the girlish bow in her hair belie the muscle power of her slightly bowed legs, which she uses to sproing past opponents and into the hoop dreams of thousands of aspiring girl (and women) athletes coast to coast.

Tuesday night, Lisa Leslie – already three-time MVP of the five-year-old Women's National Basketball Association – sprang past opponents and into history.

The 6 ft., 5 in. Los Angeles Sparks center grabbed a pass at half-court, dribbled toward her basket, leapt off her left foot, and, with her right hand, jammed down the first dunk by a woman in professional basketball history.

Was it a big deal?

If the Normandy invasion had been going on outside Staples Arena when it happened, no one inside would have been able to hear it. If someone had held the Super Bowl and World Series inside a political convention, these fans would have drowned it out. If Godzilla lifted the dome of the Capitol to feed on a bipartisan meeting of Congress ... well, two out of three.

There was some noise. (Lisa is a hometown girl.)

"Exciting, but is it important?" yelled one intelligent-looking man to another above the din.

"Get him the phone number of 'Duh Magazine,' " came the reply.

Fans (young/old, male/female), league officials, and sports historians all say the Leslie dunk is a significant milestone for several reasons. Besides showing a generation of aspiring female basketballers that the sport's highest-voltage, most athletic move is within reach, it sends a message to male audiences as well: Women can be just as buff and strut the stuff ...

"A lot of men have pooh-poohed women's basketball as just 'chick ball' and complain that it's boring because the players are slower, can't jump as high, and can't dunk," says Susan Leitao, assistant director of programs for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, at Northeastern University in Boston.

"So for women, this is something that gives them validity and recognition that they can potentially do it all, too. More guys will start watching because they love the thundering dunk," she says.

Others liken it to breaking the four-minute mile in track, or a jet's breach of the sound barrier – the breakthrough after which subsequent aspirants are freed of a merely psychological, or self-imposed limitation.

In the realm of basketball, Bob Schwartz of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, likens Ms. Leslie's dunk to the first one-handed shot of Stanford All-American Hank Lussitti in 1938.

"Before that shot, everyone used two hands," says Mr. Schwartz. "Now, one handed is how everyone shoots."

Not that dunking will become common in women's basketball anytime soon, though. For the most part women's bodies are still far shorter and less muscular and have fewer years of basketball training behind them. Because of that, conditions have to be just right for even the tallest to succeed, says Ms. Leitao.

"I feel really good about it," Leslie said, beaming in the locker room Tuesday night. "There has been a lot of pressure around it. I finally had the opportunity. I turned around and noticed I was all alone. I thought today would be a great time to try. It was a good dunk. I thought it was hard enough.... It was valid."

Leslie's first-ever dunk in a game came with a perfect pass, a running start, and no opponent in front of her.

"A woman, even if she is tall and coordinated, has to have just the right footing and momentum to make it," says Leitao. She notes that Houston's Michelle Snow dunks frequently in warmup but has yet to find the right conditions in a game. Women have dunked in college games and all-star contests, and even tried in the pros ... without success.

"The lack of all the right factors coming together at once is why we've never seen it happen in league competition," Leitao says. Until now.

The dunk comes at an auspicious time for both Leslie and the WNBA. After brisk ticket sales in the league's first three years, attendance dropped last year and has not reached previous peaks yet this year – now averaging about 8,700 per game across the league. In spite of the passage of Title IX in 1972 requiring parity in men's and women's athletic programs at publically funded schools, professional female sports leagues have struggled to take hold.

It was not until 1977, when the NBA threw its muscle and money behind the WNBA, that it took hold in 16 cities.

Leslie is just the kind of property owners say they need to increase attendance.

As in other sports, including golf and tennis, professional leagues have mounted formal campaigns highlighting stars, such as Leslie, who they feel are both feminine and dominant athletes to attract male audiences.

Stars such as Leslie, the Houston Comet's Sheryl Swoops, and Seattle Storm's Sue Bird, are shown in WNBA TV promotions in midriff-baring tops and gowns, and tighter fitting clothing.

Leslie herself is considered one of the WNBA's biggest draws for prowess on the court and for looks off the court. Now 30, she was born and raised in the 'hoods of South-Central Los Angeles and became a star for the University of Southern California Lady Trojans. She played one season in Italy before joining the Sparks in 1997, leading them to the league championship last year.

She signed a modeling contract with the Wilhelmina agency in 1996 and has modeled designs by Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, and Anne Klein. But beauty aside, Leslie's main appeal is as good ol' fashioned sports heroine, others say.

"Lisa is the best!," says 10-year-old Shanice Fowler, as she hangs over a bleacher bannister to catch a glimpse of Leslie exiting the court. "She makes me want to play sports and be my best!"

Michael Cooper, former Laker great and now the Sparks head coach, showed that even a stoic old trouper from the men's league could be impressed along with everyone else.

"I was excited," Mr. Coop said. "I was jumping up and down on the bench."

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