Informally, this has been declared the Year of Women in the Olympics. Their numbers are up significantly, their stature at an all-time high, and their accomplishments so consistently impressive that one can easily forget just how far they've come. Given this, it's no surprise that many women stars populate the Centennial Games.
One of these, American basketball player Lisa Leslie, stands taller than most others. She is 6 ft., 5 in. and in no way self-conscious about her height. And because she isn't, perhaps she sends a subtle but important message to everyone watching these Games, namely that freedom of expression starts within.
Leslie for many years refused to play basketball, a backlash to the expectations others held for her. "I developed this really bad attitude toward sports, especially basketball," she explains.
Leslie's parents didn't push her into sports, but her mother, Christine, who is 6 ft., 3 in., counseled her daughter to adopt a healthy perspective about her height. "She said it's beautiful being tall," Leslie says. "She said don't slouch. Keep your head up high."
Leslie eventually began playing basketball and now is one of the keys in the United States effort to reclaim the gold that slipped away in 1992. Since the formation of the first ongoing women's national team last year, she has been the squad's top rebounder and scorer. "Lisa will one day be the best player in the world," says Olympic teammate Dawn Staley. As of Wednesday, the US Women's Team has played two games and won both.
The American public has had an opportunity at these Games to assess her current level and look forward to watching her continued development afterward.
Leslie and a number of her US teammates have announced their intentions to play in the American Basketball League, one of two new women's professional leagues that plan post-Olympic startups.
She has all the makings of a marquee star: She's a superb athlete, articulate, tireless ambassador, and elegant. A runway model in her spare time, she made the pages of Vogue magazine in May and has signed a deal with Wilhelmina, a major modeling agency. She loves wearing stylish clothes and anticipates helping the ABL show off its souvenir apparel.
"It will be a great help for our league," she says, "if we can interest people in buying our ... merchandise."
Leslie's professional future looks very bright, which sometimes makes her contemplate what might have been had she not taken up basketball. "I might not be working at McDonald's, but I could have ended up going to some junior college [instead of the University of Southern California]," she says. "Because of sports, I've been around the world."
After her 1994 college graduation, she spent a season playing professionally in Alcamo, Italy for Sicilgesso, and says she loved everything about it - the people, the fanatical crowds, and the language, which she learned on her own.
"I think a lot of American players who go overseas, men and women, have bad experiences because they're used to our American ways and don't try to adapt to the other culture," she observes. "They seclude themselves and have their American videotapes and music sent over."
She credits a seventh-grade classmate with finally convincing her to come out for basketball.
When she was a sophomore, her Morningside High School team in Inglewood, Calif., reached the state semifinals. The school was state champion the next two years, and Leslie's name went up in lights after she scored a national record 101 points in the first half against South Torrance, which declined to finish the game. Leslie's point explosion was the result of a school tradition that called for all players to feed the ball to a senior. For the record, she made 37 of 56 field goals and 27 of 35 three throws. One other Morningside player scored, but only a point.
From there it was off to Southern Cal, where Leslie was a three-time All-American and the 1994 College Player of the Year her senior season.
Now, she is the center on a US team that produced a perfect pre-Olympic record.
She also is the center of attention in other arenas, whether on a New York playground filming a Spike Lee-produced sneaker ad, or at the Supreme Court offices of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor during a Washington swing. "I think participating in sports gives girls higher self-esteem," Leslie says, speaking with obvious authority.