Lisa Leslie knows a thing or two about women's basketball. She was born in 1972, the year of Title IX. She grew to be 6'5" and started playing basketball in junior high school. She eventually went to USC where she led the Trojans to an 89-11 record and four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. By the time she graduated, she was the Pac-10's all-time leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, accumulating 2,414 points, 1,214 boards and 321 blocked shots.
She was part of four gold medal winning Olympic teams for the U.S. and played on two World Championship squads. Yes, Virginia, she also had a WNBA career. In fact, she was part of the league's inaugural season.
Leslie played 12 years -- all with the Los Angeles Sparks. She led the Sparks to two WNBA Championships each time being named the finals MVP. She was also named league MVP three times and earned a spot on the All-WNBA first or second team every year of her career but one. And, she was the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. So, when someone offers the chance to talk with Lisa Leslie, you grab it.
The first question I asked her was whether she thought Maryland's 2014 Final Four experience would help the 2015 Terrapins.
"I think experience is something you always want to have under your belt because the first time you're there nerves can really take a part. You can enjoy the experience a little bit too much and not necessarily be able to focus.
"Lexie Brown had a great rookie year, but she looks super comfortable now. She's even better. I think it's going to be important for Maryland to rely on their athleticism, their tenacity and their heart. Their defense is where they're going to have to hang their hat. Because they're the underdog, there's less pressure and I think, based on their experience last year you'll see them go out and lay it all on the line."
The Capital One Cup
Leslie told me she has been on the Capital One Cup advisory board for four years. She relishes her role because the award recognizes universities for their broad athletic success and is not simply tied to one or two sports. The Cup has separate awards for men's and women's sports and awards a total of $400,000 to the winning institutions that is used to further the education of the student athletes. Leslie takes pride in knowing that the Capital One Cup treats men's and women's sports equally with $200,000 each going to the men's and women's winner.
Leslie also likes the fact that the Cup standings are based on nearly every sport and thus grants significant bragging rights to the winners, even though she hasn't been able to brag about her Trojans very much of late. She did note, however, that should Maryland win the national championship this weekend, it will vault them into third place in the Cup standings and regardless of the outcome, the Terps should earn enough points to move them close to or into the top 10.
You can follow the race on CapitalOneCup.com if you're so inclined. You can also follow the Capital One Cup on Twitter. Leslie offered an invitation to follow her Twitter account as well. The awards will be made in July at the ESPYs on ESPN.
But back to basketball
Leslie had a chance to meet Maryland head coach Brenda Frese in College Park when she was with Team USA. The meeting came shortly after the birth of her daughter and just before Frese delivered her twins Marcus and Tyler. I asked for her impressions of the coach.
"I remember her tenacity and her fight. I picked Maryland to get to the Final Four this year because of Coach Frese and her tenacity and her passion for the game. I feel like the players take on the personality of their coach and she's gotten those players to be super-motivated. I really like their style of play and the way she's been able to lead that program."
She also acknowledged that Maryland faces a major challenge Sunday night
"UConn has so many weapons. They have a lot of star power. Breanna Stewart or Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis can really take over a game. But defense is what you can hang your hat on. When you're playing defense, it's about heart and tenacity and what you're bringing to the table. How hard are you willing to work to deny a person from getting the ball and how hard are you willing to make them work to get it.
"Maryland's been doing that all year so they won't get exhausted doing what they've been doing every day in practice and in all their games. Maryland needs to focus on keeping the Connecticut players from getting comfortable and forcing them to take difficult shots.
"Winning isn't always about the Xs and Os and I think Brenda will have her players ready. Sometimes it's about that heart and effort and that extra quality that you bring to the game that can't be taught."
Sounds a lot like their coach.