Lisa Leslie, Champion Basketball Player
WNBA pioneer Lisa Leslie on how she discovered basketball, became a college superstar, and reached one of her dreams by winning Olympic gold. With the establishment of the WNBA, Leslie was able to go professional as a founding player and eventually—and unprecedentedly—as an owner.
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Lisa Leslie, Champion Basketball Player
ABBY WAMBACH: If you truly want to be treated like a man, if you truly want equal opportunity, you need to be handled being treated like a man. And if you're not, we deserve to get crushed in the media. I'm like, yeah, bring it on, baby.
I grew up in Rochester, New York. I'm the youngest of seven children. My brothers and sisters treated me like I was just like one of the team. I started playing soccer at 5, and I was a competitive kid and not scared. My first three soccer games I ended up scoring 27 goals. I needed to be challenged. So my parents stuck me on the boys team.
My high school years were amazing because we answered to our coach, yes, ma'am. My mom gave her the go ahead, like, hey, yell at Abby. Give her a hard time. Don't let her develop this overconfident sense of herself. This is high school. We would have done anything to win.
Mia knew that she could tell me anything, and I would listen to her. She was the best in the world. And to be confident with her on the field, we became kind of a dynamic duo.
- Drives it, far side, headed by Wambach, and Wambach has scored. USA leads.
ABBY WAMBACH: It was just such an amazing feeling to be able to win knowing that my idols, Mia, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, these women were all retiring. And so, to be able to send them off with a gold medal around their neck, I don't know if I've ever felt more pride in my life.
As a player and as a competitor, you define yourself by not just wins and losses, but with championships. And this was my first attempt to try to win a championship without Mia, without the people that put women's soccer on the map. And we lost embarrassingly to Brazil.
I actually wanted to disappear. Some of my darkest days were after that tournament. It definitely fired me up and impassioned me to ensure that never ever happened again. This is my last shot at winning a World Cup ever. If I want to be happy, if I want to not be pissed off for the next 40 years of my life, we'd better win this thing. It took a lot of checking my own ego at the door to take a step back and let some of these kids take a step forward so that they can grow their confidence and maybe change the course of the game one way or another.
I am a control freak. I'm fine with saying that. I was freaking out like the whole game. When that final whistle blew, I remember kneeling and just having this huge, huge sigh of relief because I knew it was over, that this was the end of my career. It was really nothing quite like putting that crest on and representing your country. I have to be able to feel confident and comfortable with walking away from that and hoping that, not only did I leave the game better than I found it, but the value systems and the ethos that I hope to have instilled will continue that culture. This is what it all means, those years that the blood, sweat, and tears was worth it.
- The idea of running long distance was always considered very questionable for women, because an arduous activity would mean that you're gonna get big legs, and grow a mustache, and hair on your chest, and your uterus was gonna fall out. So, I filled out the entry form. I signed my name with my initials, I signed KV Switzer. When I signed it that way, obviously when the form went in, they couldn't tell it from a guy's. [Announcer] The World's most famous foot race even attracts a leggy lady, Katie Switzer of Syracuse.
- So, there we were with my coach Arnie Briggs and my boyfriend and All-American football player, Tom Miller. When other runners would come by they would say, oh it's a girl, and they were so excited. And Arnie was saying, "yup, I trained her." And all of a sudden, the flatbed truck is in front us and I heard the photographer saying slow down, slow down, slow down, and they were taking pictures of us. On this truck was the race directors. One of them was a feisty character by the name of Jock Semple. He just stopped the bus, jumped off, and ran after me. Suddenly, I turned and he just grabbed me and screamed at me, "get the hell out of my race "and give me those numbers." And then he started clawing at me, starting to try and rip my numbers off, and I was so surprised. And he had the fiercest face of any guy I'd ever seen and out of control, really. I was terrified. And all of a sudden my boyfriend, Big Tom, gave Jock the most incredible cross-body block and sent Jock flying. And all of this happened in front of the press truck. The journalists got very aggressive, what are you trying to prove? Are you a suffragette? Are you a crusader? Whatever that is, and I said what? I'm just trying to run. They finally left, then it got very quiet, snow's coming down. Nobody's saying anything, and I turned to Arnie and I said Arnie, I've gotten you into a lot of mess here, I guess. But I said, I don't know where you stand in this, but I said, I'm gonna finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to, because nobody believes that I can do this. And suddenly I realized, if I don't finish this race, then everybody's gonna believe women can't do it and that they don't deserve to be here and that they're incapable. I've got to finish this race. I finished in four hours, 20 minutes. That race changed my life. It wasn't until about midnight when we were driving back from Boston to Syracuse University and we stopped on the throughway to get an ice cream and some coffee did we see the newspapers and they're covered front and back of all the different additions with pictures. I realized that now this was very, very important, and this was going to change my life, and it was probably going to change women's sports.
MARIA PEPE: When I was a young girl and people would say, what do you want to be when you grow up? I used to answer I want to be a Yankee.
I think the day that I was given the permission to have the tryouts for the Hoboken Young Democrats, that was probably the most exciting moment, because I knew I was going to make the team. And I was just so looking forward to having a uniform. I was starting pitcher.
Not everyone realized that I was a girl. My hair was short. So you just saw a couple of small curls hanging out of my baseball cap. It took a little while into that first game before some of the other coaches were saying, hey, wait a minute, Jimmy's got a girl on the team. The rule book says that girls aren't allowed to play.
My coach Jimmy Farina tried to argue with the coaches and say look, Maria's just as good as the boys. Little League issued a letter to the town, if you don't remove Maria, we're going to take the charter away from Hoboken.
My coach said to me, Maria you can come to the games and keep score. Well I have to be honest, I did that for one game. And I could not just sit there and take score, because I wanted to be out there.
The National Organization for Women had read about the story and was fuming at the fact that they let me off the team. And so that's when they filed the suit against Little League with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights claiming that I was being discriminated against because I was a girl.
Thank god for Judge Silvia Pressler because she had the wisdom. What she read in her decision was that the institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. And there's not any reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.
It was the 30th anniversary of the ruling and Little League headquarters asked if I would come to throw the first pitch at the opening day of the Little League World Series. I remember them asking would you mind going down, Dr. Creighton Hale would like to meet you. Well, you know, I took a deep breath. He approached me. And he shook my hand. And he looked at me, and he said, you know, I just want you to know my granddaughter plays.
That's my gift is that I get to see so many girls actually enjoying it and participating and not being discriminated for it, but actually being encouraged to grow in the sport.
MISTY COPELAND: We all look different. And I think that's something that is important with kind of the growth of where ballet is going. I'm a woman now, and I don't look like a little girl, and I don't think that we should look like little girls.
Ballet was never on my radar. I never thought I would be a dancer. I enjoyed moving, but that's not something I ever thought of as a career. Ballet found me when I was about 13 years old, and I was approached by a teacher who told me that I had something. I looked like a performer. I looked like a dancer. I'd never seen a ballet in my life, so it was all very foreign to me and something I couldn't even fathom doing. So I took my first ballet class at a Boys and Girls Club on a basketball court, and everything just happened so rapidly after that.
My teacher said to me that you have the potential to be in a professional company, but if this is what you want to do, your life has to be ballet for the next four years because most ballet dancers go out and audition for companies by the time they're 16 or 17. At the time, I don't think I was aware of exactly what I was getting myself into, but I felt so happy and at ease when I was doing it. So it was like an immediate yes.
And four years later, I was in New York dancing for American Ballet Theater. And I knew that ABT was the company I was going to dance with from the beginning when I first started dancing. I just had a connection with them, and their history, and the fact that they're so versatile in terms of the types of dancers they have and body types. By the time I was 16, I was offered a contract already with the studio company, which is ABT's junior company, but my mom just thought I was too young. I'd only been training for three years at that point.
My mother pretty much raised all of us kids by herself, and she really wanted me to get my high school diploma. It was hard to hear at the time that I had to turn down the contract, but the following year, I was offered a contract again, and I was also offered an apprenticeship with the company. I was the only black woman in the company for 11 years, and I am preparing for my first principal role with the creation of the ballet "The Firebird."
Being the first black woman to be put in this role in a major company, it's the start of it all, and it's definitely one of the big highlights. Prince reached out to me and he asked me to be in a music video with him. He definitely helped me, I think, to look at what I do in a different way. Being able to perform with him live on stage at Madison Square Garden, I think, is a huge accomplishment being a classical ballet dancer. That's not really our set.
Being one of the few black women in ballet world, just something that I do think about maybe not every day. But when I speak to a young girl who has tears in her eyes and says, you know, thank you for doing what you're doing, that's when I'm most proud.