Basketball star Lisa Leslie hopes Jr NBA League will inspire children in Abu Dhabi

Lisa Leslie is by far one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Her professional playing career – which spanned from 1997 to 2009 – is replete with accolades such as a two-time Women’s National Basketball Association championship and a three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player award from the Los Angeles Sparks. She was also the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game; is a four-time Olympian with Team USA, winning gold in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008; and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

While sport seems to be her calling, Leslie recounts The National she was made aware of it by accident.


Once you fall in love with the game, just don’t stop thinking about it

Former WNBA star Lisa Leslie

“I got into basketball in a strange way. I started when I was 12 years old. And I only signed up for basketball because there was a girl named Shay who was very popular in middle school, and I wanted to be popular,” she says.

As she began to focus—even becoming ambidextrous to avoid being the only left-hander on the team—Leslie realized basketball was more than just a path to popularity. “I fell in love with the game, and once you fall in love with it, you just can’t stop thinking about it, you can’t,” she says.

“I played every free moment I had outside of school and trained with men, boys – whoever allowed me to play, I would go out. For a year my cousin Craig took me to the gym every night and I improved exponentially just by putting in that time.”

Although she no longer actively competes, Leslie is still heavily involved in basketball. She was in the UAE capital this month alongside former NBA star Allen Iverson for the Jr. NBA Abu Dhabi League finals. The second season of the youth league featured 450 players aged 11-14 from schools around the emirate, with 30 teams each for boys and girls.

Leslie knows firsthand how life-changing the sport can be and hopes the same can be true for children who take part.


It doesn’t matter what’s different about us, about our race…all those things fall out of the window when it comes to sports

Lisa Leslie

“I am so excited that the Jr. NBA and WNBA are coming to Abu Dhabi for the benefit of the children. I believe that sport is what can bring the world together. How great it will be when we have the opportunity to influence the children here in Abu Dhabi,” she says.

“Right now you might not see the results because they’re young, but it’s the same kids who will benefit, who can relate when I and other players came here and how it inspired them to want to play basketball.

“Then in probably eight years, they’re going to be great basketball players who hopefully have the opportunity to play professionally, whether it’s here in their country or in the US to play.”

In addition to Abu Dhabi, Jr. NBA leagues exist in the US, UK, France, Germany, Lebanon, Switzerland and others to spread the game around the world while making it more inclusive.

“The big picture is about diversity and uniting the world. Being inspired by sport is the only thing that does it, in my opinion. It doesn’t matter what’s different about us, about our race…all those things fall out of the window when it comes to sports. It brings people together and that’s what I love the most.”

Today, Leslie stays connected to the game by coaching the triplets in the BIG3 professional basketball league (which plays 3-on-3 basketball instead of the traditional 5-on-5 format) and is also a studio analyst for the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

While Leslie knows it can be difficult for women to break through and find a career in sport, she hopes they don’t give up and says the first step is setting goals.

“These goals can be small at first, but write down what you want to achieve in a year and then what you want to achieve in five years. Not only is this key to staying focused, but realizing what you have to sacrifice to achieve those goals.”

Leslie says a goal can be as simple as wanting to score four points a game or get four rebounds a game. “You start small, but as you achieve them, you’ll add more to that goal sheet — whether it’s in sports, school, or life.”

Updated Mar 21, 2023 6:58 am

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