L.A. CENTER NAMED MVP FOR SECOND TIME
Leslie Sparks West to All-Star Win
By Barry Rubinstein
ORLANDO, Fla., July 16 -- She is used to seeing the opening tipoff from center court, not the bench. But the change in perspective didn't faze Lisa Leslie - not in the least.
And by the time the final buzzer blared at the end of the 2001 WNBA All-Star Game on Monday night, all the Los Angeles Sparks center did was score a WNBA All-Star record 20 points, grab nine rebounds and block three shots to lead the Western Conference to an 80-72 victory over the Eastern Conference at the TD Waterhouse Centre in Orlando.
"What I tried to do was focus and decided, OK, I'm going to come off the bench," said Leslie. "What can I do to help this team? I can get out there, still score points, rebound and block shots. I did play with a lot of emotion, but I thought, 'I hope Coach [Michael] Cooper doesn't bring me off the bench [for the Sparks]. But I was focused on what I wanted to do and my goal was to try to be MVP."
Mission accomplished, as the West - and Coach Van Chancellor - recorded their third triumph in as many WNBA All-Star Games. All of which made the victorious Western Conference locker room a gleeful place, indeed.
"It didn't matter who started tonight," said Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith, who scored 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting after being voted by the fans as the West's starting center. "Everyone had the same amount of minutes [between 19 and 23], and it was all about team effort tonight.
"Anybody could have gotten MVP tonight. I'm happy for Lisa, and I'm just happy that we won. Coach Chancellor said, 'I want to go home 3-0.' And we did it for him."
Rookie Lauren Jackson of Seattle scored 11 points in her All-Star debut, while four players reached double figures for the East: Cleveland's Merlakia Jones had 12, and Miami's Elena Baranova tallied 10, as did the hometown Orlando duo of Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Nykesha Sales.
To no one's surprise, the ebullient Chancellor was awestruck by what he had just witnessed, as he substituted his team in entire five-player units approximately every 10 minutes. When Utah's Natalie Williams was scratched from the game with a left ankle strain, the West was left with 10 players, which made it easy for Chancellor, who switched up his starters - Griffith, Ruthie Bolton-Holifield and Ticha Penicheiro of Sacramento and Tina Thompson and Janeth Arcain of Houston - with a quintet of Leslie, Jackson, Tamecka Dixon of Los Angeles, Katie Smith of Minnesota and Jackie Stiles of Portland.
"Nice playing from Lisa Leslie," Chancellor said. "Looked to me like she was on a mission. This is the most enjoyable game of all. I like that, give me five. When you give me five, here are the five you give me: Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith, Tamecka Dixon, Jackie Stiles. Not bad, not bad. Is that a five to call? That's coaching right there, guys. That's just coaching. That's coaching up a storm.
"If they [the fans] didn't get a sense of excitement, what they had better do is call their best friend and call the funeral home, because they are ready for a little funeral. I couldn't even hear - they had me in on that little deal where you are talking during the four-minute marks and all that. I couldn't even hear the questions, it was so loud. If you couldn't feel that at home watching the television, you might as well go ahead and kiss it off -- you're dead."
The East managed to stage a resurrection of its own. Trailing by 19 points with 4:46 to play, Richie Adubato's club used a 16-3 run - with four points each by McWilliams-Franklin and Jones - to slice the West's lead to 78-72 with 17.3 seconds left, but the East got no closer, as Stiles added a pair of free throws with 16.2 ticks remaining.
In the end, Adubato joined the long list of those paying homage to Leslie.
"We've played against her enough, I've seen enough performances by her to know that she plays the game with a passion," he said. "She's out to prove something every night. She's out to lead her team to a championship, and I think she wanted to make a big showing in the All-Star Game."
No matter where she was when it began.
Previous WNBA MVPs
HEARD IN THE CROWD
Gregory Hines, actor/dancer: "It's great to be here at the All-Star Game because I am a big fan of the WNBA as a league, but tonight, three women from the Liberty were starting - Tari [Phillips] and Vickie [Johnson] and T-Spoon [Teresa Weatherspoon]. So that was thrilling. That was really great to see them start."
Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic: "I'm very supportive of the Miracle. I'm glad the WNBA was created so the women could get an opportunity to really showcase their skills on a professional level. Anytime they have an event like this, I definitely want to be supportive, because they support us as well. I see them at our games all the time, so I definitely want to come out and hang out."
Carolyn Peck, Orlando Miracle coach: "I think it's a lot of fun, and I think with the attendance that you see here tonight, it's a great example of the support that the Orlando Miracle gets. We have great fans, and I think a lot of people are very excited about having a WNBA team here in Florida."