Basketball: If It Takes Sex to Sell Basketball Then I'm All for It; HOOPS STAR LISA LESLIE IS A MODEL PROFESSIONAL
Byline: MARK WOODS
THERE'S no getting away from it. Towering over me, Lisa Leslie waxes lyrical about the basketball league that gives her the chance to play her mother's generation never had.
The Los Angeles Sparks centre is hugely talented, the only woman ever to slam dunk a ball in a professional game.
She's athletic and toned and has the looks of a model. Although few will admit it, part of the popularity of the Women's National Basketball Association is down to sex.
'We are women,' says 6ft 5ins Leslie who supplements her relatively meagre pounds 50,000 a year salary with TV and catwalk work.
'We are attractive. We have great bodies. You can't escape that fact so why not use it to our advantage? If sex sells I'm all for it.'
That wasn't quite what the league's founders had in mind when the WNBA was established in 1996.
Girls' basketball at university level has always been massively popular in the USA but when the whizz kids picked up their degrees there was nowhere to go except overseas if they wanted to earn a pay cheque from the game. It wasn't that women's basketball wasn't well established. A modified version of the sport was created in 1892 and has been in the Olympics since 1976.
Two years later the first game of the original Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) took place between the Chicago Hustle and Milwaukee Does. The league lasted three seasons before folding.
Nancy Lieberman - better known as ex-girlfriend of Martina Navratilova - became the first woman to play on a Stateside men's team in the small-time USBL. A few other leagues came and went. But none had the advantages enjoyed by the WNBA.
When it started it had the backing of the all-powerful NBA and its rich owners. It allowed them to keep the dust off their expensive arenas through the summer - and made them look good for doing their bit for equality.
That's exactly why so many guys hate the WNBA. It's not like the man's game where the likes of Shaquille O'Neal could knock over a bus if they tried.
But as Leslie stresses: 'Critics argue we're not good players but won't say anything to them. Everyone has their own preferences. Some people like football or baseball, some like the NBA. Others don't.'
As the league's one-time marketing slogan pointed out, They Got Game. And anyone who thinks these gals can't play is in for a rude awakening.
'I like playing against guys because of their athleticism and understanding of the game,' Leslie explains.
'Playing pick-up is helpful. I often get to play on men's egos because they want to guard the girl. If I have most of the points that just makes me better.
'When I match up against a guy who's physically stronger it makes me better when play women.
'Also, when I beat guys I will talk about it. But what they get from their team-mates and the bench is much worse. No-one likes to get beaten by a girl.'
Only one British player has played in the WNBA - Andrea Congreaves who spent two seasons with the now defunct Orlando Miracle. Teams have also come and gone, particularly since the NBA withdrew financial backing and sold each club to individual owners.
Two of the original eight cities - Cleveland and Utah - are no longer on the map. But there are now 13 teams including the Connecticut Sun which is owned by and based in a casino.
'We feel good about the mix of cities we have,' says WNBA president Val Ackerman.
'And we are especially excited about what we've accomplished in Connecticut with our first independently owned and operated team. …