As part of the Capital One Cup, which is awarded annually to each of the best men’s and women’s Division I college athletics programs in the country, I was honored to be able to speak with three-time USC All-American, three-time WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie about the state of women’s college basketball, how the sport is evolving and Title IX. Leslie, alongside Doug Flutie, Barry, Larkin, Jennie Finch and others is on the board of advisors for the Cup.
Chris Burrows: In today’s rough economic times, with schools making cuts in many places, how important is Title IX now compared with the early 90’s when you were in college?
Lisa Leslie: It was actually just as important then as it is now, because without Title IX I would not have had the opportunity to get a full scholarship to USC. I really don’t know what I would be doing right now without it. I don’t know what my career would have turned out to be, although I do think I would have pursued broadcasting. I always say I’m like the Title IX baby because I was born in 1972, the year it was passed, and it’s truly made a difference in my life.
CB: Do you embrace that image of yourself as the Daughter of Title IX?
LL: It’s just ironic I think that that was the year I was born, but I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity to have had organized sports in high school, because, again, without that, I don’t know that I would have found basketball, and would have even decided to play without a team. It afforded a great opportunity for me to travel the U.S. and then eventually abroad. So Title IX is definitely something I’m very happy for. I’m in support of it. I’ve been on Capital One fighting for it. It’s just unfortunate that it’s something that we have to have passed, as opposed to it just being sort of a law, I guess.
CB: Last season it was the UConn women and their crazy 90-game winning streak that drew so many more fans and viewers to women’s college basketball. Do you think the sport needs storylines like that to thrive and do you think UConn had a lasting effect on young women?
LL: Absolutely. I think UConn and what Geno Auriemma has been able to do for their program has been phenomenal, I think he really produces players who think the game and understand sort of their direction and their purpose while they’re on the floor. I think the impact that UConn, Tennessee, even Baylor now sort of moving to that upper eschelon, Notre Dame, when you have those types of … Number one, when you just have access to see these teams in a variety of ways now that we didn’t have before, we have to sort of take our hats off to ESPN for making that happen, and ESPNW for giving us the opportunity to follow all these women’s sports.
I think it’s great what UConn in particular has been able to do. We can go back to Rebecca Lobo and their team when they went undefeated, and then [Diana] Taurasi obviously winning championships, they’ve been able to do some great things and they’re going to continue.
CB: I don’t how closely you still follow women’s college hoops, but who do you like going into the post-season?
LL: Well you know I’m a west coast girl so I’m always pulling for PAC-12: Stanford of course. I do like Baylor and Brittney Griner and the group that [head coach] Kim [Mulkey] has been able to put together with the guards around [Griner]. I just think that this may be Baylor’s year. UConn, you can never count them out. I know they just lost at home to St. John’s, but I think in the long run when it comes down to strategy and excellent coaching, Geno’s right up there. I left out Notre Dame, though. Notre Dame’s sort of the underdog I think.
CB: Men’s college basketball head coaches are becoming younger than ever, some as young as 32, but still there are no women head coaches at any men’s NCAA level and very few female assistants. Can you provide any insight there? Do you think it will ever happen?
LL: I think it could happen if there was a woman who truly had the desire for that to be her goal. I just think for us women in general we don’t really see a big difference in the game of basketball between men and women — in terms of strategy and technique and plays. I think with that we’re totally capable of doing it, but when you have the opportunity to impact other women, I feel like sometimes that’s where the obligation is. It lies with us because we understand sort of the path that we’ve walked ourselves during whatever time, whether it’s an older coach or a younger coach.
But I do think sort of on another note that a lot of coaches are breaking into coaching because the game has changed, and the mentality of the player has changed somewhat, and you have to be able to relate to them.
CB: How do you think it’s changed?
LL: I think the attitude of the kid. They’re not as hungry in terms of …. this is not their sole survival — playing this sport. Kind of growing up in a more rural, outside, on the grass. These kids, they’ve grown up with the internet and technology and playing video games and playing mostly indoors now. I mean, not in a bad way. It’s just the fact that they’ve been able to reap so many benefits that it takes a different mentality, and I think therefore a lot of the younger coaches are able to relate to the style of player.
Also, it’s not as fundamentally sound as it used to be. I mean there’s people crossing over between their legs, more fancy plays, and a lot of the older coaches are like, ‘Hey, we don’t need to do all that.’ But that flash is what’s selling, I mean look at Jeremy Lin, right. It helps. And I’m not saying that there’s a wrong or a right, but you have to sort of, as the game evolves, so do the coaches.
CB: Finally, I know you’re involved with the Capital One Cup, which is unique in that it’s the only honor awarded to both a men’s and women’s program, separately. Can you talk about the value of that?
LL: I think that as a student-athlete myself it’s great when we can honor student-athletes in this way, and Capital One has really stepped up to the plate for the men’s and women’s programs that can be crowned a combined $400,000 for student-athlete scholarships. I think the Capital One trophy, if your school wins that — you just get bragging rights. Right now it’s a three-way tie though for the men’s teams, because North Carolina, Alabama and North Dakota State are all at the top. For the women, I’m a little reluctant to say, but it’s actually the Bruins. UCLA is leading the way. I can’t get mad though [with a laugh] we’re all on the same team.