After adding a number of new stars over the offseason, the Big3’s third season gets underway on June 22. Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie joined the three-on-three league several months ago and she will be coaching Triplets, which is a team that features Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson, Jannero Pargo, Chris Johnson, Alan Anderson and Sergio Gibson.
Leslie is the second woman to become a head coach in the Big3. She joins Nancy Lieberman, who won the championship and the league’s Coach of the Year award last season (in her first year as a head coach).
Over the course of Leslie’s 12-year WNBA career, she averaged 17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals. She won two WNBA titles, three Most Valuable Player awards, two Defensive Player of the Year and four Olympic gold medals. She is also the WNBA’s all-time leader in points (6,263) and rebounds (3,307). In 2002, she made history as the first WNBA player to dunk in a game.
HoopsHype caught up with Leslie to discuss her decision to coach in the Big3, the adjustment from five-on-five to three-on-three, being a trail blazer, the state of the WNBA (and basketball as a whole) and more.
When did you decide to get involved with the Big3 and what attracted you to the league?
Lisa Leslie: I actually watched the Big3 with my husband during the first season and I loved it. I used to play three-on-three at Venice Beach, so I really respect the game when it comes to three-on-three. What a lot of people don’t understand about three-on-three is how physical it is and how important it is to be a two-way player. You really have to play well on offense and defense or you’re going to get exposed out there. I really enjoyed watching the first season of the Big3 and I thought it was a huge success.
When the Big3 came to Miami [last season], I went to watch the games and it was so exciting to watch the contests up close and personal. All the guys came over to say, “What’s up?” I sat with Ice Cube, just watching and getting really into it. I was yelling at the refs and the guys (laughs). It was just exciting and fun. I don’t play basketball anymore, but I still know the game very well, so I thought [coaching] would be cool. Some guys, like Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson, were like, “Lisa, you got to get involved! It’s so great! We love it!” They really enjoyed playing in the Big3 and were so excited about it. I thought it would be an awesome opportunity and I’m excited to join the Big3 family!
You mentioned the importance of being a two-way player in three-on-three. What other adjustments must be made when players transition from full-court, five-on-five basketball to the Big3? What are some things you’ll try to instill in your players?
LL: The No. 1 thing is just how physical it is. When you play full-court and you’re running up and down the floor, you don’t have a body on you at all times. You get to relieve pressure, and maybe you get a fastbreak, maybe you get a dunk. There are times where you set a screen, pop out and shoot jumpers. Well, in the Big3 – because it is half-court – you constantly have a body on you. Guards are hand-checking (which is allowed), so it’s more old school than today’s NBA where they can’t be touched. Therefore, only the strong can survive. I mean, Corey Maggette was the MVP last year. He has all those muscles and he’s strong on both ends of the floor, so he had the most success.
It really is about how you choose your team; that’s very important. It may not be about getting the best scorer or the best defender, but you may [target someone] who’s a little bit of both. It’s really interesting. Also, you have a four-point shot, so you need someone who can clearly shoot. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has had so much success because he’s money from three-point range and he’s so consistent. It’s like playing chess, and I love playing chess. The teams that have had success are the ones who have the best chemistry and who understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. Those are the teams that have won. By the way, congrats to Nancy Lieberman for an amazing season last year! I really enjoyed watching her coach.
I actually interviewed Nancy last year prior to the start of the season, when she was getting acclimated. We’ve seen female assistant coaches in the NBA, but I love that the Big3 already has two women leading teams. What does it mean to be part of a league that has two female head coaches?
LL: I think you have to give a lot of credit to Ice Cube and his foresight as well as Amy Trask (the Big3’s Chairman of the Board), Jeff Kwatinetz (the league’s co-founder) and Clyde Drexler (the league’s Commissioner). Everyone at the top was really open and they understand that basketball is basketball. For those of us who played, we know basketball doesn’t have a gender. When it comes to understanding the ins and outs of the game, you either do or you don’t… We all love this sport for the same reasons, and we all have that same fire inside of us.
You’re a trail blazer and an inspiration to girls everywhere. You are their Michael Jordan! When I talked to Nancy about being a trail blazer, she said she never expected that and it sort of just happened. What is that like, and how often do girls and women approach you?
LL: It happens daily and it’s a great thing. And I did expect it. The difference between Nancy’s era and my era is we had more television time and that gave us all a little bit more exposure than [players received] when Nancy played. But I always understood and respected the women who came before me. I love the fact that we have so many pioneers of the game and they get to still be a part of it. Then, you have players from my era, who are now moving on and retired, but we’re also moving into that [post-playing] stage as well. Then, there are so many younger players behind us.
I’m always cognizant that we’re connected by a thread. And we all know what we’re capable of doing and we appreciate the opportunity to knock down doors and open doors for the other women who are coming in behind us. Nancy has always been great when it comes to communicating with me and I love her for that because she’s always [extended] an open hand. You see this with the guys in the NBA too, where they’ll extend a hand to the next generation and help them by passing down information to the younger players. She’s been that way to me and with many of the other women as well.
Do you think we’ll see a female head coach in the NBA soon? Becky Hammon is doing a great job as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and her name has come up a bit during coaching searches. Do you think we’ll see that soon and how exciting would that be?
LL: I think it will eventually happen. I don’t know if it it’s going to be soon because I think it’s important for a lot of the women to start out [with] these other jobs, where they are the assistants and the guys are used to having them around and they’re gathering information and they’re understanding that the leagues are different and learning how it all works. Over time, as many of the women get closer and closer to those [head-coaching] positions, then they’ll eventually get those jobs because you’ll see that they have what it takes.
I think Becky [Hammon] obviously showed a great deal of knowledge and expertise when she coached the Spurs’ Summer League team to the championship. But, again, it’s not like you want a job just because you’re a woman – you want a job because you deserve it and you’re capable of doing it. I think that’s the difference. We don’t want it to be on the merit of, “Oh, you decided to let a female do it.” You want to be chosen because they recognize that you know how to inspire and motivate players, that you know the Xs and Os and that you have great leadership skills. You want to be hired because you have the pieces to put their team in a better position and help them win.
I’ve noticed that today’s NBA stars try to promote the WNBA and its stars. I see some NBA players tweeting about the league and attending games. Have you noticed increased support from today’s NBA players? And when you played, what was your experience with the guys?
LL: It’s interesting because I’ve always had great relationships with the NBA players. I’d train with them during the offseason. Derek Fisher and I would shoot together all the time before the Lakers’ practice when I’d be training in the morning. Kobe Bryant [was supportive]. I don’t think it’s the players who have adjusted, I think it’s the fans. I think social media has allowed [fans] to see that, because the guys have always been very, very supportive of us. They’d come to our games and cheer for us. They supported us when we won championships. They’d bring their children to games. Plenty of Lakers and plenty of Clippers always supported the LA Sparks. Even going back to Magic Johnson and the old-school Lakers, they allowed me to train and play with them.
I’ve never had any push-back from any NBA players. In fact, that was one of the things that made want to coach in the Big3 because [when I attended the games in Miami], at least 10 of the guys came over to give me a hug and say, “What’s up?” There’s that type of camaraderie and respect. So it’s not the players, it’s actually the fans. And usually it’s the male fans who give us the hardest time. But it’s definitely not the NBA players at all. They’ve always been 100 percent in support of the WNBA and [respected] our skills and our work ethic and what we do out there on the court.
I’m glad the players have always been supportive. It’s frustrating that fans continue to give WNBA players a hard time. It’s probably tough nowadays since any idiot can share their thoughts on social media.
LL: Yeah, but that’s in everything, right? When you look, that same thing happens in politics and entertainment and so on. It’s not just us. Now, we realize that we aren’t the only target out there (laughs). There’s a lot of that. Everybody has a voice now. That voice isn’t always the most intelligent, but it’s a voice that gets to be heard. That’s a part of it. But we have to ignore [that negativity] and sift through it, so we can continue to rise and show what we’re made of and support each other and inspire other young girls and women who are following behind us.
Speaking of entertainment, you’ve acted in a number of movies and TV shows. How much fun is that and is acting something you’ll continue to pursue?
LL: Well, I’ve been acting since high school. It’s new to some people, but I’ve been doing it for quite some time. I really enjoy it. I actually had a cameo in What Men Want earlier this year and it was fun. I’ve always loved acting, and it’s the closest thing to playing in terms of the feeling I get – that rush of adrenaline – when [we’re shooting] an exchange between two or three actors. I really love that because anything can happen. When you’re acting, it’s never predictable – you don’t know what could happen in that scene. Everyone obviously has lines, but you don’t know how they’ll be delivered or how people will move or how people will react. I like that element of [surprise]. I love and respect so many actors and actresses. There are some that I grew up watching who are actually my friends today.
Do you think coaching in the Big3 will help you scratch that competitive itch? I know it’s not the same as playing, but you’ll be competing as part of a team again.
LL: What I’m most nervous about is that when it comes to coaching, there’s a lot of passion. Why great players typically aren’t great coaches is because you always want people to play the way that you played or have the same sight and energy. At this level, where I’ll be coaching NBA players as opposed to coaching children, I’m hoping that they have the same level of passion and work ethic that I had as a player. As coach, what I’m most nervous about is my language since I’ll be mic’d up. How I talk in the basketball world is not the same as how I talk normally (laughs). I just need to keep in mind that we’re role models. You want to have passion and have that fight, but you also want to maintain a level of integrity. That’s probably what I’m most nervous about – just trying to balance that.
What’s your strategy when it comes to finding the right players?
LL: I think it’s important to have guys who can get it done on both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively. Being able to shoot the three-ball is key. Shooting the four-pointer would be great, but consistent shooting from three-point range is always going to be important. You also want a person who is a tweener, who may be 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 and can play in the post if we need to go smaller for an offensive advantage, but still have a body that’s big enough to be able to [defend] a big man like Glen “Big Baby” Davis on the inside. I think the key is [building a roster] that can match-up with the champs. You need to figure out how to guard them and stop them because they won. Big Baby caused a lot of problems on the inside for a lot of teams, so we definitely need guys who can guard him and other talented bigs as well.
Do you think we’ll ever see a woman play in the Big3? Is that something you’d like to see?
LL: Uh, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think the beautiful thing is that the WNBA is playing [at the same time of year], so there’s no reason for a woman to come play in the three-on-three when you have the WNBA. That’s the point of it. Hopefully, we don’t get push-back about that. I’m not one who agrees that women have to be in everything that men are in and [says], “It’s not fair if they aren’t allowed to play.” No, I don’t agree with that. They could start a Big3 women’s three-on-three league, but, the WNBA is right there. If you can ball, go play in the WNBA!
In general, what are your thoughts on the current state of basketball and how the game has evolved in recent years?
LL: There are parts that I love. I love the fact that the players are so much faster and stronger and bigger. I mean, when you look at Zion Williamson, it’s like, “What the heck?!” These kids are just growing and these players are moving faster and faster. They understand how weightlifting and training can take them to a whole other level. I love and respect that.
The part that I don’t like is that the footwork is going away and nobody can really post-up. There’s no footwork on the block. The mid-range game is missing. What’s wrong with hitting a 15-foot jump-shot? Now, it’s either a three or a lay-up. That part is a little disappointing to me because I like the post-game, obviously, where you have your back to the basket. It’s such a skill position. I feel like a lot of players just aren’t able to do that. They can’t finish on the block. Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis and Nikola Vucevic have some really nice footwork, but it’s unfortunate that you can only name about five players who can get on the block and find ways to score with their back to the basket. That’s something that is really missing from the game and I hope it’ll come back at some point.
Looking at the WNBA specifically, what can they do to become even more popular? Is there anything you would change when it comes to the product or how the league is promoted?
LL: I think the WNBA is in a great position. I think the players have elevated the game, and the competition and the rivalries have been great. I think the women do such a great job from a community standpoint; they give back to their various communities. If I had to suggest that they do something, I just feel like – as a fan now – you just never know where to find it [on TV]. There was a time where it used to be, “WNBA: Catch it every Wednesday on ESPN.” Now, there’s nothing coined that lets me know when I can see it. I hope with those type of marketing things – even with the Big3 – I can come in and help. We have to figure out how fans can find you with all the noise and different things going on. There has to be something that lets them know when it’s happening.
I respect your opinion and you’re so knowledgeable, so I have to ask: Who is your GOAT?
LL: Of all-time? That’s a little tough. It’s hard to choose just one because I’m an LA girl – born and raised – so I love Magic Johnson. But I obviously know him personally and he did so much to help me in my career. But as far as [my pick] as a fan, I think Michael Jordan is and will always be the greatest player that we’ve ever seen.