June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

EVEN IN THE JUBILANT THRONG pouring into the Los Angeles Forum’s VIP parking lot after a Lakers victory late last season, there was no missing this athlete—six feet five inches of perfectly buffed muscle gliding toward the Mercedes-Benz $500, the white one with the LLWNBA plates. But there would be no fast-break getaway today. A dozen little boys eagerly surrounded the car, begging for autographs. And with that the future star center of L.A.’s other basketball squad—the Sparks of the new WNBA—obligingly pulled out her pen. “I always stop to sign little boys’ autographs,” explains Lisa Leslie, whose team opened its inaugural season June 21. “Twenty years from now, if one of them is the guy making the corporate decision, I want him to say, ‘Why shouldn’t I give a woman the opportunity to play pro sports?’ ”

That’s the kind of thinking that transformed Leslie from a lanky 9th grader who aimed to 1) make it as a model and 2) win an Olympic gold medal, into a self-possessed 24-year-old who has done both those things—and more. “Lisa has an incredible drive to win,” says Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal, a friend. “She hates to lose, even during a pickup game.”

Long before Leslie hit her first layup, she was learning to become a straight shooter. Her role model was her mother, Christine, now 49, who raised three daughters on her own while toiling first as a postal worker, then as a long-haul trucker. (Christine’s husband Walter, a former semi-pro basketball player, left when his second child, Lisa, was 2 months old.) “My mom taught me the importance of responsibility and hard work,” says Leslie, who earned the childhood nick-name “The Shadow” because of the way she used to trail Christine around their Compton, Calif., home. “Struggle is good, and that’s part of life.”

Christine’s three girls experienced their share. Especially Lisa, whose extraordinary height—even in 2nd grade she was a head taller than her 5’2″ teacher—made her a magnet for classmates’ taunts. When Christine was on the road, and Lisa was being cared for by relatives, “I cried all day wishing my mom was home,” Lisa admits.

During Christine’s visits (only once or twice a month from 1982 to ’85, when she was driving cross-country), she tried to reassure Lisa with tales of how, at 6’3″, she’d been picked on too. And look at her now—doing a man’s job but, with hair and nails always just so, looking every inch a woman. Eventually the pep talks took. “The closer I got to my mother’s height,” Leslie remembers, “the more beautiful I felt.”

Leslie would need that self-confidence. During one difficult three-year stretch, she lived in three different homes and attended four different schools. It was during this period that her cousin Craig taught her hoops, and her game took off. As a high school senior in Inglewood, Leslie scored an unheard-of 101 points—in just one half. (The other team refused to return for the second.) Moving across town to USC, she became a three-time all-American, and after graduation she picked up a year of experience playing in Italy—experience which she then put to good use on the triumphant 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

Meanwhile, Leslie’s fast, fluid style-on the court and her glamor off it was scoring big among fans. Signed by the Wilhelmina modeling agency during the Olympics, she has since appeared in seven magazines. “Lisa’s dominating and physical and then, after the game is over, she transforms into this stunning woman,” says ex-Laker James Worthy, now a Fox sportscaster. “She brings an added dimension to the game, the same way Michael Jordan does.”

The WNBA is banking on that marquee value to help it attract an audience and to give it a higher profile than the rival American Basketball League, whose first season ended in March. But Leslie, for whom Nike is developing a shoe line, believes the WNBA’s best advertisement will be the game itself. “The intensity among the women may be greater from start to finish,” says Leslie, who can dunk but prefers to focus on being an all-around player like her favorite, the Houston Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon. “If you watch, you’ll see the quickness and the talent.”

Among those cheering at the Forum, Leslie is looking forward to seeing her mother—who drives strictly local routes these days and was married last year to mechanic Thomas Espinoza—and half sister Tiffany, 17, a basketball-playing senior-to-be at Gardena High School. (Big sister Dionne, 29, is a paramedic in Fresno.) And then there’s the new man in her life, Todd Bradley, 31, a UCLA administrator. Bradley, Leslie’s first steady beau since she ended her engagement to former USC basketball player Lorenzo Orr in 1995, says, “Her being a basketball player could be intimidating if she wasn’t so nice off the court.”

But on it, watch out. “When it’s time to play, something clicks in my mind, and I become—it’s almost like a monster,” Leslie says. “My favorite phrase is, ‘Let’s go for the jugular.’ ”

PAM LAMBERT

LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

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