Sports fans howled when Lisa Leslie made history in a 2002 Women's National Basketball Association game. A Los Angeles Sparks teammate passed her the ball, and after a few dribbles, 6-foot-5 Leslie slammed it through the hoop.
"She dunked it!" the announcer yelled. "For the first time in WNBA history, someone has dunked in a game!"
In 12 seasons of professional basketball, Leslie won two WNBA championships with the L.A. Sparks, as well as four gold medals as a member of the U.S. Olympics teams in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008. Leslie received an emotional goodbye from her fans in a retirement ceremony in 2009, and in the same year, she received something else: her M.B.A. diploma from University of Phoenix.
Leslie began to think about becoming a businesswoman back in 1997, she says, when she joined the WNBA and started earning money. Leslie remembers thinking, "What does it mean to have these tax brackets and people telling you what to do with your money and how you should save it?" she says. "So I thought, 'I need to go back to school and figure out more of a business perspective of what I'm doing and how I should invest my money.'"
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Leslie, who earned her bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Southern California, played almost a decade of professional basketball before she began taking classes to earn her business degree in the off-season of 2006. The hardest part of earning the M.B.A. was actually committing to do it, she says, which was tough with the demanding schedule of a professional athlete.
But Leslie made it work by taking business classes at the University of Phoenix campus locations in Gardena and Culver City—both near Los Angeles. She credits some of her commitment to the program to her fellow M.B.A. classmates.
"What was really helpful was just working with other great teammates that were very supportive—and I was able to be supportive of them," she says. "Those are the people that end up helping you get through, and you're helping them as well."
Collaborating with an off-court team in class helped prepare her to work with others as she launched the Lisa Leslie Basketball and Leadership Academy, she says. The academy, which opens this month, is an L.A.-based youth program that teaches both basketball and life skills, such as acting professional, being disciplined, and balancing sports and academics.
Intense planning went into launching the academy, and Leslie says the cohort-style setup of her M.B.A. program helped her manage both tasks and colleagues.
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"It taught me how to work with people with different personalities—how to pull the best out of each person," Leslie says. "It really helped create and reinforce my leadership skills."
Constant homework and project deadlines in the M.B.A. program, too, helped prepare her for the business world, Leslie says.
"You had to understand that sometimes you have to sacrifice your leisure time to get a job done," she says.
And Leslie didn't have much leisure time to spare during the two years when she took the bulk of her M.B.A. courses. After becoming the M.V.P. of the 2006 WNBA season, she sat out the 2007 season to have her first child, Lauren. Then she returned to the court for the 2008 Olympics, where she won her fourth gold medal. That year, Leslie was just one class shy of earning her M.B.A., but put her degree on hold for her Olympic duties. After she retired from basketball in 2009, she finished her M.B.A. program.
While earning her business degree, Leslie says, "I experienced it both ways—being single and not having kids, and then while having a whole family. And I was still able to finish up," she says. "It's definitely challenging, but worth the sacrifice."
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