When my dad died, there was no WNBA.
My mom though – somehow she knew it was coming. I remember her talking to me about my father’s spirit and the power of sport. She spoke to me about how he would live through me and that I would honor him by affecting change and raising awareness. She said it was my destiny to help teach the world about AIDS. As a child, I didn’t understand her anymore than I understood the disease that claimed my father – but she was my mother, she is wise and I trusted her.
Then came the summer of 1996. I was 9 years old and even today, I don't know if any event will ever compare to how fundamentally important and colossal the Olympics became to me. It was the summer of the Magnificent Seven, Kerri Strug’s heroic landing, and it was the first time that women's basketball had a national stage – and nobody took the stage quite like Lisa Leslie.
Lisa was impossible not to notice. She always handled herself with utmost grace and dignity. Watching her inspired me to compete, and when the WNBA started the next year, my mom and I were watching as Lisa led the charge of pioneers who, together, completely changed the game. These women defined how the world viewed women's basketball. So, now, as I prepare to play against Lisa in her last home game as a WNBA player, wearing red shoes to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS, I am paying homage to Lisa and her legacy.
Lisa Leslie is iconic, in the sense that she not only gave women's basketball a face, but also a standard for commitment to excellence and a recognition of responsibility we all can aspire to uphold. I am passionate in my role as an advocate, and my passion for work around HIV/AIDS awareness has provided me the chance to engage with a global community of advocates and change-makers. Yet today, what moves me about being a part of Lisa’s farewell game is that without Lisa, I realize that my peers and I might not have the opportunity to share our voices; our passions, our stories and our love for the game with the world. Its truly such a privilege and I am thankful.
I don't think any aspiring female basketball player growing up today could imagine life without the WNBA, but I can. Its something we cannot take for granted, and as a generation punctuated by Lisa’s departure, we must continue to grow. It wasn't until 1997 that we had a stage that allowed us to play in our own country, in front of family and friends. Now today, young players who watch us can grow up with dreams of winning a WNBA championship. They can dream of being one of the best players in the world. They can dream of being recognized on the street and, hopefully, we can help inspire them to use their celebrity to help change the world.
Thank you Lisa Leslie for what you have done for women; for women’s sports, for what you have done for basketball and today, especially, thank you for what you have done to prove my mom right and provide me a vehicle for advocacy to honor my father.
--Candice Wiggins, Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA, www.candicewigginsonline.com
Photo: Lisa Leslie, left, Candace Wiggins. Photo credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press, Hannah Foslien / Associated Press.