A Sobering Intermission: Section 90 5/2/00

“If we don’t tell them…if we don’t get people to understand and know that everyone is vulnerable, you just think that you’re not. You’re walking around with a false sense of security.”        

Christine Leslie-Espinoza (Lisa Leslie’s mother) on the importance of speaking out about breast cancer awareness.

This past Tuesday May 2, the WNBA announced a three-year partnership with Sears, Roebuck and Co. that will expand the league’s existing Breast Health Awareness initiative with the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO). People who showed up at the New York NBA store expecting a simple appearance to introduce Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie as the program’s spokeswoman were in for a surprise.

Instead, they got a frank, informative and often moving panel on breast cancer awareness. Hosted by ESPN reporter Robin Roberts, the panel included Val Ackerman, WNBA President, John Lebbad, Sears’ director of event marketing and sales promotion (whose wife is a 7-year breast cancer survivor), and Amy Langer, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO) and a 15-year breast cancer survivor. As expected, Lisa Leslie was there. What was unexpected was the presence of Lisa’s mother, Christine Leslie-Espinoza. Ms. Leslie-Espinoza was participating because, as she revealed, she had a cancer scare last November when she discovered a lump in her breast.

Fans who have followed the WNBA since its inception know of the history of breast cancer and the league: Rebecca Lobo’s mother is a breast cancer survivor and last year Cynthia Cooper’s mother died after a long battle with cancer. While in Leslie-Espinoza’s case the lump turned out to be benign, the experience has motivated both mother and daughter to participate more actively in the WNBA’s breast cancer awareness campaign. Said Leslie:
“We all see it. With the ribbons, we all see the whole promotion of breast cancer awareness. But it never really dawned on me other than, ‘Oh, I’ll wear the t-shirt,’ and, ‘I have my ribbon’ when it was that time of year. But it never hit home. My grandmother, none of my aunts had this particular situation. So it was just kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, I think it’s nice that people are being aware.’ But once it actually happened it made me it made me think, ‘Wow, it could happen to any woman.’ And there are a lot of women in my family. And it’s something I think that is important not just for my family, but for anyone to know.”

Since its inception, the league has sponsored breast cancer awareness seminars in each of the WNBA host cities. Ironically enough, Leslie-Espinoza had attended one of the seminars. Immediately after discovering the lump she turned to pamphlets she had received at the seminar in order to prepare and inform herself. “I know that fear can keep you from doing the things that you need to do,” said Leslie-Espinoza.

“I had to convince myself that although I was afraid, I had to fight it and do whatever it was I had to do to stay alive…. I had to make the decision whether or not to tell my daughters. And I thought to myself, if my daughters had a lump I wouldn’t want them to keep it a secret from me. I would want them to tell me and I would want to be able to support them in every way I could. That gave me the courage to tell my kids as well.”

“What I’ve learned in studying about self,” she continued, “is that things that you fear are the ones you have to be aggressive about. To make sure. Just like my kids used to say they didn’t like a subject (in school). That’s the subject you do first. Because that’s the one you will have your concentration on. Fear stifles us. It keeps us from moving. And when I recognized it was fear that I felt as soon as I felt the lump, I wanted to make sure I faced it aggressively.”

This year, each team will again host a Sears WNBA Breast Health Awareness night during the regular season. Sears will donate $.50 to NABCO for every fan who attends a Breast Health Awareness night. Brochures offering early detection strategies and pink ribbons will be distributed at those games, while players will wear pink breast health awareness T-shirts to show their support for the league’s health cause. The league has also capitalized on the power of television and the its ability to use their players to promote breast cancer awareness in Public Service Announcements (PSA). Previous participants in the campaign include Cynthia Cooper, Jamila Wideman, Rebecca Lobo, Nikki McCray and Jennifer Gillom. Leslie and her mother have filmed a PSA that will air throughout the WNBA season.

Filming the PSA with her mom “was a lot of fun,” said Leslie. “I hope it really hits home with a lot of people who have an opportunity to see it. You see my mom and I there, but the importance of that message is the fact that she is there… She is not a “survivor” of breast cancer, but having this scare in itself may make someone think, ‘Hey, maybe I should go get an exam too.'”

At the end of her appearance, Leslie answered some questions about the upcoming WNBA season. When asked whether the league might be expanding too fast, perhaps diluting the talent pool, Leslie answered:
“There is a possibility, but I’m not sure. Sometimes you can be amazed. The Orlando team did a very good job last year, so it just depends on how a team gels together. There’s a very short period of time (to practice together). Sometimes you give a few people an opportunity to play when they really don’t have any objectives they can be really tough. So you just never know.
Leslie seemed eager to begin working with the new Sparks coach, Michael Cooper (her fourth coach in four years.) and her old coach from USC Marianne Stanley. She felt the Sparks were “ready take it to next level after last year,” pointing to the strong play of veterans Delisha Milton (Leslie’s teammate on the US National team) and Mwadi Mabika (who’s returned from a strong season of play in Israel). Asked what advice to the incoming crop of college rookies, Leslie offered the following suggestions:

“One thing I’d say is to be open to advice and learning. Because if you come in to this league thinking you know it all you’re not going to make it. The WNBA is definitely a different level. I think the players play a lot harder and the style of the game is definitely different. So first thing is just to be open and ready to learn.”

“Secondly, you have to be willing to sit and watch. It can be hard going from being a starter to sitting on a bench. It can be a very humbling experience. You have to be willing to be a team player. And if you are a team player, you’re more likely to be successful than if you go in one and one a try and get your points up.”

“Off the court? You definitely have to be responsible ’cause no one is going to come after you. If you miss practice you’re going to get fined. If you have a problem attitude, people will just kick you off, and it spreads really quickly around the league. So I think it’s important to be punctual, to be responsible, and to be where you should be when it comes to the team. When it’s time to go to work – go to work. And when it’s not – have fun. And be back on time.”

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