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Why it matters that Lisa Leslie will have a statue outside of Staples Center

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According to the Los Angeles Times, a statue of LA basketball legend Lisa Leslie will soon stand in Staples Center’s Star Plaza. This immortalization of Leslie will have significant representational power.

Lisa Leslie poses with the Championship trophy
A two-time WNBA champion and MVP with the Los Angeles Sparks, LA native Lisa Leslie will be honored with a statue outside of Staples Center.
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Lisa Leslie is a Los Angeles basketball institution.

A native of greater Los Angeles, Leslie dominated at Morningside High School in the late 1980s, culminating in her 101-point first-half performance her senior year. Leslie then took her talents to the University of Southern California, starting for the Women of Troy from 1990 to 1994.

After playing professionally in Italy following the conclusion of her collegiate career, Leslie reintroduced herself to American basketball fans at the 1996 Olympic Games, leading the USA Basketball Women’s Olympic Team to the gold medal in Atlanta. Her performance attracted the attention of the then-developing WNBA, which made her one of the featured stars of the league. Allocated to her hometown team, Leslie captained the Los Angeles Sparks to a pair of titles, all while accumulating an array of individual honors throughout her 12-year WNBA career. She also added three more gold medals to her trophy case as a member of the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams.

She now will be immortalized in LA.

Lisa Leslie statue proposed for Star Plaza

Last week, the Los Angeles Times’s Arash Markazi successfully proposed that a Lisa Leslie statue become the eleventh statue in Staples Center’s Star Plaza, joining the bronzed Lakers and Kings players and announcers. As Markazi put it:

“So why not the Sparks? It’s a shame the team doesn’t have a more permanent presence at Staples Center, which a statue would provide.”

He continued:

“Leslie has always been the most logical choice to become the first female immortalized with a statue in front of Staples Center. She would not only be the first Sparks player with a statue, but also the first WNBA player to get a statue in front of her team’s home arena.”

Representatives with AEG, which owns Staples, and the Sparks responded positively to Markazi’s proposal, suggesting a Leslie statue will be unveiled sooner rather than later.

The power of placing a Leslie statute outside of Staples Center

The Leslie statue will have representational power with far-reaching impact.

As numerous cultural geographers have emphasized, urban landscapes are racialized and gendered. Throughout US history, public space has been organized around whiteness and masculinity. The preservation of public spaces and places likewise has inscribed on the landscape the power and privilege of the white heteropatriarchy.

In the mid-1990s, urban historian Dolores Hayden began to argue for the reorientation of preservation and memorialization practices in order to encourage “new perspectives on gender, race and ethnicity” in the past, present and future. In The Power of Place, Hayden writes:

“Public space can help to nurture this more profound, subtle and inclusive sense of what it means to be an American. ... The power of place — the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens’ public memories, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory — remains untapped for ... most ethnic history and most women’s history.”

A statue of Lisa Leslie can have these powerful effects.

Like the billboard of Maya Moore that temporarily towered over downtown Minneapolis (and now resides over a suburban recreation center), the new statue of tennis legend Althea Gibson at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York or the proposed A’ja Wilson statue outside of Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, the Leslie statue can become a site for people who see themselves in Leslie to commune, finding validation and inspiration in her immortalization.

By taking up physical space, a statue of Leslie also will intrude upon the mental spaces of all passersby, demanding that they recognize her importance and, in turn, rethink their understanding of historical, athletic importance. While adding to the sport history preserved in Star Plaza, her statue also will challenge this history. The representation of Leslie will interrupt the presumed masculinity of sports history, challenging the idea that men, the Lakers and the NBA solely can represent basketball excellence and authority.

In short, the reorientation of public space around the recognition of a woman of color also can reorient how we see the past, present and future, not only of sports but also of society.