Citing family issues, Leslie withdraws from USA roster

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- For the first time in 14 years, the U.S. women's basketball team will head into a major competition without center Lisa Leslie. The Americans will compete in the FIBA World Championship, which begins in Brazil on Sept. 12, but Leslie won't be there, citing family issues.

"Unfortunately, I won't be participating," Leslie said here Sunday afternoon, just after receiving her third WNBA MVP award at Arco Arena, where Game 3 of the WNBA Finals was being played. "With the situation I have going on with my family, I won't be able to make it. But we still have a strong enough team."

Her mother-in-law is facing surgery and her uncle has been hospitalized since a car accident Aug. 27, USA Basketball spokesperson Caroline Williams said Wednesday.

Leslie, 34, had an outstanding season for the Los Angles Sparks, for whom she has played since the WNBA began in 1997. She averaged 20.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists for the Sparks, who lost in the Western Conference finals to Sacramento.

Leslie has won gold medals with the Americans in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics and the 1998 and 2002 World Championships. It would be impossible to overstate her importance to, and impact on, the American program in her career.

She leads all U.S. women in points, rebounds and blocked shots in both Olympic and World Championship history. Her USA Basketball career averages are 16.0 points and 6.9 rebounds. At the most recent World Championship, in 2002, Leslie was the event's MVP.

USA Basketball coach Anne Donovan said the team has trained six weeks without Leslie.

"Everybody's had in the back of their minds that Lisa would eventually be with us," Donovan said. "So there's an adjustment period that we'll go through."

There are now three slots to fill for the American team, which is currently training in Durham, N.C. And the United States really has to be concerned about its post play. At 6 feet, 5 inches, Leslie has anchored the inside for the Americans. Now they will be without her and two-time Olympian Yolanda Griffith.

Griffith is 36 and currently playing for the Sacramento Monarchs in the WNBA Finals. She announced recently that health issues and family priorities would keep her from playing in the World Championship.

The Americans still have 6-2 Tina Thompson, 6-1 DeLisha Milton-Jones and 6-1 Tamika Catchings as internationally experienced post players. Milton-Jones played on the 2000 Olympic team and the World Championship team in 1998 and 2002. Thompson and Catchings played in the 2004 Olympics.

However, both Thompson (calf) and Milton-Jones (knee) missed time during this past WNBA season with injuries.

The United States also has versatile Diana Taurasi (6-0), Sheryl Swoopes (6-0) and Seimone Augustus (6-1) as the other players currently on the roster who are 6 feet or taller. Swoopes, like Leslie, is a three-time Olympian. Taurasi competed in the 2004 Olympics, and Augustus was the WNBA's rookie of the year this season.

There are three players currently training with the U.S. team who haven't been named to the roster: 6-5 center Michelle Snow, 6-3 Candace Parker (who will be a sophomore at Tennessee) and 5-9 guard Cappie Pondexter. One of the top post players in the WNBA who isn't with the U.S. team now is Detroit's Cheryl Ford, who is playing in the league finals.

"My purpose in not going [to the World Championship] is not to find out what they can do without me. It's just about my family," Leslie said, adding she still intends to play in the 2008 Olympics. "I think we have some really strong players. It's hard to say, though, because we have a lot of young players, too, and international experience helps. The game is so much different. But I believe we still have enough to win, with or without me. Height-wise, though, that might be difficult."

Leslie got her first USA Basketball experience with the 1989 World Junior Championships as a senior in high school. Right after finishing her All-American career at USC in 1994, Leslie was also part of the senior U.S. team that took bronze in the World Championship.

That came after the Americans had also gotten bronze in the 1992 Olympics, which was the last time Leslie was not on the senior national team for a major competition. The two consecutive bronzes for the women alarmed USA Basketball officials, who pledged to be fully prepared for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Leslie was part of the team assembled in 1995 to tour nationally and internationally in preparation for the Atlanta Games. The United States won that competition -- and every Olympics and World Championships since then.

Asked if it was going to be difficult to be watching the Americans instead of playing, Leslie said, "Yes, it will be. I've been doing this since 1989."

After Detroit's Game 3 WNBA Finals loss Sunday, the Shock's Katie Smith was surprised to hear of Leslie's decision. Smith has played with Leslie in two Olympics and two World Championships.

"She's been the focal point of USA Basketball as our post player, she's that rock that we all feed off of," said Smith, who will join the U.S. team when the finals end. "That's a big blow for us, but that means we all have to step up in other areas and come together. Obviously, we're going to miss her a lot.

"And Yo's not going to be there … some of the vets who really know what it's like. It's tough for us. But when somebody can't play, it gives others an opportunity to show what they can do."

Meanwhile, Ford said she has not been contacted by USA Basketball, but, "Of course, I'd play. I'd love to represent my country."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.