January 27, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Lionheart Leslie wanted the ball. Cal State Fullerton’s 5-foot-10, 165-pound floor general jumped – beating out all of the trees – to rip down a rebound early in the game against Hawaii on Jan. 16.
Two plays later, the junior dribbled between his legs and accelerated off a screen to make a jumpshot from near the foul line. He didn’t care that his defender, Hawaii’s Roderick Bobbitt, fouled him and caused him to fall to the hardwood. In a blink, Leslie popped up, clapped his hands together forcefully and knocked down the free throw.
“He’s a small guy but he makes big things happen,” Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor said. “He competes with a lot of heart.”
With a name like Lionheart, he has to. “I know I’m 5-10, but I play like I’m 6-6,” said Leslie, who posted his first double-double that night with a career-high 17 points and 10 rebounds. “That’s my motive: being fearless, trying to live up to my name.”
Leslie’s mother, Patricia Leslie, was eight months pregnant with him when she felt a sharp pain on her right side. Doctors told her she was in labor, but Leslie, who had seven children at that point, sensed the pain was something else. Days passed and worries increased. “I think they ran every test in the book,” Patricia said.
Soon thereafter she was diagnosed with a tumor that was quickly growing. Doctors had to remove several ribs. “The pain was unspeakable,” she said. “(Doctors) were looking at me like, ‘We should take the baby now.’ But in my heart, I’m like, ‘No baby’s been taken from me. I’m going to have my baby.’”
The baby beat the odds, though he was born deaf in his left ear as a result of the trauma. Patricia’s husband, Raymond Leslie, decided to name the baby Lionheart. “A lion is brave, with a lot of courage. And they are not fearful. He went through a lot of pain while he was inside his mom,” Patricia said.
“He is my special child,” she said.
Growing up in Houma, La., as the youngest of the family’s eight children, Leslie began playing basketball at age 6. The siblings (Lionheart, three brothers and four sisters) competed against one another on the family’s outdoor court, which attracted a line down the block of neighborhood kids eager to watch.
As the smallest and skinniest of the family, Leslie often found himself on the losing end. His siblings would push him around, causing him to run into the house, bleeding and in search of Band-Aids. But he kept coming back, tougher each time. “I don’t like anything handed to me,” Leslie said. “I like to work for it.”
His toughest competition was his sister Sumar, who was four years older. The two were close and supported each other (Lionheart chose her jersey number on all of his teams), but Sumar dominated in one-on-one.
“I would just post him up. I would cross him up to get to the goal,” said Sumar, who is now a professional basketball player gearing up to play overseas this spring.
By 16, Lionheart added muscle and range and wouldn’t accept losing anymore. “When Lionheart wants something, he’s going to get it done,” Sumar said. “He’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
The game became his passion. If he wasn’t playing the drums or downing bowls of spaghetti (his mother’s recipe is his favorite), he was practicing shooting. He even sneaked out of church a few times (despite his father being a pastor) by pretending to be sick so he could watch Kobe Bryant play on TV.
Leslie was ranked as the fifth-best player in Louisiana as a senior for Vandebilt High School. The all-state, all-region and all-district player guided his team to three consecutive district championships.
He garnered several Division I offers, but did not qualify academically. Unsure of his next move, he decided to play junior college ball, which to him felt like rock bottom: “In my mind I thought life was just over.”
He was selected to play in an all-star game featuring the state’s top 20 players, attended by dozens of junior college scouts. Blinn College (Texas) assistant coach Mack Cleveland came with a list of six players to scout. Leslie was not one of them, but by the end of the game there was not another name Cleveland could remember. Leslie shut down a player, baseline to baseline, the entire game.
“There was no question Lionheart was the best player on the floor,” Cleveland said. “He’s just a tough kid, period.”
“His intensity was higher,” Cleveland said. “I don’t think that comes from any other thing than being from Houma, Louisiana, and always having to prove yourself against kids from New Orleans, kids from Baton Rouge, kids from Houston. You have to be heard and you want to be heard.”
Leslie attended Blinn in 2013-14, soon finding a competitive junior college atmosphere where every player is fighting for a scholarship to play at the next level. Battling an ankle injury, Leslie at times felt far from his Division I dream. But he recovered and continued to work on his game, shooting late at night.
Helping the Buccaneers to a 23-9 mark the following season, Leslie broke through and averaged 14.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.7 steals a night. He’d often come up with the key bucket or steal with the clock dwindling.
“There were games when it came down to the last 20, 30 seconds and all of a sudden our 5-10 point guard is going up and ripping a rebound down,” Blinn head coach Scott Schumacher said. “He plays with such a tenacity and he understands that, ‘The game is on the line and it’s time for me to step up and make a play.’”
Fullerton was searching for a pass-first point guard, and the coaching staff happened to know an assistant coach at Blinn. “I went out and saw him and loved him,” Taylor said. Leslie was grateful for the opportunity, as he hadn’t given up on his Division I dream. “It means you’re capable of doing anything if you put your mind to it,” Leslie said.
The junior now directs traffic for Fullerton (8-10 overall, 1-4 Big West), often setting up his teammates for baskets. The kinesiology major leads the team with 2.3 assists a game (39 overall), placing his teammates’ needs above his own.
“That’s part of his DNA, the way he’s wired. I think it’s extremely rare. I think guys nowadays are attracted to what gets them on ESPN … the fantastic dunk, the fantastic score, the multitude of scoring points,” Taylor said. “From a young age kids are being taught to the test of ‘How do I get on ESPN?’ versus ‘How do I make the consistent play, that makes the winning play, possession after possession.’”
Leslie has also been a threat offensively, ranking fifth on the team with 8.5 points per game. He came up big against UC Riverside on Jan. 7, as he scored eight of his 12 points in the final 2:55 to ignite Fullerton to a 79-73 come-from-behind victory on the road.
That stretch included a 3-pointer to pull the Titans within three points, free throws to cut the lead to two, and a jumper to knot the score with two minutes left.
Scrappy on the defensive end, Leslie is tied for 13th in the Big West in steals per game (1.0) while his 17 steals rank third on the Titans.
But Leslie’s presence is felt most in the locker room, as his energy is contagious. “He’s a giver,” Taylor said. “He’s just got a personality to fill this gym space.”
Echoed senior Malcolm Brooks: “I would go to battle with him because I know he’s got my back. I know he’s going to give it his all.”
His parents envisioned those qualities when they named him Lionheart, hoping he would be not just brave, but loyal.
“I will tell you this: He will give you his last spaghetti, as much as he loves it,” Patricia said. “That’s the kind of person he is.”