College Park — College Park -- One by one, ever so quietly, Maryland women's basketball players sneaked into the seats at Comcast Center yesterday morning to watch their heroes practice.
And though a few eyes were trained on former Connecticut greats Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, both members of the United States national team, most were focused on Lisa Leslie, perhaps the most decorated women's basketball player.
The Maryland players might not have seen Leslie's "A" game yesterday and might not sample it in tonight's exhibition game against the U.S. team, but the chance to watch and play against a living legend was too much to pass up.
"To step on the floor with Lisa Leslie?" Maryland forward Marissa Coleman said. "I mean, she's the epitome of women's basketball. When you think of women's basketball, you think of her."
Leslie, who returns to the court for the first time in more than a year tonight after taking time off to give birth, isn't feeling legendary. But the three-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player figures that should come with time.
After practice, Leslie said getting back on the floor "feels really weird, just because I haven't played basketball in a year-plus. I'm a little rusty in areas, and timing is really hard to get back, as well as remembering that I didn't use my legs. My jump shot sometimes is fading. I shot an air ball [during practice] and I was like, 'Oh, man.' "
Leslie, 35, who has been married for nearly two years, skipped the 2007 season with the Los Angeles Sparks. Her daughter, Lauren Jolie Lockwood, was born in June, and though Leslie knew she wanted to play basketball again, she wasn't sure whether her body would cooperate.
"The thing is, you don't know if you can come back. I just pray about that," Leslie said. "In my mind, I just didn't want to blame baby weight and all that. In my heart, yes, I definitely wanted to get back out on the court, but I really didn't know if I would be able to physically."
The national team's two-week college tour, which will take it through Connecticut, Tennessee, Southern California (Leslie's alma mater) and Stanford, among other spots, will give her something of a baseline to determine how far she has to come back.
Leslie plans to return to the WNBA next summer and compete in the Beijing Olympics.
"I try to be true to myself and to the game," she said. "I will let the game dictate that [retirement] for me. I don't want you guys to see a downside or I don't have it anymore. But I don't feel that right now. I know that I'm working my way back. I know I have to be patient. I can still play defense. I can still contribute and, hopefully, I can still score points, too."
The Maryland players intend to stop Leslie from scoring, but not before a quick moment of idol watching.
"I think it's going to take a second," Maryland center Laura Harper said. "But the game is 40 minutes long, and we can't let too much of the game be that.
"Still, our initial thought will be, 'Lisa Leslie, OK. How're you doing?' Once that's over, this team needs me, K.T. [Kristi Toliver], Marissa and Crystal [Langhorne] and everyone to be focused on Maryland basketball, not who we're playing."