University of Minnesota Alumni Association


'I Cannot Imagine My Life Without Sports'

Former Gophers hoops star has played pro ball for 14 years in Europe.

Photo courtesy of Gopher Athletics

Alumna Leslie Knight (B.A. ’08) didn’t sulk in December just minutes after a tough loss in the top Spanish basketball league. Before a full house on a Saturday night in Madrid, Knight put a big smile on her face as she signed autographs for young girls dreaming of playing one day in the country’s top women’s basketball league.

Knight, 35, a 6-foot-1 forward who graduated from Hopkins High School in 2005 and from the U of M in 2008, averaged nearly 14 points and six rebounds per contest in her last season for the Gophers and was named a second-team all-Big 10 performer.

After graduation, she played for one season in a pro league in Switzerland before moving to play in Spain. She is now in her third season with Movistar Estudiantes, a team that plays its home games in an arena just off a tree-lined street south of the Real Madrid stadium. Knight was the All-Spanish LF2 Forward of the Year in 2020, a first-team performer who helped Estudiantes to a regular-season title. She also is most likely the longest-tenured foreigner in the Spanish women’s league.

Without the benefits of Title IX, Knight—and other women like her—would never have been able to pursue her sport on a professional level. She took time recently to answer a few questions postgame at a café in a historic neighborhood in Madrid.

How has sports played a role in your life?

I cannot imagine my life without sports. It has been the center of my life since I was a little girl, running around trying to be exactly like my two older brothers. I’ve always been a tall, strong female, and being active, pushing the limits of my body, and competing have been my day-to-day ever since I can remember. Staying fit and playing on a team makes me feel good, mentally, emotionally, and physically. My happiness and well-being stem from my sport and the friendships I’ve made over the years. Literally almost everything my life is or was, is thanks to sports.  

When my mom was a little girl in the 1950s, nobody thought she’d be an athlete. She was taught to cook and sew, which are great qualities … but there is more to life than that. Thank goodness women fought for the right to participate in sports and be treated as equals. There are still differences between how male athletes are treated compared to their female counterparts, and these differences frustrate me on a weekly basis, but at least we get to play, travel, and earn a living playing sports.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement, and we’ll have to continue fighting for our fair share of the pie. I am forever grateful to all the brave, courageous, outspoken women of the past and hope to add my efforts [to theirs] so that girls born today will grow up to see themselves respected, valued, and treated just as well as their male peers.

Photo credit: Juan Pelegrin/courtesy Movistar Estudiantes

What is it like to have ingrained yourself in the Spanish culture, where young girls want your autograph?

The Spanish league is the most competitive league in Europe, from what I hear from other players who have played in other countries. The level is getting better every year. The autographs always make your day. It is so nice to see the young girls smile. They are so excited to say hello to you, to ask you a question and use their English. So that is really fun. 

How long do you plan to play as a pro?

That’s the big question. I am 35. My husband, I met him here. If I was a guy, I would probably continue playing but I want to have a family and I would like to have children before I am 40, so my playing days are coming to an end. Physically, I think I could continue but life doesn’t wait for anybody. This could potentially be my last year on the court.

Once basketball is over … I did a master’s in organizational leadership, thinking that one day I would go back to the states and do college coaching. If I could continue working for the club I’m playing for now in some aspect, that could also interest me quite a bit.

David Driver is a Maryland-based freelance writer who has written about American basketball players in Europe for 15 years

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