'I Cannot Imagine My Life Without Sports'
Former Gophers hoops star has played pro ball for 14 years in Europe.
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
Eurobasket.com 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.
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