Player's Atlanta Dream is modeling

Yelena Leuchanka has grown accustomed to the question.

Her answer -- 6 feet, 5 inches -- is no big deal on the basketball court where Leuchanka plays center for the Atlanta Dream, but in the real world, it's another reason the blond beauty from Belarus attracts a lot of attention.

Leuchanka, 27, who moved to the U.S. as a teen, is hoping to follow several other professional female athletes turning off-court attention into a career as a fashion model. "I'm proud of my height," said Leuchanka on a break before heading to out-of-town games. "In the WNBA there are a lot of girls who are very stylish, and people don't see it."

In just over a decade, the female athlete-turned-model has become a more commonplace and not just for sports modeling. In the mid '90s, former WNBA player Lisa Leslie signed with top modeling agency, Wilhelmina. Professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece landed modeling gigs while still in college and went on to appear in magazines such as Elle and on the cover of Playboy in 2001. More recently, tennis stars Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova hit the crest of the modeling industry's obsession with Russian girls, turning their star power into magazine spreads, billboards and ad campaigns.

Leuchanka thinks the world has become more accepting of the multi-dimensional female athlete. "People want to see more, that you are not just an athlete but doing something else. Eventually I'm going to stop playing basketball, so I have to find something else to do," she said.

The switch from throwing elbows on the basketball court to throwing on a maxi dress and four-inch stilettos is almost effortless, Leuchanka said, but she is realistic about her options.

"If I was trying to do some runway and high fashion, they would tell me, ‘Honey, you have to lose 20 pounds,' and the clothes would probably be too short," she said. She's more interested in commercial work, but knows that either path will require as much hard work and dedication as it took to make it to the WNBA.

Leuchanka was 14 when she first left home to play basketball. After trying other activities such as piano and volleyball, she felt most comfortable with basketball.

"It clicked. It was like a puzzle. At that point, I didn't know it was going to be this crazy career," she said.

At 17, Leuchanka came to the U.S. to attend community college and play ball. She knew she wanted to be in the WNBA. In her country, games attracted up to 6,000 fans. She heard that WNBA games could draw crowds of 10,000 or more.

She learned English, endured long stretches away from family and had four knee surgeries. In 2006 she entered WNBA with the now defunct Charlotte Sting and, a year later, the Washington Mystics. After heading to Beijing with her national team for the 2008 Olympics, Leuchanka nabbed a spot with the Atlanta Dream. She plans to apply that same persistence to modeling. "Modeling is hard, but being an athlete and working hard and pushing, you learn that nothing you do is going to be easy," she said.

Already, Leuchanka has had to play fashion catch up. She admits to not being very stylish as a young girl, or even when she first arrived in the States. She has since learned to cobble together a style she describes as "experimental." She hunts bargains at T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, or New York and Company, finding off-the-rack items that work with her frame. Pants too short? She lets down the hem. Jackets too tight? She buys a larger size to fit her shoulders and has the waist taken in.

To date, her sole modeling credit is a calendar of players from her national team in Belarus, but Leuchanka believes that in time the right opportunity will come. "God gave me this height and you just have to use it," she said. "This is what I have to work with."