The unlikely story of Nancy Lieberman continues—next stop: Assistant GM of the Texas Legends

I love Will Ferrell’s cinematic tribute to the old ABA days, “Semi-Pro.”  It’s not that the movie is particularly brilliant, and as a San Antonio Spurs fan I did struggle with my home town boys being portrayed as the big, bad villains to Jackie Moon’s (Ferrell’s) Flint Michigan Tropics. However as someone who grew up watching the wild, wild ABA back in the day, I enjoyed the over-the top, tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the great brand of ball the ABA produced and the characters that populated that league.  I was glad to read this week that the Basketball Hall of Fame Committee is going to start making amends by being more intentional in noticing the body of work by former ABA players. Artis Gilmore and a few other greats from that league are about to get the recognition that is long overdue. It’s sad that today’s young basketball fans and players don’t know about prime time players like Gilmore or James Silas or Mel Daniels or Louie Dampier. That league produced some truly memorable teams, moments and players.  It’s also sad today’s players don’t know who Nancy Lieberman is because she is a significant historical figure in the world of basketball.

The ABA is not the only league that flew under the radar of most casual fans. And the great players of yesteryear were not solely men. Ever heard of the WBL? That would be the short-lived Women’s Basketball League. Ever heard of Nancy Lieberman? Perhaps serious basketball fans know the name, but most don’t. That’s a shame. Lieberman blazed trails that paved the way for every female playing basketball today on any level.  Lieberman continues to pioneer: She just became the Assistant GM for the Texas Legends, the D-League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks.  Lieberman continues to defy conventional wisdom. Jackie Moon would be proud.

Who is Lieberman and what has she done? To understand Nancy Lieberman, perhaps a story from her childhood best explains her passion for the game.  As a youth, Lieberman played all sorts of sports. She loved basketball, softball and football. When it came to hoops, she only played with the boys in her neighborhood (Queens, New York).  During her early teen years she decided basketball would be the one sport she would devote herself to.

Her mother wasn’t particularly thrilled with her love for basketball or her continual ball-handling drills, especially since much of it occurred inside the house during the cold months. On one occasion, her mother, angered by the noise in the house, grabbed Nancy’s basketball and then grabbed a screwdriver and punctured the ball. Undeterred, Lieberman grabbed another ball and continued to work on her handle. Her mother, also undeterred, punctured the second ball with the screwdriver. Five balls later, Nancy decided to practice outside in the freezing cold.  That’s Nancy Lieberman.

In 1975, at the age of 17, she was selected to the U.S. Women’s Pan American Team, the youngest player by three years on the squad.  From 1976-1980, she played college ball at Old Dominion where she won two consecutive national championships (1979, 1980). During her four years of college, Lieberman was named player of the year, and earned three consecutive All-American awards.  Nicknamed “Lady Magic” (a nod to Magic Johnson), Lieberman averaged 18 points per game and racked up 961 assists, 561 steals and 1,167 rebounds.  The assists and steals were not officially recorded by all women’s teams during her days of play but those numbers are still thought to be Women’s NCAA records today.

Lieberman also played on the 1976 Women’s Olympic team and was on the 1980 team that did not go to the Olympics due to President Carter’s boycott of the games that year.

During her professional career she played for the Dallas Diamonds of the WBL, a men’s league (that’s right, a men’s league), the USBL (United States Basketball League) and then for the Washington Generals, the regular opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters.  Lieberman was selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

In the inaugural season of the WNBA, and at age 39, Lieberman played for the Phoenix Mercury—the oldest player in the WNBA.  New doors opened for Lieberman in 1998 and she was hired as GM and Head Coach of the Detroit Shock.  She coached for three seasons but left under a cloud of suspicion as unnamed Shock players accused her of having an affair with a rookie point guard for the team.  At this point one would think Lieberman’s basketball story would end. That assumption would be wrong.

On July 24, 2008, Lieberman signed a seven-day contract, again with the Detroit Shock, this time as a player, and at age 50 played ball for the last time on a professional team.  “Fifty-year old former basketball wonder signs seven-day contract with professional team” sounds like something straight out of Semi-Pro.  Truth is often Stranger than Fiction.  On an unrelated note, Stranger than Fiction is another great Ferrell flick, but I digress.

In November of 2009, Lieberman became the first female coach of a men’s professional team as she was named the Head Coach of the Texas Legends.  Co-Owner and President of Basketball Operations  Donnie Nelson said, “I felt the best man for the job was a woman” when speaking of Lieberman.  Lieberman led the Legends to the playoffs. Now, with her son, T.J. Cline, playing his senior year of basketball at Plano West, Lieberman wanted a position that would allow her the opportunity to attend her son’s games.  She hasn’t ruled out coaching again, but believes the front office is the more strategic place for her and for other women who hope to one day coach men’s professional basketball. Lieberman said that working in a front office capacity “might even be a quicker path (for women) trying to make it (as a coach).”

She envisions a day when women will break through the glass ceiling and coach on the NBA level.  When asked about a woman coaching in the NBA, she said:

“It might not be in my lifetime, but there will be a woman coaching in the NBA and being a significant part of a team. Maybe it will happen in my lifetime. But it will happen, because we’re qualified.”

I agree. There is one genius of a coach about three hours north of San Antonio named Kim Mulkey who has done a remarkable job with the Baylor Women’s program. Mulkey is a brilliant x and o’s coach and has a great way of motivating and teaching her players.  I’d put her up against half the men coaching in the NBA right now. But the league isn’t ready for that…yet.

Lieberman is right-these things take time, and it takes a special person to ignore the critics and to not back down from seemingly overwhelming obstacles to achieve an improbable goal. Jackie Moon was a parody of such a person. Lieberman is that person in real life.  Nancy Lieberman: Assistant GM for the Texas Legends of the D-League.  No one would have believed such a story back in the day.