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A new ‘next game’ for Hall of Fame basketball player Nancy Lieberman

PUBLISHED January 11, 2011 | News

Hall of Fame player Nancy Lieberman has traded her basketball sneakers for high heels, but she’s no less determined as she coaches men in the NBA Development League.

Reporting from Frisco, Texas — Someone told the girl about Rucker Park in Harlem, told her that all the best players gathered there for pickup games.

Harlem was two train rides and a long walk from her neighborhood in Queens, but she had fallen in love with basketball — shooting hoops in the playground each afternoon until dark — and nothing could keep her from having a look.

Taking money from her mother’s purse, she announced that she was headed for the park, neglecting to mention which park. She stuffed T-shirts into the shoulders of her coat along the way, trying to make herself look bigger.

“I got off the E train and I walked down 155th Street, this little white Jewish girl with flaming red hair,” she said. “I was dribbling my ball like I lived there.”

It was the early 1970s, and the greatest names in the sport had come through Rucker in their youth: Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

No one knew what to make of this redhead — barely a teenager — sauntering onto the court and declaring “I’ve got next game.”

“These guys didn’t say anything,” she recalled. “They kind of looked at me like, ‘Who are you?'”

Four decades later and half a continent away, a cold wind whistles across the North Texas plains as Nancy Lieberman arrives for morning practice.

That bright hair looks a bit disheveled. Her eyes are weary from studying game film all night. She eases onto the court in gray sweats and signals for a group of waiting players — once again, all guys — to draw near.

“It has to start at the defensive end,” she says. “Every possession, everything we do, is going to set the tone.”

Lieberman has barged into a much bigger game this time, the first woman to coach a team in the NBA Development League, just a notch down from basketball’s grandest stage.

The Texas Legends are players fresh out of college, eager for stardom, along with a few veterans hoping for one more chance.

Most of these guys weren’t even born when Lieberman won a silver medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics or dominated the college game. They were toddlers when she ruled women’s pro basketball in the 1980s. To them, she is simply a coach looking for answers after a tough loss the night before.

“Focus. Concentration,” she says. “We’re going to have to dig down.”

Practicing in a spacious gym recently constructed amid barren fields in Frisco, a burgeoning suburb 30 miles north of Dallas, the Legends get to work on pressuring the ball. Lieberman hops into the middle of a drill, showing her big man how to move with quick feet and hands up as he double-teams an opponent near half court.

When her players do it right, she claps. When they move too slowly, she barks and makes them try again.

“A coach is a coach,” says guard Dominique Jones, who was recently called up to the Legends’ NBA parent team, the Dallas Mavericks. “You just listen to what they say.”

But there is something different about the way Lieberman approaches her job, something that stretches beyond the realm of Xs and Os. During the two-hour practice, she tells more than a few of her players that she loves them. Each man receives a hug.

“The hugs,” says Antonio Daniels, who spent 12 seasons in the NBA before dropping to the D League this winter. “That’s not something we’re used to.”

As the team’s co-owner, Donnie Nelson, puts it: “The basketball world is looking at this as an experiment.”

The girl who showed up at Rucker could not jump as high as the teenage boys and the young men, or muscle her way inside, but she ran hard and knew every passing angle.

Soon, her teammates began riding the train back to Far Rockaway with her, making sure she got home safe, maybe staying for a spaghetti dinner.

“My mom would ask, ‘Who are these people you’re bringing home?'” Lieberman recalled. “‘They’re from Harlem?”‘

“They’re my teammates,” Lieberman would reply.

They respected her style, a blend of defiance and ferocity born of tough times. She recalls her mother searching the house for change to buy gas so they could track down her father for child support, and her brother explaining that they were poor.

“You’re poor,” she replied. “I’m not poor.”

Determination fueled a Hall of Fame career for a 5-foot-10 point guard who won two national championships at Old Dominion University and a pro title with the defunct Dallas Diamonds. It also kept her challenging the men. Through the late 1980s, Lieberman played on summer league teams for the Lakers and the Utah Jazz, spent two seasons in the men’s U.S. Basketball League and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters as a member of their permanent foe, the Washington Generals.

Then, with the rise of the WNBA, she returned to the women’s game to play — at age 50 — and coach.

“I’ve never known what my limits are,” she said. “And I’ve never been afraid to find out.”

But basketball has been only part of her story.

During a hiatus from the game in the early 1980s, Lieberman had a much-publicized relationship with Martina Navratilova and helped coach the star athlete to the top of women’s tennis. She later married a Washington Generals teammate, Tim Cline, and gave birth to a son.

The last two years saw her raising TJ as a single mom and doing commentary for ESPN, settling into a comfortable routine. Maybe too comfortable.

Donnie Nelson had a year to build his team from the ground up.

The veteran NBA executive — and son of famed coach Don Nelson — had been awarded a new D League franchise and was looking for a coach. That’s when he ran into Lieberman outside a coffee shop.

“Nancy was not on my list,” he recalled. “I walked away thinking, ‘How could I forget Nancy Lieberman?'”

The team had already settled on Spud Webb as president of operations, and if anyone was willing to gamble on a female coach, it was him he. Standing only 5 feet 6, Webb had forged an unlikely NBA career and had even won the slam-dunk competition at the 1986 All-Star game.

“I could relate to Nancy,” he said. “All my life, people had been telling me I couldn’t do this or do that.”

The Legends brought Lieberman in for a meeting, then another, probing her knowledge of the game. She thought they were discussing a front-office job.

“When I asked her to coach,” Nelson recalled, “she was kind of shocked.”

The normally unflappable Lieberman went home and stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, then called a friend, Alvin Gentry, the coach of the Phoenix Suns.

“I need you to listen,” she told him. “Give me two reasons I should not do this.”

Growing up in Virginia, not far from the Old Dominion campus, Mike Tomlin knew about Lieberman the player. So when she dialed his office last spring — out of the blue — the Pittsburgh Steelers coach took her call.

“I’m a white, 52-year-old woman about to coach a predominantly African American team,” she said. “I need to know how I can help these guys.”

Tomlin, who is black, replied: “Can you come to Pittsburgh?”

They spent hours at Steelers headquarters talking cultures, philosophy and the modern athlete.

“It was a discussion about leadership,” Tomlin said. “We hashed out a lot of things.”

Lieberman told him about her plan to coach the Legends.

Call it a woman’s touch or even a sense of parental duty. Only a small percentage of D League players make it to the NBA, so she wanted to help them become good husbands and fathers, better people, along the way.

“The context of my message is different,” she said. “We do things because we love and care for you.”

Tomlin came away impressed.”I learned as much from her as she learned from me,” he said.

Over the years, Lieberman has collected friends and mentors in high places, assembling a Rolodex that she calls “as long as the North Dallas Tollway.” Something about her personality had opened the door to relationships with Muhammad Ali and Kevin Costner, the late Michael Jackson and billionaire Warren Buffett.

“Nancy’s genuine,” said Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers coach. “She’s very optimistic and open to learning. She’s fun.”

These charms proved crucial as she prepared for the Legends’ first training camp, visiting coaches across the country, watching practices, taking notes.

“I have 30 years of friendships,” she said. “Isn’t this when you need them?”

The arena in Frisco is small but nice, renovated with rows of green seats and video boards. It is about half full on a weeknight, and the crowd of 3,000 or so grows restless as the Legends fall behind the Tulsa 66ers.

Lieberman is off the bench, pacing the sideline in blue pumps. Forget about the shoes, the sparkling belt and the knit top with fringe. She could be any coach — man or woman — urging her players to scramble back on defense, badgering officials, looking generally annoyed.

When her 6-foot-11 center, Matt Rogers, lets a rebound slip away, she barks at him.

Nobody rips the ball out of your hands,” she says. “Nobody.”

The team has grown accustomed to this blend of intensity tempered by softer moments. Daniels explains: “You want to play for somebody who cares for you as more than a basketball player.”

But the rest of the basketball world is watching, waiting to see how the experiment turns out.

It doesn’t help that the Legends have hit a bumpy stretch, losing a string of games, their record at 9-8 heading into this week.

Lieberman suspects that she has a few skeptics in the crowd, people who see no room for hugs or high heels in a man’s game.

It doesn’t matter. The little girl who once dribbled fearlessly down the streets of Harlem has grown into a woman adamant about playing the game her way.

“I can’t get involved in all this self-doubt,” she says. “I know what I’m doing is normal for me.”

The first quarter ends with yet another missed shot, and the Legends slump back toward the bench. Their coach quickly shifts tone, upbeat, encouraging, grabbing a clipboard to diagram the next play.