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A woman among boys

PUBLISHED August 10, 2019 | News

Nancy Lieberman made a name for herself playing basketball, but now she’s a coaching standout — in a men’s league.

Nancy Lieberman was 7, lying on a sandlot football field near her house in Far Rockaway, New York, staring at the sky with her makeshift helmet split in half.

The only thing keeping the cracked helmet attached to her body after the hit she took was the Duct tape she used as a chin guard.

“We were a poor family,” Lieberman said. “I’d get my stuff at thrift shops. One day, there was a Jets helmet there, but it was really a lamp. The “helmet” was like 50 cents, and I needed equipment to try out for the team the next day. So I took scissors and cut the helmet off the lamp, put duct tape on as a chin strap and used it for practice.”

Lieberman’s helmet didn’t last more than a day, but the 7-year-old, red-headed fireball did. She played a year of organized football before switching to baseball, then basketball.

Growing up in her blue-collar neighborhood, Lieberman never saw gender. She just wanted a shot to play any sport and be treated the same as her peers while doing it.

That equality she has searched for is what she has coaching in Ice Cube’s three-on-three basketball league, the Big 3.

In 2018, the league’s second season, Lieberman became the first female head coach of a men’s professional sports team when she replaced Clyde Drexler as head coach of the Power. Drexler now serves as the league’s commissioner.

In her first season, she led the team to a championship and was named coach of the year. She was the highest-paid coach in league that includes Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Rick Mahorn, George Gervin and Lisa Leslie.

“All coaches are paid equally, regardless of gender, and receive additional bonuses contingent on where they place at the end of the year,” Big 3 co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz said. “Nancy won the 2018 championship and as such was the highest-paid coach in the league last year.”

Lieberman’s accomplishments in the Big 3 are the result of a lifelong career of proving her abilities with action against the best competition, male or female. If you tell her she can’t, she’ll show you she can, right after she sizes you up and tosses you a quick-witted remark.

She didn’t become an Olympian, the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball league, the second woman to coach in the NBA, a two-time national champion at Old Dominion or the oldest woman to play in the WNBA coming out of retirement for a second time at 50 by being thin-skinned.

The first time the world tried to hold Lieberman back because of her gender, it ended up leading her to the sport that would change her life forever.

“I was the starting shortstop,” Lieberman said. “It was 1968. We were getting ready for our first game, and the coach comes over to me and says: ‘Kid, you’re not going to be able to play. They won’t insure you because you’re a girl.’

“I was really mad, and I ended up walking to the YMCA in my neighborhood. I looked at a the guy behind the glass, and I said: ‘Can I play basketball here? Can I play in a league with the boys? Nobody is going to stop me?’ ‘’

Growing up, Lieberman didn’t have many female athletes to look up to so she drew inspiration from men like Muhammad Ali, Walt Frazier and Dr. J.

All three shaped her life significantly, but none more than Ali.

The first time she saw Ali was on television in her family’s small kitchen. He was proclaiming that he was the greatest of all time. Lieberman adopted his signature phrase, telling her mother and anyone else who would listen that she too was the greatest of all time.

After a chance encounter with Ali during an appearance at the New York Stock Exchange for the Olympic committee, he became a staple in her personal and professional life.

On July 25, 2015, when Lieberman became the second female assistant coach in the NBA, she called her mother, then she called Ali.

“I called and asked Lonnie to put me on speaker,” Lieberman said. “I said, ‘I just got hired by the Sacramento Kings,’ and Lonnie said Muhammad began to act like he was shooting a basketball. She said, ‘We knew you were going to be in the NBA before you knew you were going to be there.’ ‘’

It may have been her challenging upbringing without her father or the years playing basketball against young men almost twice her age in Harlem’s Rucker Park that taught Lieberman what it means to be resilient. It may also be the fact she says that she needed sports more than sports needed her.

Either way, that resilience made her a pioneer for female athletes and coaches and has helped her change the foundation that men’s athletics were built on. It’s a foundation that is changing drastically today.

Former Notre Dame associate coach Niele Ivey became the most recent female hire in the NBA after the Memphis Grizzlies hired her as an assistant. Ivey became the ninth active female assistant coach in the NBA.

It’s hard to imagine what the coaching structure of the league would look like without Lieberman and the first female coach in the NBA, Becky Hammon.

Still, Lieberman doesn’t see herself as a pioneer. She sees herself as an individual who has dedicated her life to basketball.

With all of the recent progress, the question of when an opportunity as head coach in the NBA will be presented to a woman continues to come up.

Lieberman doesn’t like to address future dreams and plans; she says focusing on the task at hand is what got her to this point in her career. Asked if she’s ready for being an NBA head coach, Lieberman answered in one confident breath.

“Yes.”