The legendary athlete and coach opens up about her friendship with Muhammad Ali and why women in sports should definitely make more money.
A slew of injuries and suspensions left the Detroit Shock’s roster shorthanded one week in the waning days of the 2008 WNBA season, so former head coach Bill Laimbeer called up an old acquaintance: Nancy Lieberman. The basketball Hall of Famer signed a seven-day contract with the team and suited up to play — even though she had just celebrated her 50th birthday.
Moral of the story: Don’t sleep on Nancy Lieberman.
The legendary baller spent her childhood playing pickup games against boys in Harlem’s Rucker Park, which prepared Lieberman to become the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball league in the ’80s. It was her verve and dynamism on the court that eventually earned her the nickname “Lady Magic,” a nod to that other famed point guard.
Since then, the Olympian has coached at just about every level in professional basketball, including head coaching stints in the WNBA and the NBA’s minor league. When Lieberman was hired as an assistant by the Sacramento Kings in 2015, she became the second woman to join an NBA coaching staff after Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs. Last year, Lieberman joined Ice Cube’s Big3 league for former NBA players, and in her first season, she was voted Coach of the Year after leading her team to a championship — a title she’s looking to defend this summer.
Throughout her career, Lieberman says, she’s been embraced by athletes who appreciate her commitment to their growth. In fact, if anyone needs convincing that women can coach successfully at the highest level, it’s people on the outside looking in, not those in the trenches.
“If you’re an athlete, if you can get to your third or fourth contract, it’s like getting the Willy Wonka golden ticket,” says Lieberman. “So if I can get a guy to the next level of his career, do you think he cares if I’m a woman or a man? No.”
Recently, Shondaland spoke with Lieberman about her coaching career, the changing landscape for women in professional sports, and how she’s managed to find fulfillment in basketball at every stage of her life.
MAITREYI ANANTHARAMAN: You’re a member of a generation that was the very first to reap the benefits of Title IX. And it feels especially appropriate to talk to you at this moment where the country has been captivated by women excelling in sports, from the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s victory toCoco Gauff’s Wimbledon run. Did you ever imagine that we would be where we are now?
NANCY LIEBERMAN: I hoped. In my generation, it was all about just living in the moment of what you have and hoping that there would be something different. It’s exciting to see just how good these [female athletes] are. They’re well aware that they have certain opportunities and benefits that athletes didn’t have maybe 30 or 40 years ago. But they’re great keepers of the game, and everybody is so proud of them and what they’ve done.
MA: Still, there’s a feeling that we have farther to go when it comes to the fights for better pay — in women’s soccer and the WNBA — or more recognition. What kinds of changes would you like to see in the lives of female athletes today?
NL: Without a doubt, the number one thing is equality. We’ve seen this over a long stretch of time, where women make 75 to 80 cents on the dollar. And it’s really worse for women of color, who make somewhere in the sliding scale of 58 to 67 cents on the dollar. That’s not acceptable. Not in this day, not in this age.
And look, I’m not stupid. If the NBA players are making this extraordinary amount of money, it’s because they’re bringing in extraordinary amounts of revenue. Everybody doesn’t get a Skittle just because they’re out there. You have to earn the right, this is business. But when the US women’s soccer team has the number one selling jersey with Nike, they’re bringing in extraordinary revenue. When they’re packing stadiums at the World Cup, they should be rewarded the same way men are.
MA: For much of your early life, the lack of formal infrastructure and opportunities in women’s basketball meant playing with men, whether it was games at Rucker or on the Lakers’ Summer League team. How were you able to navigate those kinds of male-dominated spaces?
NL: I think when I was younger, to be quite honest, I didn’t understand. I was just performing. I was just playing. I wasn’t sure of all the inequities. When I went to Old Dominion, I received a full scholarship, and honestly, I thought every one of my teammates was on full scholarship, just like the men. I realized after a while that some of my teammates had partial scholarships. I almost felt bad, because I didn’t understand why. Women, we’re understanding more about where we came from, what we had and what we didn’t have. And that’s what the fight for equality is all about.
MA: I think that’s true, that when you’re younger, it’s easier when you’re oblivious to those barriers. But as you get older, sometimes there’s that feeling of impostor syndrome or being undeserving.
NL: I try to stay away from what I call “mind monsters.” They like me, they don’t like me. I should have this, I shouldn’t have this. When you start getting into that psychology — what you deserve and what you don’t deserve — you’re walking down a very slippery slope emotionally, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Today’s generation shouldn’t go, “Man, Nancy’s generation didn’t make the money we make.” It’s not their fault. My generation is not angry or jealous of this generation of athletes who get endorsements or make greater salaries. We wish it would have happened earlier. But we’re really proud of them, and that’s the stance we should take, because that’s called growth.
I gotta tell you, [Megan] Rapinoe and the women in the WNBA — they call me a pioneer? They’re pioneers. They call me a barrier breaker? They’re barrier breakers. They’re setting in place equality for kids who are going to take their jobs one day, who are going to get scholarships or play on the U.S. team. And that’s the beauty of it. This is what growth is all about.
MA: Someone whose legacy is invoked often in conversations about pioneering athletes is your longtime friend, the late Muhammad Ali. Do you see his influence in today’s generation of athletes?
NL: I certainly do. He put it on the line at the height of his career. The only other athlete I know that did that then was Martina [Navratilova, who came out as gay in 1981]. Some athletes get patted on the back now for saying what they want or pushing a cause or coming out in their personal lives. Everybody should thank [Ali and Navratilova].
MA: You first played in the WNBA at the age of 39, and then again briefly at 50. Basketball is a game that considers 27 middle age, and we live in a culture — and this is not just exclusive to sports — that doesn’t really know what to make of older women. Why did you decide to stay involved in the game past a point at which a lot of people choose to walk away?
NL: Muhammad Ali taught me to respect everyone and fear no one. And I took that seriously. I wanted to show people you can do anything you want, as long as you’re preparing and you’re not afraid. And I wanted my son to know who his mother was. Besides being a mom, I wanted him to know that his mom was an athlete.
MA: Now that you’re coaching older players and former NBA stars, that must help you relate to them.
NL: It does. I enjoy it so much because these are the best of the best. These are men that have played for so long and they played at the highest level. They just love it. It’s in their DNA. They just love to play this game, and I get it on every level.
MA: It reminds me of something Nate Robinson’s character says in the movieUncle Drew: “You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing.”
NL: Yes. And these athletes, they make you think younger. I would say to anybody who’s getting older, just be around younger people. They have a great vantage point, they have great energy. It’s just fun. Every day, it’s fun being around our players in the BIG3. And quite frankly, it’s the same way coaching in the NBA, with [Rajon] Rondo or DeMarcus [Cousins] or Rudy Gay or the Currys [Seth and Steph]. They just have this love of life and they keep you sharp.
MA: Having coached players at every stage of their careers, men and women, do you find that you have to adjust your style depending on who you’re coaching or is it pretty much the same across the board?
NL: It’s not cookie cutter, because you’re dealing with human beings. Everybody’s different and everybody has their own story of where they come from. You keep that in perspective and I think it helps build the relationships. You could be a young person trying to make it or you could be LeBron trying to carve out your niche on the Mt. Rushmore of players. Everybody’s in a different place and you have to meet them where they are.
MA: It’s been an exciting few months for female coaches in the NBA. Just this summer, Lindsay Gottlieb has joined the coaching staff of the Cavs and the Celtics hired Kara Lawson. Are you optimistic the progress will continue?
NL: When you have people like Adam Silver, the commissioner, saying, “I want to see more women ASAP in a front office or on the court,” when the boss says he wants to see a female head coach in the NBA sooner rather than later, you have some power at the top. You’re not just on an island by yourself preaching, “We can do this.” We just need an opportunity, and then it’s our job to prove that we’re qualified for the job. Ice Cube, last year after the season ended, he hit me with a text, something like, “Was there ever a time that you were scared or not sure?” I responded, “I’m only scared when nobody gives me a chance.”
MA: Isn’t there then — once you have that chance — the additional pressure to have to be the best, even if men aren’t held to the same standard?
NL: There have been coaches who have been hired and had two or three or four bad years. I think it can be different for women. I remember when I went to the White House [in 2010], I was invited by President Obama — I had just been hired to head coach in the NBA’s D-League. He said something interesting: “I’ve been African-American my whole life, I’m used to it. You’ve been coaching men and playing against men your whole life, it’s normal and natural to you. It’s normal to me but it isn’t normal to the outside world. And it’s our job, Nancy, to make it normal.” And that’s never been lost on me. I’m not nervous coaching men. I’m not nervous drawing up a play. This is what I do. I just look different.