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BIG3 Coach of the Year Nancy Lieberman talks championships and coaching philosophies

PUBLISHED August 31, 2018 | News

A few days after winning the BIG3 Championship, Power coach Nancy Lieberman and several players were exchanging messages on a group text. A few excerpts: “Man, I really miss you guys.” “Can you believe we would be packing today to go to a city today?” “When are we going to see each other?” That sampling of texts reveals the close bond Power shared on and off the court this summer. The club remained united amid some adverse situations over the past year, including the death of Rasual Butler and a career-threatening injury to league MVP Corey Maggette.

That ironclad bond is one of the reasons Lieberman, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame who has coached in the WNBA, NBA and G League, calls coaching Power this summer her most joyful experience on the sidelines.

Lieberman takes us through some of her experiences.

espnW: How was the celebration on Friday? Was it similar to other titles?

Nancy Lieberman: It was pretty cool because it was such a major level. All the people in the building, the confetti on the podium, it being live on Fox, having Ice Cube there. Him handing a trophy to us. And commissioner Clyde Drexler. It was a little surreal. For me, one of the only times during the season that I wasn’t sure [of what to do] was [during the celebration]. Should I dive on the pile on the floor? Or should I wait for them to get up? And it’s funny but I was like, “What do I do?” I felt like Jim Valvano running around (after his NC State team won the NCAA title). It was an odd moment for me. I didn’t know what do. Should I jump on them? Maybe I shouldn’t? Should I stand there and wait for them to get up and hug them? It was so funny. So I dove on the pile on top of them.

After the on-court celebration, everybody went to the press conference. That was very emotional, that press conference. Because Glen “Big Baby” Davis shared that he had had a lot of depression and talked about how Ice Cube and Clyde Drexler and our team stood behind him at a very difficult time this year. When he started crying, it was just so real and raw and emotional. And then in the locker room, the door opens and somebody hands you the champagne, and by the time I got in there corks were off and Baby nailed me with champagne. It was crazy.

Where would you rank this title among the championships you’ve won over the course of your career?

Lieberman: I’m going to separate it [between] my playing career and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching over 20 years, since 1998. And I’ve won championships and been to the playoffs in the WNBA, the D-League, the NBA. This is the most exhilarating experience, the most joyful experience that I’ve ever had. I didn’t think anything could beat the Texas Legends [of the G League] getting to the playoffs on the last day of the season in my first year coaching in 2011. But this has surpassed that. Just the relationships, coaching such class guys on and off the court. Getting to know their families and children and being able to have, as we call it, 360-degree communication. There was just so much respect. And I really appreciated it.

This is a question you probably get often, but is there a difference in approach when coaching men compared to when you are coaching women?

Lieberman: No. The only thing is the size, speed and the athleticism [are different]. And how men can cover a larger portion of the court. But you can X-and-O with men, you can X-and-O with women. But you know what the most important thing is? Communication makes the world go around in life, in love, in the workplace, in coaching. You just have to be able to talk to people. And the other side of communication is listening. You must listen to the players. These are not 22-year-olds. These are proven veterans of the NBA. And it was very important for me to hear what they had to say and not dispel that by saying, “No, look, this is what I said and this is what we’re going to do.” That’s not the way it works. So that really helped us. And the other thing is, and I did this in Detroit, I did it in Dallas, I did it with the Kings, with [Rajon] Rondo and DeMarcus [Cousins] and Rudy [Gay] and [Marco] Belinelli[Omri] Casspi. Build relationships. Ask them how their wives are doing. Ask them how their children are. Have them send me pictures of their kiddos.

How do you think it makes the players feel? They’re daddies. They’re men. They’re husbands. They’ve got stuff going on now, too. There’s a reason why Rondo and I are friends. And DeMarcus and the players I mentioned. I coached Antonio Daniels in the D-League. Antonio and I, we’re friends. It’s how you treat people. And I know there’s no column for this in the stat sheet, but if you lead with love and kindness and you continue to pour into people, in the moments that are tough, because you have a relationship, the ship doesn’t have to go south. And you can talk it out. There’s going to be some tough moments. There’s going to be tough love. It’s like parenting. They’re trying to establish their own identity and who they are on the court. I’m an authority figure because I’m a coach. Technically I’m supposed to push you to places that make you uncomfortable. But when you have skill and will, it’s an incredible balance. And then you add intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence, and we had that with this team, it wasn’t about me being a chick. It was about some of these guys haven’t won a stinkin’ ring and they’re millionaires. They’ve never won a championship ring, except for Big Baby, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen has two.

What was your coaching philosophy for 3-on-3?

Lieberman: We all grew up playing one-on-one, 2-on-2, 3-on-3. So the question is what’s the big difference between 5-on-5 and 3-on-3? Really, when you get into the half court, you have three guys on one side with three defenders [in 5-on-5] and two guys on the other side and two defenders. And you’re trying to execute a play that gets the attention of the weakside defenders so you can get people into rotation on the weak side and maybe you can have numbers in your favor. So it was really comparatively simple, we felt. Because there’s no weakside defense [in 3-on-3] and we wanted to put our players in the best potential spot where they needed to get their shots. We were also very unique. There was a game where Big Baby was guarding Nate Robinson. We had Birdman, the BIG3 Defensive Player of the Year, guarding Robinson or David Hawkins. And we could switch 1 through 3 and we felt very comfortable with their length, their athleticism and their foot speed. And then you have Corey who is unguardable, Cuttino [Mobley] who wanted to make everyone better, he was selfless. Think about it, I’ve coached Daniels, Rondo and Maggette — three of the most high-IQ people who’ve played this game. When you have guys like that who are the head of the snake and they can feel the game and I could look at Cuttino and he’d say, “Coach, I can do this” and I’d say “OK.”

It’s collaborative. You don’t have to get into the ego of “I called that play.” That’s stupid. It’s, “Hey, I think this will work.” And the players were very agreeable. We’re, “agree, disagree, align.” And we listened to each other once we decided how we were going to do things. They got game plans, they got tendencies of the opponent, they were given keys to winning. We broke it down. By the time they got up on Saturday morning [prior to last Friday’s championship], they had every play that the other team ran and how we were going to defend it and why. And then we asked for their opinion. And we would talk it out. We were very prepared.”

Are you breaking down film of the opponent and scouting the same way you would in the WNBA or G League? Is it the same approach?

Lieberman: For me it was. I only know one way. I’ve always been a head coach, and the only time I’ve been an assistant was with the Sacramento Kings. And it was really interesting, because when you’re an assistant coach in the NBA, that’s hard. Those assistants work their tails off and it was really cool to have to grind on a whole other level. Eighteen hours a day. So I just did [in the BIG3] what I did in the NBA and applied it to our team. I wanted to make sure that we were setting them up for success. This is what we do well, this is why we do it. I don’t tell people what to do. It’s, “This is what we’re going to do, this is why and this will be the result.” I’m a minimalist. They could disagree with me, that was not a problem. I didn’t get my feelings hurt. So agree or disagree, but when we decided how we were going to play it, we were aligned.

Do you have any thoughts of returning to the NBA as a coach?

Lieberman: First, I left the NBA because my mother was sick. My mom almost died twice during my first and second year with the Kings. I know it was chaos with [then-Kings head coach] George [Karl]. But I had family issues. I felt bad because I had to deal with my mom. I understand that these are historic hires, it’s only me and [San Antonio Spurs assistant coach] Becky [Hammon]. I don’t want to let women down. I felt a lot of responsibility to the game. But I had to be accessible to my mother.

I was taking last year off when Ice Cube, when those guys called me in March. I was watching the NCAA tournament. I was flipping between “Straight Outta Compton” and the NCAA tournament when Clyde called me and said he’s with Ice Cube and they would like to hire me. I was like, “I’m sitting on my couch in Dallas and I’m watching ‘Straight Outta Compton.'” And I feel like I was blessed. Because I didn’t know if I’d ever get another opportunity to coach in the NBA because the coaches there are so talented. It’s not easy. It’s not our birthright to get those jobs. You’ve got to really grind to get those jobs. I felt very fortunate that the Kings hired me and [Kings general manager] Vlade [Divac] hired me. And when Ice Cube, when they wanted to hire me, I just felt like this was amazing and I’ve never been happier in my coaching career. I get teams calling me all the time about college coaching, WNBA or other situations. But I’m not in control of that. I’m just doing what I do to the best of my ability every day honoring the game. And to be able to coach and then win a championship, there’s no better feeling.

Many WNBA players have been vocal about wanting salaries to increase. Some want a larger portion of the WNBA revenue. What are you thoughts on the issue?

Lieberman: I really don’t feel comfortable talking about it because I don’t know what the business numbers are. The NBA budget, they’re bringing in billions and billions of dollars. When I played in the WNBA in 1997, we played 28 games. And now it’s at 34. So what’s the trade-off? If WNBA players get 30-40 percent of revenue, are they going to stay in the United States? Are they going to stay in their market? And not go to Europe? So I don’t know the exact conversation. But if you’re going to want 35-40 percent of revenue or whatever percent then you’ve got to make a decision.

It’s so hard to determine from a business point of view. Philosophically, I’m down with the WNBA players making 100 percent on the dollar to men. But if their widget is better than our widget? It’s pure business. And then they’re not in the country because they need to go to Europe to make substantial money. But the talent in the WNBA is at an all-time high. It’s off the charts, and I’m just so proud. They’re such amazing gatekeepers of the game. Look at Sue Bird and [Diana] Taurasi and Maya Moore. It’s crazy how amazingly talented they are. [Elena] Delle Donne, I could just go down the list, Kristi Toliver. I just love watching them play.