PUBLISHED June 24, 2019 | News
Nancy Lieberman sits in a room full of reporters and cameras, flanked by sweaty, tall basketball players. All eyes are fixed on Lieberman, despite her silence — and half her face covered by her arms.
She didn’t want the attention, but her starting point guard ensured she got it.
“I just want to take this time to talk about our coach and why I think she’s the best,” said Quentin Richardson, a former NBA player and director of player development for the Detroit Pistons. “She’s as prepared as any coach I’ve ever played for. I’ve played for Stan Van Gundy, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Alvin Gentry, some great coaches, and she’s right up there with any of them.”
Richardson’s words caused many of the reporters in the room to drop their recorders to clap in agreement.
“It’s almost embarrassing,” Lieberman said. “But it hits my heart that these guys are just so kind to me. We work very hard together for their success and I’m really proud to be their coach. God blessed me amazing men.”
Despite Lieberman wanting to stay on topic about her team the Power, which won its season opener in the BIG3 basketball league Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena, Richardson’s message brought an important issue to light: Nancy Lieberman is a great coach and the NBA is ready for a female head coach.
One of the best
In the 73 years that the NBA has existed, no woman has ever been a head coach for one of its franchises. It wasn’t until Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant in 2014 that a female was a part of the bench coaching staff.
Self-described as a poor Jewish girl from Queens, Lieberman, 60, has always loved the game. In fact, she was obsessed with it. She would travel to any camp she could, watch any game and said that she would play any boy who dared.
As she developed her game, she earned thenickname “Lady Magic” for moves that were reminiscent of NBA legend and Michigan State great Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
She played in college at Old Dominion before playing professionally, was a part of the United States’ silver medal-winning team at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and won gold at the 1979 World Championships in Seoul. When the WNBA was formed in 1997, she was a member of the Phoenix Mercury.She was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.
It was toward the end of her playing days when Lieberman first got into coaching. Rick Sund, former Detroit Pistons general manager, hired her as coach and general manager of the Detroit Shock in 1998. From there, her passion for playing became one for coaching.
“It was amazing that you could help make people better and help them achieve their goals and dreams,” Lieberman said.
It wasn’t an easy transition, though. Lieberman led the Shock to the first round of the playoffs in 1999, but was fired following the 2000 season.
Lieberman didn’t get another shot at coaching until 2009 with the Texas Legends, the developmental league affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. With the job, Lieberman became the first woman to ever coach a men’s professional basketball team.
Lieberman did well with the Legends. Utilizing the years of guidance she received from coaches like Pat Summit, Bob Knight and Pat Riley, she led the Legends to the playoffs in her one season as head coach. People wondered how a woman would be able to handle a male locker room, but she never focused on gender.
“Shame on me if I ever differentiated gender, I coach people,” she said.
Welcome to the BIG3
After stints in the front office of the Legends, a TV analyst role with Fox Sports Oklahoma and an assistant job with the Sacramento Kings, Lieberman had no idea if she’d coach again. That was until she got a call from an old friend in the summer of 2017.
NBA champion and Hall of Famer Rick Barry was coaching and touring with a 3-on-3 basketball team that was playing in Dallas, where Lieberman lived. He offered two tickets to Lieberman and her son before asking if she would be interested in some other seats — on the bench as his assistant coach. That night she was amazed by the energy and the way the game was played.
That was her introduction to the BIG3.
Before the 2018 season, rapper and league founder Ice Cube asked Lieberman to take over the Power — a team comprised of retired NBA players such as Richardson, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Chris “Birdman” Anderson and Corey Maggette. Lieberman accepted the job determined to get one thing: a championship ring.
“The guys on the team, most of them are multi-millionaires and the one thing most of them didn’t have was the chip,” Lieberman said.
She changed that.
The Power became the second team in league history to win the title.
“Let’s break all these barriers,” Ice Cube said while presenting Lieberman the league trophy last season amidst a downpour of confetti at the Barclays Center. “A woman can do anything in sports!”
And those barriers are starting to break. After former Michigan coach John Beilein hired California coach Lindsay Gottlieb to his staff on the Cleveland Cavaliers, there are now six female coaching assistants in the NBA.
Hammon (Spurs), Natalie Nakase (Clippers), Jenny Boucek (Mavericks), Kristi Toliver (Wizards) and Chasity Melvin (Hornets) are the others. Of those, Hammon has come the closest to securing a head coaching position after interviewing with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2017.
Lieberman is certain that a woman will one day coach an NBA franchise and she’s optimistic it will happen soon.
“Adam Silver has said numerous times within the last five or six months that he would like to see a woman head coach in the NBA sooner than later,” Lieberman said. “I don’t know when, but it will happen.”
As the room started to decompress following Richardson’s speech, teammate Cuttino Mobley chimed in by letting the room know when a woman is hired to coach an NBA team the players better embrace whoever she may be.
“We were raised by women,” Mobley said. “Especially at a young age. A lot of us had our fathers around us, but the women were the backbone of us growing up. So, if you can’t listen to your mother then something’s wrong with you. And Nancy is that leader for us.”