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Nancy Lieberman: Basketball pioneer in so many ways

PUBLISHED March 22, 2020 | News

It’s been more than 50 years since Nancy Lieberman first picked up a basketball, but she can still remember the second-guessing and shaming as if it were yesterday.

“What is wrong with your little Jewish daughter?”

“What is she doing in the street with a ball?”

“Why is she playing with those black kids in the schoolyard?”

These are the exact questions that the Hall of Famer said she and her family were peppered with when she was growing up in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“There was no road map for someone like me,” Lieberman, 61, said in a recent interview with Newsday. “What there was? A lot of bullying and judgment.”

Born 14 years before the passage of Title IX, Lieberman has been a pioneer over and over again. As a preteen from Far Rockaway, she rode the train alone to Harlem to play with the boys at Rucker Park. She starred at Far Rockaway High School, and at age 18, Lieberman was the youngest member of the first U.S. women’s basketball team to compete in the Olympics in 1976. She also earned a spot on the 1980 team, which did not go to Moscow because of the boycott.

The 5-10 point guard was in the first group of players to benefit from the passage of Title IX. She was the first woman to earn a full-ride four-year scholarship at Old Dominion. There was no NCAA Tournament until 1982, but Lieberman led her team to two consecutive AIAW national championships in 1979 and 1980 and one WNIT championship in 1978. She became the first two-time winner of the Wade Trophy, which is annually awarded to the best college player in women’s basketball.

In her twenties, she became the first woman to play on a professional men’s basketball team when she joined the USBL’s Springfield Fame and Long Island Knights. At age 39, she became the WNBA’s oldest player in the league’s inaugural season in 1997 before making the transition to coaching.

In 2015, the Sacramento Kings hired her as an assistant coach, making her the second female assistant coach (after the San Antonio Spurs’ Becky Hammon) in NBA history. Lieberman left that job to care for her ailing mother in 2017 and now is a broadcaster with the New Orleans Pelicans. She also coaches in Ice Cube’s Big3 basketball league.

Raised by a single mother, Lieberman said her family couldn’t understand her fascination with the game. She often has told a story about a day she was dribbling indoors because it was cold outside, and her mother demanded that she stop because of the noise. When she didn’t, her mother punctured her ball with a screwdriver. When she picked up another ball, her mother did it again. It happened three more times before Lieberman decided she’d better go outside.

Lieberman regularly played basketball in P.S. 104’s park in Far Rockaway. It was while playing there there that she first heard about Harlem’s Rucker Park, a place where many NBA players got their start.

“When I was 11 or 12, I took the train by myself and started going there,” she told Newsday. “I used to stuff T-shirts into my jacket so I looked larger on the train and people would leave me alone.

“Rucker Park saved my life. It was a safe place and nobody profiled me or made fun of me. They knew I was white, by the way. They knew I was a girl, but all that mattered was street cred, if you could play . . . I was championed by the black community.”

Lieberman did not have female sports role models while growing up. She said her heroes were Walt Frazier, Julius Erving and Willis Reed, and she wore No. 10 in college and most of her life because of Frazier.

Recently, Lieberman was asked to be a part of an exhibit called City/Game, Basketball in New York, at the Museum of New York City. The museum now is closed because of the coronavirus, but the exhibit is scheduled to be there through the end of the year.

Though Lieberman’s basketball journey has taken her all over the country, she said she always will consider herself a New Yorker.

“I cut my teeth here playing since I was 7 or 8 years old,” she said. “There’s no other place where I could have grown up and learned to play like I did. It prepared me for life.”