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Nancy Lieberman helped Billy Crystal’s hometown. He’s returning the favor in Deep Ellum

PUBLISHED December 8, 2017 | News

When Billy Crystal met Nancy Lieberman, the popular comedian and the basketball great forged a beautiful friendship.

That’s why Crystal is making his first public appearance in Dallas since opening the Winspear Opera House eight years ago.

On Feb. 19, the star of When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers will receive a lifetime achievement award for his charitable endeavors from the Nancy Lieberman Charities at its  Dream Ball Gala at the Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum.

ESPN’s Jay Harris will play host as Crystal, 69, recounts an eclectic career that also includes nine stints hosting the Academy Awards, playing one of TV’s first openly gay characters on the campy sit-com Soap, and being the voice of Mike Wazowski in the Monsters, Inc. franchise.

Crystal won’t be doing stand up. It’ll be a sit-down introspective of key moments of his. But anyone who’s seen him on late-night TV knows that he can be pretty darn funny planted in a chair.

And he might get a tad political. Crystal has avoided politics in the past but incorporated a smidgen of it in his just completed 33-city tour of Spend the Night with Billy Crystal.

“I’m doing more of it because of this whole new world that we’ve been in for more than a year now — almost two,” Crystal says in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “You can’t help but shake your head and want to do stuff about it.”

It’s clear that he’s implicitly pointing a finger at President Donald Trump.

The 7th annual decked-out Dream Ball will also honor Sam “Soul Man” Moore of the legendary R&B duo Sam & Dave and Dallas’ super book agent Jan Miller. It will raise money for Lieberman’s educational and sports initiatives for disadvantaged youth.

The 82-year-old Moore, who brought the world “Soul Man,” “Hold on I’m Comin’ ” and “Rainy Night In Georgia,” is receiving the Trailblazer Award and will perform a set.

Lieberman recalls meeting Moore several years ago at a charity event.

“Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Dionne Warwick, Chris Tucker, all these people were waiting in a procession to shake his hand or talk to him.

“He’s become like my dad, and he’s still killin’ it,” she said from her home in Plano.

Power player

Miller, Lieberman’s book agent for Playbook for Successpublished in 2010, is receiving the foundation’s Inspirational Award.

“When you’re an athlete, and you’re writing your first business book, it took someone really pumped and powerful like Jan to believe that I could pull this book off,”  says the 59-year-old. “She does so much behind the scenes. We call her the Michael Jordan of the publishing world.”

Lieberman’s nonprofit grants scholarships and provides iPads for underprivileged youth, but its primary focus is building public “Dream Courts” in underserved neighborhoods.

“I was that poor kid in New York with no father. We were one grandparent away from food stamps,” she says. “Playing basketball gave me a chance to express myself, build my confidence and self-esteem. The other kids didn’t care if I was black, white, a girl, a boy, young, old, Jew, Christian, Muslim. They just cared if I could play.

“Here we have the opportunity to build something for the community that helped grow us up.

“In this day and age of craziness, this is needed more than ever.”

Last year’s recipients, Muhammad Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard, are slated to be at this year’s event, along with baseball and basketball greats Roger Clemens and Scottie Pippen.

You see, when Lieberman calls on friends they show up, because she’s shown up for them.

And that’s where the Billy met Nancy storyline begins.

In 2013, Lieberman’s charity built two public courts in Crystal’s hometown of Long Beach, N.Y., after it was decimated by Superstorm Sandy.

Crystal figures it’s time to return the favor.

“We have these beautiful two courts side by side,” Crystal says, “one with her name and the other with my wife’s and mine that have been donated to the city and have become a real center for this little town.

“When I see people in my hometown, which is a very racially mixed town, playing together on a Dream Court — well, isn’t that everybody’s dream? Everybody should be able to do things together in harmony. The spirit of that and what Nancy’s done is a big reason why I’m coming to Dallas.”

Sports buddies

Crystal is from Long Beach, while Lieberman hails from Far Rockaway, N.Y. — suburban cities that are neighbors kinda like Plano and Frisco. Both grew up shooting hoops on public courts in their hometowns.

They’ve been fly-by acquaintances since her coaching days in the Women’s National Basketball Association, and they both eat, drink and sleep sports.

Crystal, who once aspired to being a professional baseball player, is downright fanatical when it comes to the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Clippers.

And there are numerous reasons why Lieberman, a Hall of Famer and now an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, is known as Lady Magic.

But their real connection is a mutual love and respect for Ali. Crystal was among his closest friends and spoke at the legendary boxer’s funeral last year. Lieberman considered Ali her mentor and hero. Both attend the Ali family’s star-studded Celebrity Fight Night every year.

The basketball star and the movie star aligned at the March 2013 event, after the Alis gave Crystal a rare opportunity to use their platform to solicit donations for something other than Parkinson’s research. He raised a million bucks “in a blink of an eye” to help rebuild Long Beach, which had been made a wasteland by Sandy five months earlier.

Lieberman went backstage and offered to build a Dream Court in Long Beach.

“It was totally: ‘How can I help?’ ” Crystal recalls. “She wasn’t asking for anything back. It was just this beautiful gesture of somebody helping me.”

Three months later, Lieberman, Crystal and his wife, Janice, drove from New York City to Long Beach to scope out property.

“It was so cool,” says Lieberman. “We were just three kids from Queens reminiscing about what our childhood meant to us.”

But as they crossed the bridge to Long Beach, they could see dark brown residue from floodwaters rimming houses above the first stories. “Man, it was bad,” she says.

They drove to the rec center where he’d made his first bucket as a kid and decided the court should go there.

On Nov. 10, 2013, Lieberman, the Crystals, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a host of community leaders cut the ribbon on two NBA-sized courts that cost $83,519 apiece.

“What price do you put on a smile?” Crystal asks rhetorically. “What price do you put on a kid learning how to compete in the best way and maybe getting out of a troubled house or away from the pressures that kids have and allowing them to blow off steam in a really good way?

“The Dream Court is a great metaphor for what we can accomplish in our country. It’s a great way to stop divisiveness. You choose sides: ‘I’ll take you, you and you, and we’ll play together. Then we’ll switch teams. That’s the way life should work.”

Growing success

Lieberman’s first Dream Court was built in Frisco seven years ago when she was coaching the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ minor league affiliate.

Since then, Lieberman Charities has built 53 courts, including 15 in North Texas, with another 15 slated to open next year, four or five of them in North Texas.

“We have 1.7 million children playing on our Dream Courts right now,” Lieberman says. “That’s taking kids off the streets. It’s putting them in a healthy environment. This is really important stuff.

“Young girls who play sports are the least likely to have unwanted pregnancies or drop out of school. These are real statistics.

“Kids who play high school sports are 80 percent of the new hires for Fortune 500 companies. That’s because you can yell at us. You can direct us. You can knock us down. We’re taught to follow the game plan. We’re good teammates. We’re hard workers. We know we can do this. It’s phenomenal to hire a former student athlete. We’re wired to win. We’re wired to excel — both men and women.”

Before the July 7, 2016, police massacre in downtown Dallas, the courts Lieberman’s charity built here were turned over to Boys & Girls Clubs and rec centers.

But after the tragedy, Lieberman met with David Brown, who was then Dallas police chief, and a new idea emerged.

“It hit us hard between the eyes that it was important to give these courts to law enforcement,” Lieberman says.

Last December, the first two Kids & Cops courts were opened at the Larry Johnson Recreation Center and J.W. Ray Park. One at Kiest Park opened on the first anniversary of the shootings.

“Drip, drip, pour, pour. It’s another way for police to talk to the community,” says Lieberman. “To see these cops on the courts with kids from the community — they’re interacting, and talking and high-fiving. Sports is a great equalizer. Sports doesn’t care what you are, what you look like. Sports just cares that you care.”

Lieberman is euphoric that Crystal is coming here for the first time since 2009.

“For me to help build those courts in his hometown where he grew up as a little kid makes me happy. For him to show up for me to help us raise money so we can continue our kid causes means everything to me.”

7th Annual Dream Ball Gala

What: Nancy Lieberman Charities’ fundraiser for its educational and sports initiatives for economically disadvantaged youth.

When: Monday, Feb. 19

Where: The Bomb Factory, Deep Ellum

How much: Sponsorship packages from $5,000 to $25,000; Individual tickets, $250, available in January.

Website: http://nancyliebermancharities.org/events/