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Nancy Lieberman is ready for women to break through NBA’s head-coaching barrier

PUBLISHED April 17, 2019 | News

There are three NBA coaching jobs open and a handful more – Minnesota, Phoenix, Washington, New Orleans among them – that remain uncertain. Most potential candidates are those whose names we’ve heard in the past, retreads like Ty Lue, Mark Jackson, Avery Johnson and Tom Thibodeau as well as assistants like Nate Tibbetts, Juwan Howard, Chad Forcier and David Vanterpool.

It could be time, though, for the league to do something simple, yet revolutionary: look past the long list of guys and give a woman a chance.

Nancy Lieberman, a former D-League head coach, Kings assistant and reigning Big3 championship coach, thinks it is about time.

“Absolutely,” Lieberman told Sporting News. “When the boss says – Adam Silver, clearly the best commissioner in all of sports – he wants to see a woman head coach sooner rather than later, then it’s going to happen.”

Lieberman has advocated to Silver that the NBA adopt a woman-based version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minorities for vacant head-coaching positions. Last year, the Bucks interviewed Spurs assistant Becky Hammon before hiring Mike Budenholzer, but that remains the only time a woman has been interviewed for a top coaching job in the NBA.

There are no plans to enact such a requirement, according to a league source, because NBA teams have been more inclusive in their approach to hiring than NFL teams and a quota for the interview process is deemed unnecessary. The NBA has been well ahead of the field in hiring female referees and executives.

Lieberman, though, said that having the chance to go through the interview process gives women candidates for NBA coaching jobs the insights they need. She interviewed with the Kings before serving as an assistant there from 2015-17 and interviewed with Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson before Nelson hired her to be the head coach of the franchise’s D-League team in 2009.

“If you are going to interview minorities and you are going to interview white guys,” Lieberman said, “at least give us women the chance to go through the exercise of what’s like to be in the room for an assistant coach’s job or a front-office job or a head-coaching job. You don’t know what you don’t know. If I don’t get a chance to be interviewed, I am speculating on what could happen.

“I can sit here now and I know, this was what it was like to be interviewed, to go to Sacramento to work for the Kings, or [Big3 co-founder] Ice Cube and his staff to interview me for a head-coaching job in the Big3. I could do that with Donnie Nelson in the D-League. I had many interviews with Donnie and his ownership group before I was hired. It prepares you to be successful.”

Even without a rule requiring female candidates be granted interviews, Lieberman expects a change soon.

“Becky is going to have that opportunity,” Lieberman said. “She has been groomed by coach [Gregg] Popovich, and you know, there are other women in the NBA. [Kings general manager] Vlade [Divac] and [Kings owner] Vivek [Ranadive] were kind enough to give me the opportunity in Sacramento, and I’d still be there if my mother had not gotten sick.”

The challenge is getting a team to see past gender and consider only competence. There would be concerns about the ability of a woman to command a locker room, defuse adversity within the team and handle young, ego-bound professionals.

But Lieberman says that’s the kind of thing men think about more than the woman in the job. She recalled trying out for the Lakers in 1980, when Pat Riley was just beginning his coaching career. Riley, it turns out, struggled with her being a woman more than she did.

“This is really normal for me,” Lieberman said. “I know I am a woman. I have been that my whole life, a woman in men’s sports. It was harder on Pat Riley for me to be the point guard as the coach than it was for me to have him as a coach. I was comfortable. He was not. It’s our job to make this normal to the outside world where they are not looking at me as a white female coaching predominantly young African-American players.

“We’re just doing our job. That’s what America was built on, just do your job to the best of your ability.”

Lieberman has remained involved in league activities through her role as a board member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, a job she took on at the behest of two of the group’s founders, Otis Birdsong and Rick Barry.

“They made the decision internally they wanted to have inclusion,” Lieberman said. “They wanted to have diversity, and I live in that world – the world of, just give us some opportunity, and if we’re good, keep us. And if we can’t do the job, cut us loose. I really respect the fact that they wanted to have a female on the board and not as just a token but as someone who can add value.”

The thrill of winning the Big3 championship last summer was what Lieberman called “one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had,” a big statement from a woman who has won a gold medal at the Pan American Games and an Olympic silver medal, and was inaugurated at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1996.

She would listen if an NBA team came calling with a job offer, but said she is happy coaching in the Big3 and doing studio analysis for Pelicans games.

The bigger thrill could come watching a woman take the reins of an NBA team, a breakthrough that is becoming more imminent, and one that Lieberman will have been instrumental in nudging toward reality.

“I never really thought of myself as a barrier-breaker or a trailblazer,” she said, “but I understand that the fact of the matter is that is how other people view me. It just means you’ve done something – how many athletes from the 1980s are still relevant in 2019? So I am doing something right to still be around all those years later.

“Do I know I am a role model? Yes. I know I am for Becky. We have been friends for a long time. But I am still waiting for someone to finish the job. I’m waiting for a team to make that jump.”

There could be about a fifth of the teams in the NBA looking at coaching changes this offseason. Perhaps it is time for a woman to get one of those jobs.