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Nancy Lieberman’s Return to Coaching Will Come in the Big3

PUBLISHED March 21, 2018 | News

In the latest stop of her pioneering journey as a female coach in men’s basketball, Nancy Lieberman has agreed to coach in Ice Cube’s Big3 basketball league in its coming season.

Lieberman, a Hall of Famer who has often pushed boundaries as a player and a coach — she was the first female head coach in the N.B.A.’s developmental league and the second female assistant coach in the N.B.A. — will take over the team Power, filling a vacancy created when Clyde Drexler, the team’s previous coach, was named the league’s commissioner.

The league, with its collection of retired N.B.A. players who still have a passion for the game, is a good fit for Lieberman, who was a star in the 1970s and early 1980s but kept playing long after a player would typically have walked away.

“There’s a reason I played at 39 in the inaugural season of the W.N.B.A. and came back at 50 in 2008,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s not because I didn’t have anything to do. It’s because I loved the game.”

The league, which is still trying to establish itself heading into its second season, has made diversity and inclusion a priority, and it sees a coach of Lieberman’s stature as a perfect fit.

“We have added an absolutely tremendous coach in Nancy Lieberman,” Big3’s chairwoman, Amy Trask, said in a news release issued by the league. “Not a tremendous female coach, a tremendous coach, period.”

Ice Cube, one of the league’s founders, added, “Nancy’s a winner, and I expect her to win in this league.”

The hiring marks a return to coaching for Lieberman, who was an assistant with the Sacramento Kings under George Karl. During her two-season tenure with that team, there was some speculation that she might be an heir apparent for Karl, but after two leaves of absence, which were not explained by the team at the time, she went back to her broadcasting career.

Despite some reports of turmoilwith the team, Lieberman credited the ownership and coaches with being willing to follow the lead of the San Antonio Spurs, who had hired Becky Hammon as an assistant. She said the absences were so she could help care for her ailing mother, something that proved difficult with the long hours of an N.B.A. assistant.

“I had to do what I had to do for my family,” she said. “And if I’m really the woman I think I am, or the parent I think I am, my son will see how I handled my business and I didn’t put the glory first. That’s why I’m not coaching in the N.B.A. and I might never go back.”

Until her exit from the Kings, it was seemingly a tossup between her and Hammon as to who would get a chance to be the first female head coach in the N.B.A. Lieberman still thinks that day will come, and she certainly has the résumé of a top-tier coach regardless of the level or the gender of her players.

A silver medalist at the 1976 Summer Olympics and a star point guard at Old Dominion who then briefly played in the W.N.B.A., Lieberman has been a head coach in the W.N.B.A. as well as in the N.B.A.’s development league. She even tried her hand at playing against men, both in the United States Basketball League and with the Harlem Globetrotters’ rivals, the Washington Generals. The Basketball Hall of Fame now presents the Nancy Lieberman Award each year to the best point guard in women’s basketball.

With Big3, which begins its second season on June 22, Lieberman will be asked to manage the egos of former N.B.A. players, some of whom were stars at that level, as well as make the creative adjustments necessary to thrive in the league’s three-on-three, half-court setup.

Lieberman, who grew up playing in Rucker Park and other playgrounds in New York City, did not foresee any problems with adjusting to the format. She is mostly just looking forward to continuing her basketball journey.

“There’s not been one day in my life that I’ve hated this game,” she said. “It’s like the greatest love story. A poor kid from New York, no father, no food, no heat, no electricity, one parent away from food stamps, and it’s 2018 and I’m still relevant because this game has challenged me and loved me and given me more than I could ever give the game.”