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Q&A: Nancy Lieberman on joining the Big3, Canadian women’s hoops

PUBLISHED April 20, 2018 | News

Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman has had one of the most interesting careers in basketball.

With stops around the world as a gold medalist on the U.S. Olympic team, suiting up in the WNBA for its inaugural season at age 39, playing and coaching in men’s leagues like the NBA’s G League (back when it was the D-League), and most recently as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, she’s forged connections with some of the biggest names in the sport. It’s a small wonder why “Six Degrees of Nancy Lieberman” isn’t a thing.

This summer Lieberman is adding to her resume and joining the Big3 in time for it’s second season as head coach of the Power team featuring captain Corey Maggette. I caught up with Lieberman to talk about what drew her to the Big3, 3-on-3 vs. 5-on-5, and the state of women’s hoops in Canada.

Sportsnet: The Big3 draft wrapped recently, and your team made headlines by selecting Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen in the first round. How involved were you in that decision?

Lieberman: That was pretty much Corey Magette. He had spoken with Chris and they discussed getting out there and him wanting to be a part of this. I love that. He’s a winner. He has a ring (2013 with the Miami Heat). He’s a big strong guy who will do what it takes. And he loves to play the game.

That seems to be an underlying theme in this league.

It’s competitive! This is no joke. We all grew up playing 2-on-2, 3-on-3. These guys might not be able to go up and down 94 by 50 feet like they used to. But 3-on-3 is precision, being a tactician. And these guys are really good at that.

But the mitigating factor is that they are really, really competitive. They might be friends, but they get after each other on the court.

The cool part about the Big3, apart form the level of competition, is that we get to be around each other for ten weeks. To be around the players and their families, to find out that they golf, or have charities that they’re involved in.

And the fans are what blew me away when I went to a game in Dallas last year. There were 16,000 people there. There were families, moms with their kids, entertainers, athletes, celebrities. It’s a melting pot of culture.

What will be the biggest difference coaching 3-on-3 compared to 5-on-5?

Basketball is basketball. In the playoffs it’s half-court execution, and this is what our league is about. [NBA teams] are pretty much playing three-on-three in the half-court — it’s never ten guys on one side of the floor. You’re trying to get 2-on-2, or 3-on-3 opportunities, and then you move to the second-side if there aren’t good options there.

For me personally, I grew up playing 3-on-3 and I played Hoop It Up. My ex-husband was the Vice President of Hoop It Up for 15 years, so I played it all over the world and won two world championships.

That’s the essence of the game, how we learned to play on the streets before we were coached up to learn how to play 5-on-5.

It’s why the Big3 resonates with fans — or has the potential to — because the mass majority of the public is in their driveways, or a local rec centre, playing 3-on-3.

And you know what happens when you’re young and start playing 5-on-5 is that the best three players end up touching the basketball, and the other two players get a lot of exercise. That’s the reality.

You must share a lot of common ground with Big3 players. You were 39 when you played in the inaugural WNBA season —

— And then I played at 50 years old in 2008.

Do you want to know why I came back to play at 50?

I do.

Because I was still competitive. I still wanted to play, even if I couldn’t play at the level that everybody had known me for. I just loved the game enough to go out there and put it on the line.

I understand what it is to not want to walk away from the game that you love so much.

After not coming to Canada in its first season, the Big3 is coming to Toronto on July 27th, and it’s because there’s a major market for basketball here. But on the women’s side there is still a lot of room to grow.

I have such a high regard for Canadian women’s basketball. When I played on the Olympic team we had such fierce battles with the Canadians.

There was a group of us Hall of Famers — Cheryl Miller, myself, Ann Meyers, Katrina McClain, Sheryl Swoops, and Lisa Leslie. We were at dinner together during the women’s NCAA Final Four a few weeks ago and we were like, ‘Ok, who was the toughest country we ever played against?’ And it was almost to a player, we went ‘Yeah, Australia was good but Canada man…It was like an all-out war.’

It was kind of cool, because we had all played different eras against the Canadian Olympic team. And we all had the same thing. Against Canada you had to come with the goods. They’re serious about their sports and they love basketball. It was no joke.