PUBLISHED May 18, 2011 | News, Sports
Sinai Says: Basketball legend uses the inspiration of her life story to present a detail-oriented path to success in different aspects of business and life.
Nancy Lieberman undoubtedly qualifies as a trailblazer.
The now 52-year-old American has pushed gender boundaries and smashed stereotypes for most of her adult life. As a basketball player in the 1970s and 1980s, she most famously became the first woman to play regular-season games in a US men’s pro league (in 1986) as part of the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League.
Lieberman went on to eventually play for the Phoenix Mercury at age 39 in the WNBA’s inaugural season of 1997 and was coach and general manager of the Detroit Shock from 1998-2000, before also suiting up for Detroit as a player for one game in 2008… at the age of 50! Last season, she became the first woman to coach a men’s professional basketball team affiliated with the NBA when she was signed as the head coach of the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League franchise.
Lieberman has also worked for ESPN, including doing sideline work at NBA games, and also runs youth clinics while being active in countless charities as well as speaking to kids and grown-ups across the world.
In her latest book, Playbook for Success: A Hall of Famer’s Business Tactics for Teamwork and Leadership, Lieberman uses the inspiration of her life story to present a detail-oriented path to success in different aspects of business and life.
“Nobody has my story on how to be successful in life and business,” Lieberman frequently says.
However, for all her trailblazing, up until last week there was one thing that eluded her – a visit to Israel.
That, too, can now be checked off the list.
Lieberman and Israeli basketball star Shay Doron, with whom she has been in touch since the guard’s days at the University of Maryland, will be holding a basketball summer camp in Israel in August named Tour Ball, and Lieberman decided that she had to come and see the country for herself before she could recommend the trip to others.
It is safe to say that Israel has exceeded all her expectations.
“This has been the most memorable experience of my life,” Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week.
“I have been all over the world and I cannot believe that I have never been here before. This country is absolutely breathtaking.
“In the United States all you see is the bombs and stuff like that and then all of the sudden you come here and you realize that it is not anything that is around us.
“Everybody has treated us like family.”
Lieberman’s entire perception of the country has changed as a result of her visit.
“Going to the Western Wall was pretty impactful for me,” said Lieberman, who during her trip was hosted by General Motors Israel to share her philosophy for achieving success in business by building a high-performing team.
“It kind of takes your breath away that you are actually there. You’ve got your hand on the wall and you are saying a prayer that’s pretty strong stuff.
“It has changed my outlook of Israel. I know as a Jewish woman how important it is for me to be connected to this culture and to this community.
“I needed to come here to Israel to see it, live it, experience it, eat the food and talk to the people.
“I needed to go to the Wingate Institute, the Weizmann Institute and the Holocaust museum. I needed to go to the Dead Sea and needed to see and feel these things before I could turn around and tell people from experience and not from reading a brochure.
“It has been very impactful for me and there’s no doubt in my mind that when I go home I will be able to tell people what I did to change my perception.
“I will come back here as much as everyone wants me.”
Lieberman – who toured Israel with her 82-year-old mother, also making her first visit to the country – first made national headlines in America when at the age of 17, she was named a member of the US National team that went on to win an Olympic silver medal at the 1976 Games.
From 1976 to 1980 she starred at Old Dominion University in Virginia, earning such a stellar reputation that the award for the most outstanding female point guard in Division I basketball is now called the Nancy Lieberman Award.
Before playing against the opposite sex in the USBL, Lieberman’s first involvement in a men’s league came in 1980 for the Los Angeles Lakers’ outfit in a Pro Summer League, coached by Pat Riley, then a Lakers assistant.
The latest precedent set by Lieberman, who was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1996, arrived last year when Donnie Nelson, General Manager and president of basketball operations for the Mavericks, offered her the head coaching position at the franchise’s NBA D-League team.
“When Donnie Nelson hired me, I looked at him and told him ‘you are going to get killed for this. People are going to think you are crazy.’ “He told me ‘Nancy I looked at hundreds of resumes and it dawned on me that the best man for this job just might be a woman.’ “He said that I hit every criterion that they needed and that this was the perfect time and the perfect situation.”
Lieberman feels that her first season at the helm of the Texas Legends was truly unbelievable.
“The respect afforded to me was nothing short of amazing,” she said.
“At any point in time, I was able to pick up the phone to the likes of Pat Riley, Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks coach) or Alvin Gentry (Phoenix Suns coach).
“These guys were so amazing to me that they allowed me to be part of the fraternity. They were all rooting for my success, from David Stern down.
“Making the playoffs was the icing on the cake. After getting past the girl thing at some point I had to prove that we could win. I knew that once the players were around me I would be like one of the guys.
“I spent a year before the season going around the country just trying to understand the terminology and strategy of the NBA. I think the guys respected the fact that I took the time to learn.
“I had to prove to my peers that I was committed and I was serious and I had to walk away from ESPN to show them. I wanted to earn their trust and respect.”
Despite her success, Lieberman has no illusions that women coaching men’s teams is about to become the norm.
“It’s going to take time,” she said. “No one was going to question my resume so I understood that it was important for me to be successful.
Because if I’m successful, women behind me will have an opportunity.
“If I fell on my face, what are they going to say about other women? “I think it was very positive that not only did we break that barrier but that we were successful, developing players and making the playoffs.”
Lieberman was an inspiration for an entire generation as a player and her recent foray into coaching men just strengthens her position as a true legend of American sports.
Coaching in the NBA would be a fitting ending to her basketball career, but Lieberman has far more important goals.
“If someone feels that I’m worthy of an opportunity in the NBA I would certainly have to take a look at it,” she said. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous honor, but it is not as if I have waited my whole life for this.
“I’ve never been happier in my life.
“My legacy, I hope, will be about much more than playing basketball. I hope my legacy is about who I inspired to be better at whatever they chose to do.”