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Steve Solloway: Timeout with a true legend

PUBLISHED March 18, 2011 | News, Sports

Nancy Lieberman will find quite a following waiting when she visits the Portland Expo this weekend. If she can get a ticket to one of the Maine Red Claws games this weekend, Lisa Manning will be in the Portand Expo, watching the woman who is the head coach of the Texas Legends.


If she can get a ticket to one of the Maine Red Claws games this weekend, Lisa Manning will be in the Portand Expo, watching the woman who is the head coach of the Texas Legends. At an appropriate moment, if there is one, Manning will approach Nancy Lieberman.

It will be one member of the Old Dominion University women’s basketball family connecting with another. A Maine legend and forerunner greeting a national personality who has opened so many doors in basketball. Coaching young male professionals is just the latest.

“She may not remember me,” said the ever-gracious and unassuming Manning. “We played pick-up when she came back to Old Dominion.”

That was 26 years ago when Manning was Lisa Blais, the phenomenal player from Westbrook High. She led Old Dominion in assists in 1985, the year she and her teammates went 31-3 and won their first NCAA basketball championship. Other Maine schoolgirls followed their dreams of NCAA glory, but Manning was one of the first.

Lieberman, who did stints as an ESPN women’s basketball analyst should remember. Old Dominion went to the women’s Final Four in 1983. Once a Monarch, always a Monarch.

Fans finding their seats for games tonight and Sunday afternoon should remember Lieberman. And not only because she’s the first woman head coach of a men’s professional basketball team. She was the kid who came out of a Queens, N.Y., high school to earn a spot on the U.S. women’s team in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. The U.S. took silver and Lieberman became the youngest American female basketball player to medal.

She led Old Dominion to AIAW national titles in 1979 and 1980. Twice she was named the country’s top female collegiate player. She played in the Women’s Pro Basketball League and on a men’s team in the old USBL. She played for the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ perpetual opponent. Along the way, she picked up the nickname, Lady Magic, a comparison to Magic Johnson.

At age 39 in 1997 she played for the Phoenix Mercury of the newly formed WNBA. A year later she was signed as general manager and head coach of the Detroit Shock. Author, speaker, personal trainer to former tennis star Martina Navratilova. Wife to a former teammate with the Washington Generals and now divorced. Mother to T.J. Cline, a 6-foot-6 point guard on the junior varsity of a Plano, Texas, high school.

Through basketball, it seems, she’s met the world. More recently she was at the White House and spoke with President Obama, who quickly turned their conversation to basketball. Manning, whose Old Dominion teammates included Medina Dixon, would enjoy a meeting even if it’s only for a minute or two.

“She was a dedicated athlete,” said Manning. “Intense. Whenever she was on the court she played hard. Very easygoing off the court.”

Manning’s youngest son initially called her attention to tonight’s game because of a Larry Bird bobblehead promotion. Only later did mom discover that the Red Claws’ opponent was a team coached by Lieberman, who was one reason among several Manning chose Old Dominion. The two missed each other as teammates by two years.

Sunday, two teams of Lieberman’s contemporaries will play during halftime. When Deb Smith, the brains and guiding soul of women’s senior basketball in Maine, heard Lieberman and the Texas Legends were on the schedule, she made her pitch to the Red Claws. In Smith’s mind, it seemed appropriate.

Her players, national senior games champions in 2009, share Lieberman’s passion for the game even if they didn’t have Lieberman’s opportunities and talent, although Kathy Sanborn played for the WBL’s New York Stars in 1979, a year before Lieberman joined the Dallas Diamonds. “For those of us 55 or over and followed her, she’s our role model as far as women’s athletics is concerned,” said Smith.

Joanne Lannin, another of Smith’s players and an English teacher at Bonny Eagle High, interviewed Lieberman for her 2000 book, “A History of Basketball for Girls and Women: From Bloomers to Big Leagues.” After Sunday’s game, the seniors players will meet with Lieberman. They all autographed a copy of Lannin’s book and will give it to her.

“Am I excited? Oh my God,” said Lannin. “I’m really excited about meeting her as me, not as a writer.” Although Lannin intends to ask Lieberman a question: Of all that’s she done, what means more to her? My money is on the birth of her son.

“She is the epitome of the athlete aging gracefully,” said Lannin. “She’s still challenging herself to do new things.”