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WNBA vet Nancy Lieberman on inspiring others at 61

PUBLISHED September 4, 2019 | News

Basketball is the greatest love story of my life. I fell in love with it at 10, and I’m still involved at 61. I’ve played on cement, I’ve played in the streets. I played in the WNBA at 39 and then came back and played in the WNBA at 50. I have eked out everything I can from this body.

Playing in the streets, I was called Fire because of my red hair and my fiery personality on the court. And I got to Old Dominion and I’d been throwing — boom, boom, boom — these passes for two years. My junior year, Magic Johnson was at Michigan State and he played in our men’s ODU Classic. The headline in the Dallas Morning News after the tournament was, “Magic passes the ball like Nancy Lieberman. If he’s Magic, she must be Lady Magic.” And that’s how it started.

In 1976, my freshman year at ODU, we won the silver medal in Montreal. It was the first time women’s basketball was an Olympic sport. The fun part that not a lot of people know is that America couldn’t get its medals unless I peed. I was selected for the drug test in Montreal. I was sitting in there and they’re like, “Nancy, you’ve got to go to the bathroom.” The woman from FIBA was sitting in the stall with me. I said, “I can’t go to the bathroom with her sitting here.” And Pat Summitt said, “Pee.” All my teammates were like, “Pee, we want our medal.” They were like, “Drink a beer.” “I don’t drink.” “We’ll get you something.” “I don’t want that.” “Drink the apple juice and pee!” I was like, “I feel like you people are pressuring me.” [Laughs] Finally I ended up doing my drug test, and America got its silver medals. They should thank me for peeing. [Laughs]

When I was growing up, I was a poor kid with no food, no father, no heat, no electricity. I ate fast food. But I was so athletic that you can just play through that. And it wasn’t until I was training with Martina [Navratilova] in the early ’80s that we started hitting nutritional routines and disciplines. And it really changed her career. It changed women’s tennis. And from that time on, I always just thought, “This is how I want to live my life.”

But by 1986 I was sitting in my house in Dallas crying because I thought, “Here I am, I’m one of the best basketball players in the world, and I have no place to play.” There was no women’s professional league, there was nothing for me. And then I got a phone call from a guy: “I’m with the Springfield Fame, and we would like you to come play for us.” I was like, “The men’s league?” Within days, I was in a uniform with my name on the back playing in an arena at the birthplace of basketball.

There’s nothing like the game saying thank you. I can remember the day. My husband, Tim, kept saying, “Did they call yet? Did they call? Because they’re going to call you by 11 to say if you’ve been inducted.” I was so nervous. I was staring at the phone, praying it would ring, and it finally did. And they were like, “Nancy, congratulations. You’re going to be in the Class of ’96.” It took my breath away that the game could honor a woman. We only had a handful of women in the Hall of Fame at the time. I didn’t see myself up there with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, because they were my heroes. And now I’m in the same Hall and they know who I am.

It was important for me to be a part of the WNBA’s inaugural season. I will say this: Magic pushed me on it. We were in Atlanta in ’96 watching the Games. He looked at me and he went, “Hey, man, are you going to play in the WNBA next year?” And I said, “I don’t know. I’m going to be 39.” And he said, “Nancy Lieberman, I’ve never heard you say ‘I don’t know.'”

That fired me up. I went home. TJ was 3, and I asked him, “What does your mother do for a living?” And he went, “You’re Mom.” “TJ, I am your mom, but what does Mom do?” “You do TV.” I said, “Honey, I am going to come out of retirement and play basketball again. Now go in there and tell your daddy.” TJ ran into the other room and went, “Dad, we’re in trouble. Mommy’s coming out of retirement.” [Laughs]

I called the WNBA and I said, “I’ll go to a local tryout. I’ll go wherever you want. Just give me a chance. Don’t look at my age. Let me handle my side of it, and if I can’t play, you don’t have to accept me.” I played that year for the Phoenix Mercury.

In 2007, I was doing TV at the All-Star Game in Washington. They asked me to run through the skills challenge, to demonstrate it for viewers. I didn’t know Bill Laimbeer, who was coaching the Detroit Shock, was sitting in the stands. He looked at me and he said, “That time is unbelievable. When do you turn 50?” “July 1 next year.” And he looked at me and he said, “Do you want to make history? I want you to play for me. I want you to play at 50.”

I started training, but we didn’t know when I was going to play. Then, on my son’s birthday, we saw the brawl between the Sparks and the Shock, and that night I got a call from Bill. “Well, I have a few roster spots that have opened up. This would be as good a time as any for you to join us. Are you ready?” I knew my first game was on ESPN because I was supposed to do the game for ESPN. I called them and I’m like, “Uh, I need the day off.”

I remember telling David Stern many, many years ago, when he was still commissioner, that I’d love an opportunity to coach in the NBA. But I had to show people I was dedicated and not, “Hey, I’m Nancy Lieberman, you should be giving me this.” I grinded for five or six years — I paid my own way to NBA symposiums, summer league, coaches camps. Before I got hired, I volunteered to go to summer league with the Kings, and Vlade Divac saw me on the court and he was like, “This is normal.” A month later, they offered me the job. Women can do anything men can do when given the opportunity.

When I took the job coaching in the D-League, I thought back to what Muhammad Ali told me when I was 19: “Respect everybody but fear nobody.” To say that Muhammad Ali was my mentor gives me chills. But he was there. He probably knew I was a little broken and a little fraudulent as a human being, hiding behind Nancy Lieberman the basketball player. He knew I was going to play and then coach in the WNBA before it happened because I would talk it out with him. I’m just a girl following my dreams. I have a strong belief system, and quite honestly, I’m not afraid.

When I got the call about the Body Issue, I had dinner with my son. I said, “TJ, Mommy is going to need your support.” I’m so glad he’s out of college because you know those college kids would be holding up the dang issue. He said, “You can do this.”

I want to see moms, housewives, athletes go, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe she looks like that. She’s 61. I can do that too.” It’s important to take care of yourself. Women are so used to taking care of everybody else. Not enough women are true to themselves. I’m a mom. I’ve been a housewife, an athlete, a commentator, a coach. We can have it all, but it starts with your health.