• mid-head-icon
  • mid-head-icon
  • mid-head-icon
  • mid-head-icon
  • mid-head-icon
  • mid-head-icon

Lieberman Is Back in Men’s Game, in New Role

PUBLISHED December 23, 2010 | News, Sports

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Two and a half hours before tipoff, before a single fan had entered the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and before she had donned her pink blouse, necklace and high heels, the player who once dared to dribble among men was making her case to be more than one of the guys.

“They need women in every aspect of life — why not as coach?” Nancy Lieberman said.

She had come to the arena early to retrieve practice shots for her 35-year-old star, Antonio Daniels. Then she moved on to one-up her coaching opponent, Joey Meyer, by reminding him of how his father — Ray, of DePaul prominence — had befriended her when they met years ago as members of a certain little fraternity called the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

She huddled with an assistant, Scott Flemming, to review the game plan and finally, dressed to the nines, coached the Texas Legends of the N.B.A. Development League, or D-League, in a loss to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. It was a setback Lieberman and her Legends avenged the next night.

Can Lieberman, who was hired by the Dallas Mavericks affiliate a year before it made its debut in November, say unequivocally that she is the first professional female coach of men? She doesn’t know, or much care.

“There might have been one somewhere in this country or another who put five guys on the floor and called it a pro game,” she said. “But this is a first for a league with guys who have been first-round draft picks, multimillionaires. This is the N.B.A.”

Well, almost. The preparatory version features teams named Mad Ants and cities like Fort Wayne, requiring even the 5-foot-10 Lieberman (without heels) to assume a near-fetal position on the commuter flight in from Indianapolis and to bunk at the low-budget Don Hall’s Guesthouse off Interstate 69.

“Playing 12 years in the N.B.A., as I have, the things you get used to, the quality, the travel, the hotels, everything about this is humbling,” said Daniels, when asked what the D-League is like for those accustomed to the good life.

But Lieberman, he said, has unusual motivational skills based on her long history of spearheading the women’s basketball movement, and an appreciation for the game, wherever it takes her.

On Thanksgiving, when the Legends landed in Boise, Idaho, Lieberman made the best of it and was reminded why she thought she could relate to male players well enough to lead them.

“We all went for dinner and went around the table and had to say one or two things about ourselves that were not related to basketball,” she said. “Some guys talked about siblings in jail, about being poor, about having children young in life and about parental situations like my own. As each one spoke, I was thinking, ‘I know how that feels.’ I know what it’s like to not have, to be a minority and to come home to what you think is not a normal family.”

Lieberman was born in Brooklyn but moved to Far Rockaway with her parents, Jerry and Renee, and her older brother, Cliff.

“My father left us when I was 8 and was out of my life,” she said. “So I was angry at 8 and I’m angry at 52. I’m still angry because it didn’t cost anything to love your children. I’m angry because anybody can be a father but it takes something special to be a parent.”

Her memories of childhood are haunted by the disharmony of a failing marriage, of the financial dependence on a grandfather to keep the family off welfare and in their modest home, of a craving to get away.

Long before David Stern hatched the idea of adding a W to N.B.A., a league Lieberman would play in briefly and also coach in, she escaped to the schoolyard and developed what she calls her “lifelong love affair with a round ball.”

When her mother worried aloud about what would become of her, Lieberman said: “I don’t do drugs. I don’t steal. I just want to play ball.” In another echo of what some of her players voiced on Thanksgiving in Boise, she said it was only after she made a name for herself as an early women’s college superstar in the late 1970s at Old Dominion that her father, relocated to Florida, reached out.

She preferred to move forward, in her own original way. By the mid-1980s, she was teaming with Micheal Ray Richardson in the backcourt of a United States Basketball League outfit on Long Island after the talented Richardson was exiled from the N.B.A. for repeated drug use.

They roomed together on the road. She shadowed him to nightclubs to make sure he stayed out of trouble. Richardson and another former Knick, Geoff Huston, held up a towel so Lieberman could shower behind it when there was no private locker room for her on the road.

All of her male teammates had her back when an opponent was of the opinion that she did not belong in a man’s world, dropped the B word on her and charged at her after she fired the ball into his face and said: “Oops. You got in the way of my pass.”

Daniels aside, Lieberman’s players have grown up with women’s basketball games in their high school and college gyms, with W.N.B.A. games in pro arenas. They have no idea what it was like for their new coach, pushing the limits with a chip on her shoulder the size of a basketball.

“I didn’t know much about her and didn’t know what to expect,” said Joe Alexander, a forward and 2008 first-round draft pick of Milwaukee. “But I’m learning more about her history — pretty impressive.”

Asked if it was awkward being lectured by Lieberman after blowing a defensive assignment, Alexander said: “I think those moments only come when you don’t have a lot of respect for your coach. That’s not the case here. She commands respect.”

Another Legend, the former Net Sean Williams, said Lieberman was unlike any coach he had had.

“She’s kind of like a mom to us,” he said. “She preaches love more than anyone I’ve played for.”

Yes, Lieberman said, love is her preferred four-letter word. “But I can also be in their face,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t mistake my stilettos for weakness.’ ”

Play hard, stand tall. Learn from the people around you, about overcoming the odds, or surviving one’s mistakes. The Legends’ president for basketball operations is Spud Webb, who won an N.B.A. slam dunk contest at 5-7. One of Lieberman’s assistants is David Wesley, who participated in a drag race that proved fatal for a Charlotte teammate, Bobby Phills.

And then there is Lieberman, who remembers being 20-something and not being able to see beyond the next half.

“In my 20s, I was a jerk,” she said. “I just wanted to win. I had to win because I needed you to pay attention to me because I had zero true confidence. Everything about me was related to the ball. I played great, you praised me. Won a championship, you loved me, had to have me. Can’t live your whole life like that. I know that. I want them to learn that sooner than I did.

“What I know is that maybe 20 percent of these guys will make it to the N.B.A. but 80 percent won’t, so if I can do anything for them, I want to help make them better decision-makers, better men.”

She was moved when five of her players showed up to watch her 16-year-old son, T. J., play in a recent high school game on their night off. Her son has an active father — Lieberman’s former husband, Tim Cline — but conversations never stray too far from the subject of male role models and paternal abandonment.

“When T. J. was younger, I told my father, ‘You have one chance to be in his life, but if you screw it up, that’s it,’ ” Lieberman said.

And the result?

She shook her head.

She shares personal stories with her players because she wants them to believe that patterns do not have to be followed. Changes can be made and challenges can be met. Lieberman has lived in Dallas for 30 years and was enjoying her life as an ESPN broadcaster. So why roam minor league America and wind up in a Fort Wayne snowstorm, wondering if the commuter flight back to Indianapolis will ever lift off?

Because in the fall of 2009, she had a chance encounter at a Starbucks store with Donnie Nelson, a Mavericks executive, who was in the process of starting the Legends in nearby Frisco, a Dallas suburb. Because the opportunity to crash another barrier arose and, as Nelson said by telephone, “it was no gimmick; I really thought Nancy would be great for these guys.”

Because, Lieberman said, “you want to stay relevant and it’s so hard to retire from trying to achieve, just so hard.”

She is working on a one-year contract, learning as she goes, not being shy when she thinks she needs help.

“My Rolodex is as long as a North Dallas tollway,” she said. “If I’m not sure of something, I can say, ‘Coach Riley, I have a question. Hey, Mike Tomlin, I have a question. Mr. Buffett, I have a question.’ Asking is not a weakness.”

Which is why to the inevitable question — can she imagine herself landing at least an assistant’s job in the N.B.A.? — Lieberman looked her interviewer straight in the eye and said, “Why not?”