PUBLISHED November 9, 2022 | News
Lieberman’s impact and legacy lives on in Norfolk
NORFOLK, Va. — On an unseasonably warm November morning, people clad in shades of blue gathered underneath a pale blue sky. The crowd huddled between the Mitchum Basketball Performance Center and Chartway Arena, waiting for two navy drapes to be cast aside, unveiling a statue of Nancy Lieberman that was decades in the making.
Lieberman’s name still fills the pages of the Old Dominion women’s basketball record book more than 40 years after she finished playing, but she never expected a statue.
“It wasn’t there. We were just barely getting full scholarships,” she told The Next.
To her, the statue means more than just a testament to her success.
“You play basketball because you love it, you’re competitive, you want to have friendships,” she said. “And then all these years later, the university says thank you to you and it’s not about me. It’s about every athlete that ever graced this campus. And it’s for all of us.”
Former ODU athletic director Jim Jarrett as well as former teammates, coaches, ball girls and team managers from ODU helped Lieberman pull off the drapes, revealing the bronze statue that shone under the early November sun.
For Lieberman, Old Dominion was about more than just basketball and school, it was about building relationships, finding her chosen family and creating lifelong friendships.
“If you pour into people, people will pour into you and what I can say about Old Dominion, it was a relationship-building school,” Lieberman said. “And it allowed me to have a family like the Lozons. And 40, 50 years later, have a family like Jack and Dianne Adleta and to have friendships with [Jeff] Fuhrmann and Wes [Lockard], and it’s a melting pot of blessings.”
Her chosen family, friends, high school teammates, former ODU men’s basketball players, as well as college teammates, coaches, team managers, ball girls, and many more all made the trip to celebrate Lieberman.
During her time at Old Dominion, Lieberman scored 2,430 points (third-most in program history), grabbed 1,167 rebounds (third-most in program history) and dished out 961 assists (first in program history). She also won the Wade Trophy twice as well as two national championships as a Monarch.
Throughout the ceremony, she remained humble and took her time to thank everyone from high school teammates to those she met recently that helped make the statue possible.
Lieberman thanked Marianne Stanley, her head coach for her last three seasons at Old Dominion, noting, “She was kind enough to share the game with me. She knew I was a train wreck, but she’s a good conductor.”
“To have a statue put on your campus speaks to the iconic presence that you had during your tenure and Nancy’s time at ODU was some of the best in women’s basketball history at ODU,” Stanley told The Next.
Prior to coming to Old Dominion, Lieberman had already made women’s basketball history, winning a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. After ODU, Lieberman played for one season in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (1980-81), during which she was named MVP. She also played in the only season of the Women’s American Basketball Association (1984) during which she was named MVP and won the championship.
In 1986, she became the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball league, playing for the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League. Lieberman also toured with the Washington Generals, playing against the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 1996, she was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame a few years later in 1999.
Lieberman played for the Phoenix Mercury in the inaugural season of the WNBA and played one game for the Detroit Shock at the age of 50 during the 2008 season.
She has also spent time as a coach in the WNBA, the then NBA D-League, the NBA and the BIG3, and has contributed as a broadcaster and analyst as well.
More than 20 years ago when sculptor Brian Hanlon met Nancy Lieberman at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he told her he would get a statue of her done at her alma mater.
At the ceremony to unveil the statue on Nov. 5, Lieberman recalled the interaction and said, “And I’m thinking that’s a bunch of nonsense.”
Hanlon remained persistent and eventually got the necessary approvals to donate the first statue of a person on Old Dominion’s campus to the school. He created the six-foot statue that stands on a two-foot base outlining her accomplishments by first sculpting in clay, making a mold from the image and finally casting metal from the mold.
He hopes that the statue inspires kids now and in the future when they walk by it. “[I hope] that they would have a little bit more courage in their next breath, their next stride, and to be original, to be dynamic and to be courageous,” he said.
Though it was decades in the making, the statue comes 50 years after Title IX was passed and 46 years after Lieberman was the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship at Old Dominion.
“Title IX changed my life,” Lieberman said. “It gave me the ability to get a scholarship to come here to compete, to get education, to network, to meet great people. All those elements swing somebody’s life and trajectory, and it changed mine.”
Dr. Wood Selig, ODU’s director of athletics hopes that in 50 years during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Title IX, kids will walk by the statue of Lieberman and be in awe of her accomplishments.
“I am confident that this statue and tribute to you will inspire many to want to be like Nancy. Forget being like Mike,” Selig said during the ceremony. He later added, “There are young boys and girls who could not have a better role model. No one is deserving of this lasting tribute and recognition of their legacy [more] than you are Nancy.”
Selig grew up in the Larchmont neighborhood of Norfolk and used to sneak into Old Dominion women’s basketball games.
“We quickly realized that we wanted to make sure we came to every ODU women’s basketball game because Nancy Lieberman was starring in the Fieldhouse,” he said. “She was already known as Lady Magic. And she was fascinating to watch for all of us growing up here in Larchmont because she was vastly different from any other women’s basketball player we had ever seen. Her skills were honed on the playgrounds of Harlem, where she went up against some of the very best male playground athletes in the country.”
He hopes the statue of Lieberman will be a source of pride and provide young kids, especially young girls, with an example of someone who has succeeded at the highest level and show that they too can have their own statue one day.
After the statue was unveiled, the crowd walked around the corner where a portion of 43rd Street was renamed Nancy Lieberman Pass.
“You never plan on any of this stuff,” Lieberman said. “And, I’m taking it in just like everybody else is taking it in. I’m thankful because everybody has choices. They can choose to have a statue or not choose to have a statue, they can choose to have a street or not have a street and they chose to do so.”
On Nov. 4, Nancy Lieberman and Pepsi Stronger Together donated a “Dream Court” at Norfolk’s East Ocean View Recreation Center. The ribbon was cut, officially opening the navy and light blue court in front of Lieberman’s family and friends as well as kids, members of the community and the ODU women’s basketball team.
Pepsi Stronger Together also donated $25,000 to Old Dominion’s women’s athletic scholarship fund.
The Dream Court is the 116th donated by Nancy Lieberman Charities country-wide, and the third in the Hampton Roads area.
Norfolk mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander hopes the court provides local kids “a safe place to come, to learn, to participate, to be a part of a team, to understand the importance of team, rules, the game, players and just capacity building, building their strengths,” he told The Next on Nov. 5.
Before the official opening, Lieberman was shooting around with Derek Lewis, president of multicultural business and equity development at PepsiCo Beverages North America. She also played a game of 2-on-2, teaming up with Old Dominion head coach DeLisha Milton-Jones to go up against two local kids.
Lieberman hopes that those kids, who had to be coaxed into the matchup before relaxing and knocking down shots, learned “they should be able to challenge themselves and have their own dreams and not be afraid to step out on the court with somebody like myself. Just try. Just try. Have fun, enjoy. And you never know what can happen in life.”
Stanley isn’t surprised by Lieberman’s success but is most impressed by how her former player continues to give back to the community.
“She’s far more than just a former All-American player, a Hall of Famer, all that,” Stanley said. “She’s someone who cares deeply about Old Dominion, about Norfolk and Tidewater, this community, and she’s used all the influence and contacts and connections that she has to bring this to life and to bring the sport to the community. I think it’s terrific. It’s just a great example of doing more than just playing basketball, truly giving back to the community you came from.”
For Lieberman, the Dream Courts are all about the children and her favorite part is seeing them smile and knowing they have not only a safe place to come together and play, but also to just breathe.
“This is your court, once we leave here, babies, this is yours,” Lieberman said during the dedication ceremony. “This is your house. You’re going to protect it. It’s going to be here for a long time, many, many decades. So you have to take care of it, you have to have responsibility. You have to have accountability. And you have to have a belief system that this Dream Court can take you places that maybe you never thought was possible.”
She concluded her speaking portion with another message to the kids, “I hope this Dream Court brings you joy. I hope it brings you happiness. I hope it brings you lifelong friends like we have today.”
After the formalities were done the court was put to good use with kids, parks and recreation staff and ODU players alike shooting around, smiling and having fun, something they’ll be able to do on the court for years to come.
Throughout the weekend, Lieberman mentioned how far she’d come, from a difficult childhood in New York City to the city of Norfolk which helped her grow.
“I got here at 18, kind of wild and no direction and then I left here, and I was molded into a woman with goals, dreams and direction,” Lieberman said.
Two people that Lieberman emotionally thanked at the court dedication and the statue unveiling were Harry and Pam Lozon, her chosen family who opened their home to her.
Pam couldn’t have imagined where Lieberman would end up after first meeting her but is amazed by how far Lieberman has come.
“She’s just been an amazing human since she graduated,” Pam told The Next. “She’s just been incredible. She’s Lady Magic.”
Pam later added, “That’s why we drove here because we’re incredibly excited with her. She’s part of the family, she always has been. She always will until the day we die. … We wouldn’t have missed it, for anything.”
Lieberman’s impact on Old Dominion has been chronicled since she was still a student-athlete.
In 1979 Jarrett told Sports Illustrated, “You can’t put a dollar value on what Nancy Lieberman has meant to this university.” Jarrett, who was in attendance, said the statue “means everything.”
Lieberman told The Next she hopes she leaves behind a legacy of love, kindness and excellence.
After everyone walked away to continue their day, all that remained was the statue glistening in the sunlight and the legacy and inspiration of Nancy Lieberman.