PUBLISHED November 1, 2010 | News
FRISCO – If it weren’t Nancy Lieberman, this wouldn’t look so natural. A slender 5-8 woman is crouching on a hardwood court gazed upon by a dozen breathing, sweating, balling, human-equivalents of the Sears Tower who also happen to be male, and she’s the one offering rebounding instruction.
“This little box-out here, that’s rec league,” she says. “Send a message.”
She speaks with what you might call an outside voice. Not with a yell, but with enough oomph to emphasize a point to her Texas Legends basketball team.
Her legs are wrapped in spandex, and writing a simile comparing the Lycra look with Wonder Woman wouldn’t seem like hyperbole to those who know her. And everyone knows her.
Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama have asked for her phone number. She drops the name Warren Buffett in the middle of conversation like she doesn’t expect you to pause, and you almost don’t pause because she’s already re-enacted word-for-word conversations with A-listers in athletics and beyond, most of them men.
“She is a kick-ass chick,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says.
Tonight, Lieberman will coach men. It is the first regular-season game of the NBA Development League Texas Legends. A national-TV audience will watch. It will be the first time any woman has done any sort of coaching for an NBA-affiliated team. It will be the millionth time the self-described pistol has invaded a boys club, and all the previous times the boys have welcomed her back.
• • •
Their stories diverge, but some form of latte was involved. Donnie Nelson, the Legends owner, remembers bumping into Lieberman at Starbucks. Lieberman remembers stopping at a mailbox, next to a Starbucks, and seeing Nelson in his car.
Either way, about a year ago, Nelson had a list of coaching candidates for his new team. Lieberman was not on that list. After the encounter and ensuing conversation, he placed her at the top.
Nelson didn’t doubt hiring a woman. He rattles off the reasons like they’re rehearsed – the youngest basketball Olympian to win a medal, the first woman to play professionally with men and the oldest woman to play in the WNBA.
“The next great basketball mind might be born into a woman’s body,” says Nelson. “How will we ever know if we don’t give them a chance?”
For nine months, Lieberman embarked on a Travel Channel-worthy itinerary, questing for coaching knowledge. One flight led to Larry Brown, another flight to Pat Riley, another to Phoenix and Alvin Gentry. She talked to Carlisle and Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni and Joe Girardi.
No question went unasked, no worry not allayed. Lieberman made a phone call, and a week after Tivo-ing Mike Tomlin’s postgame talk, she was in Pittsburgh with him discussing how to mentor young black men.
“I didn’t have all the answers,” she says. “But I had people who knew the answers.”
• • •
The theories and drills and lingo come from the others. The center of Lieberman’s coaching philosophy comes from within.
In the ’80s, Martina Navratilova was her first real pupil. Lieberman knew little about tennis but taught her because she knew how to use her mind to coax her body into matching the actions of bigger and faster athletes. She found her max, as she calls it, and honed it by emphasizing the subtle fundamentals most players didn’t even consider. Her goal as a coach is to teach the Legends to do the same.
“It’s like the person you hated to play with growing up,” she says. “We want to be that kid.”
In other words, she wants each one of her players to compete as if he is a Jewish woman trying to prove herself against skeptical men.
Every detail matters. During a defensive drill, she asks the players to not just assume the correct position but to swipe at an imaginary ball and repeat the word dig.
“There’s so much that can get overlooked,” says Legends assistant and former NBA veteran David Wesley. “But she is trying to teach it all.”
• • •
Then there were her days at the Rucker. Those are the gritty origins of a star basketball player.
The Harlem boys didn’t just respect Lieberman. They loved her. They rode home with her to Queens, protecting her, and she invited them back to her house for spaghetti.
“I’m not perfect,” she says, “but I’m blessed because people trust me.”
On any given night, Lieberman says, she might receive a text or phone call from Terrell Owens or Larry Fitzgerald or Steve Smith or Torii Hunter or Buck Showalter. The day after she mentions this, Hunter shows up, unannounced, at practice.
This is Lieberman’s life. She would make a great spokeswoman for AT&T – she talks, she listens and she doesn’t stop doing either of the two once a connection is made.
About 30 years ago, she met Ali. This spring she was in his house, holding the man’s hand and watching the Butler-Michigan State Final Four game.
“She’s genuine, very caring,” Jason Terry says. “People sort of gravitate towards a person like that. I look up to her.”
Lieberman says she routinely tells her players she loves them. She hugs them. She says she doesn’t yell or curse. She calls herself a teacher. She talks about life goals. She wants to change her players’ basketball behavior.
Coaching in professional basketball is often as casual as Old Navy. Phil Jackson, widely hailed as the best coach, is the Zen Master. He lets it be. Lieberman is the opposite. Her outlook could sound so amateur, so high school, but the audience absorbs the message because it trusts the messenger.
“She has like an aura, a glow,” says Legends player Sean Williams. “Even when it’s not an official practice time, people just pay attention to her.”
• • •
Lieberman reaches into her past to answer most questions about the present. She can pinpoint a moment – pretending to know a play so she could get on court with the Lakers in 1980 – or an encounter – Kobe Bryant asking what drives her competitively – strewn somewhere in the last 40-plus years and offer a yearbook-quality memory as proof she is ready for this.
“Everybody says to me, ‘Are you afraid?’ ” she says. “Well, afraid of what? We can win or we can lose. I can get hired or I can get fired. What is there to be afraid of?”
The first practice Lieberman led, she huddled her team. Everyone placed a hand in the middle. She was ready for this.
“Guys,” she said, “our job is to make this normal.”
And then she winked, the woman in the middle not invading another world but inviting more men into hers.