The First Lady of Hoops, Nancy Lieberman Prepares for D-League Season
Just ask President Obama.
Lieberman, the Hall of Famer whom Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry calls the "Michael Jordan of women's basketball,'' was named last November as the first woman to be head coach in a U.S. men's professional league. Last May, the Texas Legends boss was made to feel rather legendary when she visited the White House in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
"I was invited and I went there and all he wanted to do (was talk basketball),'' Lieberman said of Obama. "It's weird. I felt this pull. He was shaking hands with all these people, in Congress, Senate, and then he looks at me and says, 'Nancy Lieberman.' I go, 'Hi Mr. President.' And he grabs my hand and he kind of pulls me. And I go out and we take a picture. And he's like, 'You've got to come play ball (on the White House court).'''
It was the same day as Obama's BP press conference to reassert his commitment to cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But Lieberman said Obama, who plays basketball and is a big fan, was quite willing to talk hoops.
"You know he's just being crucified (regarding the oil spill), but you could see that he felt a comforting place because of hoops and the connection,'' Lieberman said. "And the lady (who attends to Obama) is going, 'Mr. President, Mr. President.' He's like, 'One second.' He's like, 'Give Reggie Love (Obama's special assistant) your number so you can come back and play ball.'''
But that wasn't it. As Lieberman was talking to a Hall of Famer in another sport, baseball legend Sandy Koufax, her son T.J. interrupted.
"I'm like, what?''' Lieberman said to T.J., a high school junior. "He goes, 'The president's calling you.' And he's like 20 yards away and he's like, 'Did you give your number to Reggie?' And the lady is going, 'Mr. President.'''
No word on whether President Obama might stop by this fall. But Lieberman next week will start training camp with the Legends in their Dallas suburb of Frisco, and she will coach her first game Nov. 18 at defending champion Rio Grande Valley, which will be nationally televised by VERSUS.
But while those might be debuts, Lieberman, 52, has been going strong at the job for a year. She spent all of last season traveling around the country visiting NBA practices to watch coaches.
On a recent fall day at her home in Plano, a Dallas north suburb not far from where the Legends play at Dr Pepper Arena, Lieberman points to stacks of binders she has been putting together. There's binders on all sorts of plays, one with notable quotes she can pull out for motivation and one that is a guide for players on such things as where to go for a haircut or go to the grocery story in Frisco.
"We have one for summer workout programs and we haven't even gotten to the summer yet,'' Lieberman said.
That's how prepared Lieberman is. In 2009, she already was thinking about the summer of 2011.
"I know that a pat on the back is six inches from a kick in the booty,'' Lieberman said. "I have a job to do. And my job is to make the irregular regular. Because I'm perceived as irregular. I'm a woman. Barack Obama was perceived as being irregular. He's the first African-American president. My job is to make different normal. ... If I'm going to ask my players to be prepared, I must prepare.''
That type of work ethic is one reason Dallas Mavericks general manager and Legends co-owner Donnie Nelson believed Lieberman would be perfect as his first coach. But don't get the idea that Nelson thought of Lieberman right away even though the two have known each other for many years.
In the summer of 2009, not long after Nelson had joined forces with the team that is the Mavericks' D-League affiliate, Lieberman stopped at a mailbox near her home. As she prepared to drop in a letter, somebody came from behind to give her a playful bearhug. It was Nelson.
"I said, 'Congratulations on your team,' and he said, 'Let's get together and chit chat,''' Lieberman recalled.
The first meeting was at a Starbucks. And then the meetings continued.
With each one, Nelson became even more impressed with Lieberman. By November 2009, the job officially was hers.
"When you start these things, you have a list of 150 candidates,'' Nelson said in looking back at how Lieberman, a 30-year resident of the Dallas area, emerged as a candidate. "I (realized) that I was just talking to my next head coach. You know, the D-League is really the league of opportunity. (Lieberman) is somebody who has rolled her sleeves and been involved second to none in the Metroplex for the last 30 years. She has all the accolades from youngest basketball player to medal (winning a silver for Team USA in 1976 Olympics at 18) to playing her last game at the tender age of 50 (in the WNBA for the Detroit Shock in 2008).''
Nelson said he was inspired to hire Lieberman, in part, by his daughter, Christie, 19, who was talking one day at the breakfast table with her dad.
"She wants to get into sports marketing,'' Nelson said. "We started talking and she said, 'Oh, dad, there are certain things I could never do. I said, 'Like what?' 'Well, like be the commissioner of the NBA.' And I'm like, 'Oh, yeah.' I hate glass ceilings. Chances are that a great basketball mind can be born in a women's body as much as it is in a men's body.''
Now that Nelson has his coach, he says "Nancy is an inspiration to every little girl.'' But it's been that way before.
Lieberman burst upon the national scene as a player at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and soon won national titles and Wade Trophies (for women's college MVP) at Old Dominion in 1978-79 and 1979-80. She then moved on to Texas in 1980 as a member of the Dallas Diamonds of the now-defunct World's Pro Basketball League.
It also was in 1980 when Lieberman first was involved in a men's league. She played for the Lakers' outfit in the Los Angeles Pro Summer League, coached by Pat Riley, then a Lakers assistant who 1 ½ years later would take over as head coach.
By 1986, it was an even bigger deal. Lieberman became the first woman to play regular-season games in a U.S. men's pro league when she suited up for the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League.
"I wasn't afraid to play in a men's league,'' said the 5-foot-7, 150-pound guard who routinely gave away a half foot and 50-plus pounds to backcourt foes. "I'm not afraid to coach this team. I've invested my life in this game. The ball has no clue I'm a woman.''
After playing for the Phoenix Mercury at 39 in the WNBA's inaugural season of 1997 and being coach and general manager of the Shock from 1998-2000, Lieberman eventually joined ESPN, which included doing sideline work at NBA games. Now, Lieberman is in charge on the sideline in an NBA-affiliated league.
While there are some who might suggest this is minor-league sports and there is a publicity-stunt element, both Nelson and Lieberman scoff at that notion.
"Not with me,'' Lieberman said. "If you hire Susie Smith (a made-up name), you don't know who she is. But you can't say that with me. I stand behind my resume. I've been invested in this game for 40 years.''
Lieberman first took to the court for the Legends at a tryout camp in September. Among the players on hand was Curtis Terry, the half brother of Jason Terry who last Monday was selected by the Legends in the D-League draft.
"I was a little hesitant at first,'' Terry, who played at UNLV, said about being coached by a woman for the first time in his basketball career. "There were a couple of friends I talked to who thought it might be a little awkward playing for a woman. But coach Lieberman showed that she knows her stuff. She knows her X's and O's. She's a Hall of Famer, and she has the accolades to back it up.''
Lieberman isn't too worried about any adjustments players must make to being coached by a woman.
"When I did the "Today''' show in May, Amy (Robach), one of the hosts said to me, 'How are these guys going to take information from a woman?''' Lieberman said. "My response was, 'It's going to be normal. We've been telling you guys what to do our whole lives.' Woman have telling you what to do. Your mother. Your grandma. Your wife. Your ex-wife. Your girlfriend. You've been communicated to by woman your whole life. What's the difference?''
Well, one difference is Lieberman will have a won-loss record by her name. She's aware she will be judged by on that mark and there will be some who might equate losses to the fact she's a woman.
But that's no big deal. Lieberman figures to take care of that by winning.
"We will win,'' she said. "We will win because every one of those 10 young men (on the Legends) that comes here will have career years. We will make them better individually.''
Lieberman, who plans to do that with the help of assistant coaches David Wesley, a 14-year NBA veteran, and Scott Fleming, said she's not worried about being under the microscope. She used to that from her playing career.
In fact, Lieberman sees a benefit to all of this publicity she's getting. She said it helps the Legends and the D-League as a whole.
"They could have hired any coach, and they would have had their local blurb,'' Lieberman said of the Legends. "They stepped out of the box, and they're getting worldwide benefits with the interviews that I do worldwide on a daily basis.''
Lieberman says she's done nearly 100 interviews in the past year. No wonder she only sleeps about five hours a night.
But Lieberman says she hasn't neglected any of her household duties. She insists on preparing a hot breakfast each morning for T.J., an aspiring basketball player whose dream is to play for the University of Oklahoma. When Lieberman is away with the team, T.J. will stay at the nearby home of his father Tim Cline, whom Lieberman was married to from 1988-2001.
Count Legends general manager Del Harris, a longtime NBA coach, as one who admires Lieberman's work ethic.
"I've known her since she started playing (for the Dallas Diamonds),'' Harris said. "She's knowledgeable, hard working, organized. Everything you need to be a successful coach. ... She's never satisfied. She's gone all over the country, actually on her own dime, talking to coaches of every level, but particularly to several NBA coaches to get their suggestions.''
Among those coaches have been San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Phoenix's Alvin Gentry, the Clippers' Vinny Del Negro and Dallas' Rick Carlisle. But there's also an NFL coach in the bunch.
As part of her preparation process, Lieberman had looked at press conferences featuring Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Lieberman said she was intrigued by the adversity Tomlin faced by being a black coach and being just 34 when hired in January 2007. Two years later, Tomlin led the Steelers to a Super Bowl win.
Lieberman knows Steelers publicist Dave Lockett, and asked for Tomlin to call her. One day the phone rang, and it was the coach.
"I said, 'Mike, black, coach of the Super Bowl champions, youngest head coach in the NFL. White, 52, a woman about to coach predominately black men,''' Lieberman said. "And there's dead silence. He then went, 'Can you come to Pittsburgh?'''
Lieberman spent a day last June with Tomlin at the Steelers facility and picked his brain. She also had Lockett coach her on difficult questions she could face from the media.
As for her meeting with Obama, though, there wasn't much difficult about that. In fact, Lieberman quipped about how Obama once was taken aback.
"Can you beat your mom?''' Lieberman said of what the president asked T.J. "T.J. goes, 'No.' 'Can I beat your mom?' And T.J. goes, 'No.' And (Obama) goes, 'Oh, tough house.'''
Lieberman liked hearing that from the leader of the free world. Now, she's planning on Dr Pepper Arena being a tough house this season for visiting teams.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson