Lifetime All-Star: Nancy Lieberman
As a young basketball player growing up in Queens in the early ‘70s, Nancy Lieberman often took the long subway ride from Far Rockaway to the courts of Canarise, Harlem or Manhattan’s West Fourth Street – anywhere to find a good game. “I’d be in sweats,” she recalled, “and it’d be ‘All right, we’ve got that one, that one and that one. Then they’d find out you were a girl. But that was never really a problem,” said Lieberman. “I mean, guys – they just wanted to win. If they thought you could help them win, they were with you. If they thought you couldn’t, they didn’t pick you.”
Well, they did pick her, and often, and the experience helped develop her into a tough, no-holds-barred point guard. At 5’10”, taller and stronger than most guards of her era, Lieberman’s style of play engendered strong feelings – especially from her opponents.
“The women back in the early ‘80s were not used to that physicality,” admitted Lieberman. “I just played hard. I never was going to modify my desire, my game, to suit others. Today, my game would be like a player in the WNBA. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re physical. They know they’re good, and they play hard. Today it’s the way the game is. Twenty-five years ago, it was, ‘She was a very physical, maybe mean, player.’ I’d like to think it was fair; it was intense, but it was successful.”
That it was. At 18 she won a silver medal as part of the first U.S. Olympic team. A three-time All-American at Old Dominion University, Lieberman led her team to back-to-back AIAW championships (’79 and ’80), becoming the first two-time Wade Trophy winner and twice earning the Broderick Cup as the nation’s top female athlete.
Somewhat surprisingly, after college Lieberman didn’t become one of the small group of players who traveled to Europe to play basketball professionally. “My choice was to stay in the U.S. and try and promote basketball here,” she explained. “To do TV, to do books and videos – the things that were compelling to me – to sell and promote and give awareness to our game.”
Her decision raised a few eyebrows. “Some of my peers looked at me with that negative, ‘Oh, she’s a ‘self-promoter.” And your point is?” asked Lieberman, typically forthright. “What’s wrong with wanting to market yourself? People do it all the time – male athletes, female athletes. But back then, we had such a small piece of the pie – or, I should say, the pie was so small – that it was hard to divvy it up and make everybody happy.”
Lieberman has played in three different women’s professional leagues and coached in two, but has resisted joining the college coaching ranks. “It just has not been the right situation. I have my little boy, T.J., and he’s 12 now, and we have a great situation in Dallas. I love working for ESPN [as an analyst]. The last two years I’ve been working for NBA TV, and that has been an absolute joy. I just finished my 23rd year of basketball camps in Dallas, my ninth in Detroit, my third year in Phoenix, and my first year in Kansas. And then,” she added, “I do a lot of corporate appearances.”
Whatever she’s doing, the consistent thread throughout is advocating for women athletes and women’s basketball. Looking at the current state of her sport, Lieberman has nothing but confidence in the players of today. “I’m very close to a lot of the kids in college and, obviously, a lot of the WNBA players, and I think they’re terrific role models. I think they’re committed to the excellence of the game, and they get it.” Her concern is whether the fans get it.
“Like it or not, it’s a business, and the way you get respected is you run your business efficiently, effectively, and you make money. You can still have fun – Billie Jean King had fun, but she was pushing for equality and pay. You must have that.” To that end, explained Lieberman, “It’s essential that we continue to grow our fan base. We need people to watch us.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I give speeches,” recounted Lieberman, “and I ask the audience, ‘Okay, who here wants the WNBA?’ And almost every woman raises her hand. ‘And who wants equality in sports and business?’ And every woman raises her hand.’ And then I say, “Okay, how many of you have season tickets for the local college team?” Not even a third of the people there raise their hands. And then I ask, ‘Okay, now how many of you have Coach purses? Louis Vuitton? Chanel?’ And everybody raises their hands. And I say, ‘One less purse, and you could be a season ticket holder for Arizona State University basketball. See how it works? I mean think about it! Don’t sit there and say men are holding us back when you don’t reach into your pocket. Decide you’re going to have two less fancy-shmancy meals this year and buy season tickets. If you’re not going to do it, if women who love women’s athletics don’t buy season tickets, why should the person who’s really not that passionate buy them?” challenged Lieberman. “Women have to support women.”