Nancy Lieberman is no stranger to making history.
In 1976, she won a silver medal in the first Olympics to include women’s basketball as an event. After playing in NBA-affiliated men’s summer leagues, she was the first woman to play in a professional men’s league (the United States Basketball League) in 1986. In 2009, she became the first woman to coach a pro men’s basketball team when she took over as head coach of the NBA G-League’s Texas Legends. She then joined the Sacramento Kings as an assistant coach – just the second woman to hold this position in the NBA after San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. Now, she is a head coach in the Big3, leading the team Power.
HoopsHype caught up with Lieberman to discuss her new gig in the Big3, her experiences as a coach in the G League and NBA, how she has become a role model for young girls everywhere, which coaches have influenced her the most and much more.
I know you served as an assistant coach for one of the Big3 games last year. What attracted you to the league and made you want to become a head coach this year?
Nancy Lieberman: I knew about the Big3 last year and then when they were coming through Dallas, Rick Barry called me. He said, “Hey, why don’t you come to the game? I’ll get tickets for you and your son.” And then he called me back and said, “Heck, why don’t you just come be my assistant for the game?” I thought that would be a lot of fun. I was so amazed when I walked into the arena – the American Airlines Center in Dallas – because there were 15,000 to 16,000 fans, it was a family atmosphere, so many kids. It was a melting pot of people in the crowd. There were so many former NBA players, many of whom I had coached in the G League or worked with at some point, and I thought, “This is a really, really cool thing.” I mean, we all grew playing one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three; that’s how we all got started. Now, here they were, [playing three-on-three] again. You may not be able to run the 94-feet-by-50-feet court like you used to, but you still love the game, you’re still competitive and you still want to win. The Big3 gets you back in that element and allows you to compete. And if you look down the road, in 2020, three-on-three is going to be an Olympic sport. The U.S. team could very well come out of the Big3 league. It’s amazing timing.
What adjustments do you have to make when you’re transitioning to coach three-on-three?
NL: In three-on-three, it’s more about power and precision in what you’re trying to run. It takes a pretty good basketball IQ to play halfcourt basketball and it’s tighter quarters so you have to be physical, you have to be in shape and you have to have the will to win. The players know that everyone is here to compete. Do you want to know one of the best things about the Big3? Nobody really knew what to expect last year, even from my vantage point, but players see their friends playing and then suddenly they want to play. That’s just how it is in our world. Your friends are playing and then Amare Stoudemire wants to play, Nate Robinson wants to play, Carlos Boozer wants to play and Drew Gooden wants to play. Deep down, with our egos and our competitiveness, we think, “I can do this. If they’re doing it, I can do that too.” And now younger guys are coming into the league. It’s a really high level of basketball.
On one hand, I almost liken Ice Cube to Mark Cuban. Mark loves the game of basketball; we were playing against each other in the ‘80s at night when everybody played ball. Ice Cube has loved basketball and has been playing for a long time. It’s not just a business for him, it’s a passion. He cares about these people and their families. He cares about diversity. He cares about opportunities. He cares about inclusion. He’s not just an owner of a basketball league; he’s a culture-changer. I can attest to it because people like me can’t get hired unless someone like him is strong enough and convicted enough to just give us a chance to do what we do even if we look different.
I’ve talked to a number of women sportswriters about how you and Becky Hammon have become a role model to girls and young women around the world. They can point to both of you as examples when they say, “I want to be an NBA coach someday.” What does it mean to be a role model like that?
NL: It’s interesting because I’m so used to people calling me a “trailblazer” and saying I’m “breaking the glass ceiling,” but I don’t think you grow up thinking you’re going to do that. You play ball because it’s fun. You’re playing with your friends, you’re competing, and then all of a sudden society gets in the way of you having a good time. Then it’s, “Are you better than the boys?” and, “Oh, you’re the first Olympic player who was in high school!” I was just doing what was natural to me. You don’t really think about all of those other implications.
And I’m sure Becky doesn’t realize that they’re going to be calling her a “trailblazer.” [She’d probably say], “Trailblazer? That sounds like that’s for old people.” (laughs) I was just with her when I was doing the broadcast of the Pelicans-Spurs game the other night and we were sitting there talking. It’s just two sisters who are dear friends and we’re so proud for each other. I hope she gets an opportunity to be a head coach in the NBA. She would be a tremendous coach because she’s done the work. Just like you’ve done your work, which is why you’re working at HoopsHype. It’s because people trust you, you prepare for these types of interviews and the people who read it believe in what you’re saying. Would it matter if it’s a woman writing the article? No. We all just need opportunities to show who we are.
In my world, I tell women this all the time: “You can no longer point a finger at men. Stop doing it.” Because every step of the way in my career, and it’s been amazing, I was hired by men from Dr. [Jerry] Buss and Jerry West in 1980. I played in their summer league and Pat Riley was my head coach. I was his first point guard, not Magic Johnson! Coach Riley talks about it in his speeches. Then, I played in the USBL for two years and I was hired by Andy Eckman. Donnie Nelson changed the whole equation when he hired me as head coach of the Texas Legends. I have so much admiration for Coach Pop and RC Buford for giving Becky an opportunity because they saw greatness in her. With the Kings, Vlade Divac and Vivek Ranadivé hired me. And, now, Ice Cube hired me. I’m not trying to single out that there weren’t any women here, but men have given me and Becky and others an opportunity and that’s all we need. We need strong men who believe in us.
Do you think if you were a man, you’d have a head coaching job by now? Your resume is so impressive and, like you said, you still need a man who believes in you to give you the job. Unfortunately, not all men are as progressive as the ones you mentioned. Do you ever wonder if being a woman has held you back from head-coaching opportunities?
NL: Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t know. So many good things have happened to me and I don’t want to diminish it by thinking, “I wonder if I was a guy, would I be a head coach?” I mean, I’ve done so many things in my life that most men would give their pinky finger to be able to do. I was an athlete in the ‘80s and, by the grace of God, I’m relevant in 2018. I’m very fortunate, to those who gave me my scholarship at Old Dominion, to those who selected me for the Olympic team. Every step of the way, [I’ve shown] I’ll never try to be bigger than the program. I just want to be part of a team and part of a league that changes culture. I can’t look back, I can only look forward. My boss is Ice Cube and I’m deeply indebted to him, and so are all of the gentlemen who will be playing in the Big 3. He gave us an opportunity to continue our dream and an outlet for our love of the game.
In addition to the men in front offices, it’s important that the players you’re coaching have the right mindset and are accepting of you. What’s your experience with players been like since you started coaching?
NL: It’s been amazing. Amazing. When I was doing TV for Oklahoma City about five years ago, guys like [Russell] Westbrook and KD were great. They’d introduce me to their mom, aunts, cousins… they were so proud [of me]. At the Pelicans-Spurs game I went to recently, I was there early before we went on TV and Rudy Gay and I were hugging. Someone goes, “What’s up?” And he said, “Oh, we just love each other.” [Rajon] Rondo, DeMarcus [Cousins], Steph Curry, Seth Curry, KD, LeBron… they have such a warmth and respect for women. LeBron has – or will – busted every record that this league has ever seen and he’s out there, front and center, saying that women should have opportunities. And how about one of my heroes, Adam Silver? When the NBA commissioner is saying that he wants to see a female head coach, it’s going to happen someday. The more that people like Coach Popovich, Vlade Divac, Vivek Ranadivé and others keep opening up doors for deserving people, the more you’re going to see culture change. I tell my players, “Don’t just play the game, change the game.” A lot of people had played the game, and there have been a lot of successful entertainers and artists. But Ice Cube is changing culture. This is part of his legacy.
If you had to estimate, how long will it be until we see a female head coach in the NBA?
NL: I don’t know. I can’t get in the head of the GM or a president or an owner of a team. I can’t get into their mindset. It will happen when it’s supposed to happen. The good news is that I know it will happen.
Who are some of the coaches that had the biggest impact on you when you were playing and when you were getting into coaching? Who were some of your biggest influences in terms of your coaching style and philosophy?
NL: Now, you have to remember that my Rolodex of coaches and athletes I’ve worked with is as long as the North Dallas Tollway. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve made a lot of friends. When you can call Pat Riley, Alvin Gentry, Vinny Del Negro, Pat Summitt, Rick Carlisle – another amazing champion of women – you’re very fortunate. Also, Warren LeGarie, who is one of the most powerful agents in the game; I’m not in the NBA without Warren LeGarie and Tim Grgurich and Rick Carlisle, who have believed in us and championed us. Rick opened up his doors to me. Terry Stotts, Dwane Casey, Del Harris… I mean, I can go down a list of coaches who had an impact on me. Also, my counterparts in the G League. I’m so thankful to Bryan Gates, who showed me the ropes when I got the job in the G League. Chris Finch, Nick Nurse, Eric Musselman, Darvin Ham… These guys put their wings over me and we were competing against each other! But they were so helpful and I will forever be thankful to them for how they treated me.
Interview, Evergreen, Top, Darvin Ham, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Nick Nurse, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, Russell Westbrook, Seth Curry, Stephen Curry, Vlade Divac, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings