Location: Dallas, TX
Age: Over 50
Marital Status: Divorced
Education: Old Dominion University
This November, Nancy Lieberman will become the first female head coach to lead a NBA-affiliated team: the Texas Legends, of the NBA’s Developmental League. Really, it could not have been anyone else; after growing up in Queens in the sixties, Lieberman has always been at the forefront of women’s basketball. At eighteen, she was the youngest basketball player in Olympic history, helping the U.S. earn silver at the 1976 Games in Montreal. She’s a Hall of Famer, two-time Olympian, and was a three-time All-American at Old Dominion. She’s been a WNBA coach and general manager, and twice set the record for oldest player in the WNBA. She’s been a television broadcaster and president of the Women’s Sports Foundations. She’s a motivational speaker, and an author. She’s a mother, a chef, and she’s dogged about her skin care. Faboverfifty talked to her about basketball, gender roles, and what love means – among other things.
You’re one of the top female basketball players of all time, but growing up, you actually played more with boys.
Growing up in Far Rockaway, Queens, most of the kids in the schoolyard were boys and it was actually kind of cool, because it was a wonderful outlet for me. My parents were getting divorced, I was a poor kid from a one-parent family, and playing in schoolyards gave me a sense of self-worth and independence – I’ll never forget how the guys embraced me. They never judged me. They just looked at me as another ballplayer.
Your mother was less than encouraging.
My mother said, “Girls don’t play sports.” When I asked her why, she simply said, “Because they don’t.” I thought that was a pretty intellectual reason.
You were undeterred.
There was nothing like being in the schoolyard and the boys going, “We’ll take the girl.” That was almost like them saying, “I love you.” It was an incredible moment of self-esteem. It made me feel so good about what I was doing.
Do you feel you were before your time?
Before my time means we didn’t have a major consistent women’s league when I was in my prime. Would I have loved to compete with Diana Taurasi today, with me at 27, and her at 27, mono y mono? Absolutely. Those are the competitors we have in the game today. These young women care deeply about the game – when I look at them, I have to smile from side to side. I hope they make millions and millions playing this game and become wildly successful because I’ll be the first one cheering them on.
Do you have a passion project?
This is my 27th year running my basketball camp. We’ve sent tens of thousands of children through my camps in 27 years. At 52, I probably could shut it down and say ‘You know what? It was a great ride.’ But I’m at camp every day and teach every session – how lucky am I? I mean, think about this – people have trusted me with their most valuable possessions – their children – for 27 years. And I dig it.
It hasn’t gotten old?
It speaks to the love story that I have with this game. To be blessed enough to still be able to play, to take care of myself physically – I’m like a kid, I can’t even fake it. I just like this game! I don’t know that there’s ever been a place where I’ve felt more comfortable, more confident and more relaxed than on a basketball court.
What is it about basketball that you love so much?
I love the split-second decision-making. You’re constantly reading the defense, offense; there’s a flow and a feel to the game, there’s an artistic element to it, like when you’re going up on one side of the basket and in mid-air you contort your body, almost like a ballerina. You don’t go back into a huddle and call a play – it’s improvisational.
Soon you’re going to be coaching a team in the NBA’s Developmental League. What is it going to be like for your players to take instruction from a woman?
I think it’ll be really normal. Men have been told what to do by women their whole lives. Their mothers, their girlfriends, their wives…
That’s a good point!
If you’re the right person for the job, and you can make people better, I think that’s all people care about. “Can she help me be better and reach my goals?” I understand that I’ll be judged on a different scale, but most of my players won’t reach the NBA. So we have to make them better men, we have to give them the ingredients of how to compete – maybe for that job they’re going have in a couple of years, how to be better dads, better, responsible people. It makes me happy to give.
What do you get out of giving? How does it lift you?
We come in equal, and we’re leaving equal. So what are we doing in between? What are we doing for people? I’m not taking my house, I’m not taking my car, I’m not taking my money with me. What am I doing while I’m here?
Muhammed Ali said service to others is the rent you pay for the room and board on earth. And every day that I take a breath is a day for me to serve people, whether it’s in women’s basketball, or my foundation – where we’ve given over 12,000 scholarships to children. We give them computers, we feed them, we clothe them, we love them.
What is your most passionate hobby?
I love to cook. I’ve been to cooking school two or three different times. I can cook almost anything. I love cooking seafood – lobsters, scampis, soft-shell crab.
What is your favorite place in New York?
I will never forget my moments at Rucker Park (famous basketball court in Harlem). Especially the reaction of the guys – when I first walked into the park, when I was 12 or 13 years old, and went, “I know I’m white, but I didn’t take the train for 50 minutes for you to stare at me.”
I love sushi… Nobu in Dallas.
What are your favorite books?
I read autobiographies. I just finished a great book called The Mole People. I also just finished reading The Other Wes Moore.
I shop at Nordstrom’s for clothes for TV. I’m always at Kroger; they have my money all the time.
I’m a big Nicole Miller fan.
Do you have a skin care routine?
For skin care, I use Lift. It’s by Mannatech. I use it every day. I am so anal about it, you don’t even want to be around me.
Your legacy started with basketball, but it won’t end there.
The Good Lord put me here for a reason; what I will tell you, definitely, is I know it’s not about basketball. I know it. It’s about accepting what’s put in front of me, it’s taking on challenges, it’s about respecting everybody but fearing nothing. I’m not in control of my reputation, but I’m always in control of my character, because it’s mine and I own it, and nobody can take that away from me.
Those are good words to live by.
When I was younger, I couldn’t play basketball because a league folded and I was lost. That was an epiphany for me; I wasn’t as confident as I thought I was without the ball in my hand, without people cheering for me. I think early in my career I mistook love for cheering fans. And that’s not a healthy place to be.
What is love?
Love is what you give to others. It’s not just waiting for people to love you. Whatever I do, I do with love. I do it from the bottom of my heart. And it’s real, and there’s no BS. And at this stage in my life, I do what I want to do. I want to be my son’s hero. I want to do the right thing, because it means something to me. I want to give. I’m not perfect but I like my life and the balance in my life – as a mom, as someone who is good with people in the community.
Nancy’s new book, Playbook for Success: A Hall of Famer’s Business Tactics for Teamwork and Leadership, came out in October.