Lieberman: We Believe In Ourselves, But We’ve Got Work To Do
By Nancy Lieberman August 15, 2018
When Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman was hired as coach of the BIG3’s Power on March 21, she made history as the first female head coach of a men’s professional team in any sport. Never one to rest on laurels, she proceeded to guide Power to the No. 1 seed entering the 2018 playoffs. As Coach Lieberman prepares to face Tri-State this week, she filed this story for BIG3.com:
It’s funny that the BIG3 playoffs start this week in Dallas — which has been my adopted hometown for the last 38 years – and then the championship game is next week in Brooklyn – where I was born. Does that mean it’s fate that my team, Power, will take home the title?
Maybe, but it’s not fate that’s going to win it for us. It’s preparation and hard work. And belief in ourselves.
My first season here in the BIG3 has been amazing. To be around the caliber of people and athletes in this league is special. Ice Cube and co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz and CEO Amy Trask, they do things on a major scale and I’m very proud to be a part of their mission.
I had stepped away from the NBA recently because my mother was sick, and we almost lost her twice in the last few years. You get to a point in your life where you have to ask yourself, “What’s more important – money, coaching in the NBA and all those beautiful things? When do we really put family first? So I stepped away. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a year off like that.
So I was watching the NCAA Tournament in March when my phone rang, it was a restricted call, wasn’t sure who it was. It was Clyde Drexler. He had been talking with Ice Cube and some of the key people in the league. And he said this was important. Ice Cube is about diversity and inclusion and opportunity, and we would like to talk to you about coaching in the league.
The next day, we had a conference call, and we talked for a long time — about our values, about what they needed. I value what they do, and I love people with passion.
Honestly, I thought I was the right person for the job. And I was honored and privileged to be a part of the BIG3.
Of course, people have made a big deal about the gender thing – and I’m proud to be the first female head coach of a men’s professional team. Donnie Nelson deserves a tremendous amount of credit for changing the landscape and the perception. When he hired me in 2010 to be the first female coach of the NBA D-League, for the Mavericks’ affiliate, he went in with two feet. He said something once to me, he said, “I went home, I looked at all my candidates. I looked at my daughter, and I realized: Maybe the best man for this job isn’t a man at all. You had all the qualifications. And the most important thing — you’re not afraid.”
A year later, my son T.J. and I got to meet President Obama at the White House. And he explained to me that he is a black man who just happens to the President of the United States — and that I just happen to be a white woman coaching predominantly black men.
“It’s normal to you,” he said. “You’ve been doing this your whole life.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I have.”
And he said, “It’s our job to make it normal to the outside world, because it’s normal to us.”
I’ve been playing at Rucker Park since I was 12, 13 years old. I’ve been around African-Americans my whole life. Quite frankly, African-Americans championed me. It’s just the way it is. When white people were profiling me as a kid – I’m stupid, I’m dumb, I’m never gonna make anything of myself.
“Girls don’t play sports.” … “Why is she in the park with all these black kids?”
I was in the park with black kids because they treated me as an equal. They treated me with respect. They treated me as a teammate. All they cared about was winning and loyalty. And that molded me into the person I am today. I’m fiercely loyal.
My hero was Muhammad Ali – and by the grace of God, he has also been my lifelong friend since I was 19 years old. Any decisions in my life, I called him and asked him for advice. To the day he died, he was there for me. He taught me how to stand up for my beliefs. He taught me that if I’m a better me, we’re a better “we.” He taught me to be a giver not a taker when it comes to philanthropy and helping people. And he taught me to always believe in myself. Because I could do anything I wanted to do as long as I believed in me.
I’m so grateful that I had somebody like Muhammad in my life, who told me I was going to be pushed, I was going to be ridiculed, I was going be profiled.
He used to joke with me, in a loving way, and say, “You’re a white, Jewish, female athlete. How you gonna handle it, Nancy?”
My answer to him was: I’m just gonna play hard. It’s always about preparation. It’s always about interpersonal relationships, how you relate to people. And he always told me to lead with loving kindness. Respect everybody but fear nobody. I live by those words.
Which brings us back to this week. Power vs. Tri-State in the BIG3 playoffs. How will we prepare for this game? The way we have from day 1. It’s my job to watch film. It’s my job to put player personnel together. It’s my job to put a scouting report together, and a game plan. That’s what I do. I run it by my players. They have the autonomy to add or delete from whatever we’re doing. We talk it out. We’re very big on communication. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as we do our job. We have a responsibility to show up and do our job.
And it helps that I’ve been blessed with an amazing squad.
Corey Maggette is an amazing captain. Let me tell you. David Hawkins… Reggie Evans… there are some amazing guys in the league this year, but Corey Maggette should be the MVP. I don’t know one athlete who’s come back from tearing his Achilles tendon, to not only play again but be at the top of his game.
Cuttino Mobley put this team on his back last year when there were injuries. He’s brilliant — great leadership, great internal fortitude. You want to be in a foxhole with him, because you know you’re gonna win.
Big Baby and Birdman – oh my gosh – wouldn’t trade those guys for anything. They are so good, such great team players. Big Baby is a force of nature. Birdman is a winner on every level. Both those guys have rings. Quentin Richardson – like Corey, he’s a Chicago kid. He’s as tough as nails. Don’t let Q’s smile trick you – the same way don’t let my stilettos trick you. We are fiercely competitive and we are ready. If you beat us, we will shake your hand because you played your ass off.
I haven’t even mentioned one of the most selfless humans in the world, Xavier Silas. It’s tough being inactive when you were in the NBA last year. It’s tough to do that, and he takes all the pressure off of me, because he sees the bigger picture. He wants to win. He does more during a game to help me. He’s got responsibilities. He’s in my ear. Jerome Williams has been tremendous, too – his energy, his passion.
We’ll be in Brooklyn next week no matter what, but our goal is not to play in the consolation game. Our goal is to be in that title game.
But we’ve got work to do.