Nancy Lieberman: Playing With Power
By John Krolik, @krolikjohn June 18, 2022
Sometimes things just feel like fate. When Basketball Hall of Famer and Power Coach Nancy Lieberman was a high schooler growing up in Queens, she would take the subway to Harlem and go to the legendary Rucker Park. She managed to get herself in the game, and once she got in, there was no getting her out. She quickly became Rucker Park royalty. When she made a particularly impressive play, someone in the crowd would inevitably yell “FIRE!” – a nickname she earned from the way she played the game and her unmistakable red hair. (She would later earn the sobriquet “Lady Magic” because of her court vision, size, and ability to control the game from any position.)
After a journey that has included dominating women’s college basketball, playing women’s professional basketball, playing men’s pro ball, coaching in the WNBA, G-League, and NBA, Nancy ‘Fire’ Lieberman became the first female head coach to win a championship in FIREBALL3. Like I said, sometimes things just feel like fate. Power hasn’t won a championship since 2018, but they’re looking to return to the promised land with #1 overall pick Glen Rice Jr., seven-foot shooter Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and hyper-skilled big man TJ Cline, the latter of whom just happens to be Coach Lieberman’s son. With talent and family on her side, I wouldn’t bet against her.
Coach Lieberman was recently kind enough to grant BIG3 an interview covering her experiences in almost every format of basketball, and hearing her reflections on the past and vision for the future was a pleasure. (Note: The following interview has been edited for the purposes of brevity and clarity.)
Krolik: You have an almost impossibly diverse background. You were a legend in college at Old Dominion, you went into the women’s pro league, you’ve coached in the WNBA, the NBA, the G-League, you’ve coached FIREBALL3 as a head coach, you’ve played men’s semi-pro, and you played for the Washington Generals.
Lieberman: I also played for the Lakers in 1980. My first professional coach was Pat Riley. He was using Summer League to learn how to coach.
Pat tells the story about how there were times in his career where he was overwhelmed, and maybe they were bigger, faster or stronger than me, but you couldn’t measure my heart and I wasn’t afraid. And he would be in situations where he was uncomfortable, and he would think of me. And he would say “she always acted like she was the best player on the court.” I didn’t know that I had affected Pat in that way until later, until 2015 at the NBA coach’s symposium. And 30 years later he’s telling me I had an effect on him. That’s what I want to do with my players, my teammates, my son, anyone who’s around me, I want to be able to have an effect on them in some way, shape, or form.
That’s just how I live my life. When I was hired by the Mavericks to coach their G-League team and was invited to the White House by President Obama – I almost hung up on them because I thought I was getting punked – and [President Obama] came up to me, I was with my son, and he looked at my son TJ, who was in high school at the time, and said “can you beat your mom at basketball?” and he said “Nope.” Then he said “well, can I beat your mom at basketball?” and he said “Nope.” Then he pulled me to the side and said “Nancy, I’m a black man, I just happen to be President. I’ve been black all my life. It’s normal to me. You’ve been a white woman your whole life. You’ve been coaching predominantly young black men and playing against them your whole life. It’s normal to you. It’s our responsibility to make it normal for everybody else.” And he was so right. So when I look at what he said and look at people who have came after him, or people who came after me, like [BIG3 Coach Lisa Leslie] maybe that opportunity is not on the table for her if somebody doesn’t see that.
Krolik: I don’t think there’s a doubt.
Lieberman: So when someone like [Former Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon] got that job with Coach Popovich and I called her to congratulate her, she was almost apologizing to me. And I just go “Becky, shut up. Stop. It’s not a contest. He gave you an opportunity and now your job is to open it up for other women.” And then I was that next person. So it’s so important for us to know that if just one woman gets hired, we’ve failed. When Jackie Robinson was the first African-American baseball player, if he was the only one, it would have been a tragedy. If Becky was the only female hired, it would have been a tragedy. You have to have the Larry Dobys and the Roy Campanellas and the other people that come behind, which is vital.
Krolik: Again, you’ve played in all these different leagues and formats of basketball. And one thing I noticed about you at the combine is that you’re still so curious about the game, where a lot of people who have spent so much time in it, especially ones who have had a lot of success, tend to be more set in their ways. I was impressed by how curious you were about the game and how it’s changing.
Lieberman: Well you have to be. Life is changing, the game is changing. I’m not saying I’m ever going to lose my core values.
You have to be open to change. And change can make the game better. Look at the three-point line. Without that, nobody would know who Steph Curry is. There are a lot of players who play the game, and very few players who change the game. I feel very grateful and humbled to have changed the game. It’s very powerful. Do I wish I’d had the WNBA in my prime? Heck yeah. I would’ve loved that. But it wasn’t my time. My time was to open doors for the Taurasis, and the Lisa Leslies, and those people. They expected to have a WNBA, I hoped to have a WNBA. It was just a different time. I’m grateful for today’s players. I’m grateful for their success. I’m thrilled for what they can do. I’m not jealous of them. I am envious that I didn’t get to play in my prime for 15, 16, or 17 years. That’s the competitor in me. That’s not “oh my gosh, I can’t believe Rebecca Lobo or Britney Griner…” No. I love what they’ve done for the game.
Krolik: Let’s get into BIG3. Power won the Championship in 2018, what is the plan to get back to that championship form?
Lieberman: We had extraordinary players. I give our commissioner, Clyde Drexler…you know, I get a lot of credit for the championship, and I appreciate that, but the team was incredible. And then for the next few years we kept getting hit by injuries.
You can’t play in this league without continuity. The guys are too good. They’re just too good. I don’t care who or what coach – because they wouldn’t be telling you the truth if they said they were responsible for the team winning, if a coach in this league or any other league says that. Players play, coaches coach. Players determine probability and outcome. And it’s one of the single most incredible things you can do in life is to be a player. How you play will determine whether we can win or not.
I can call timeouts, I can call plays, I can script some plays. But you know, Joe Johnson is Joe Johnson. I mean, why even screw around and draw up a play? His nickname [“Iso-Joe”] is telling you I don’t need a play. So like I’ve said forever, KYP. Know your personnel. I’ve been saying that since I coached in the WNBA. That’s one of the beauties of being a coach. Know your personnel. Know what they can do.
Krolik: The league is getting younger, we’re excited about that, but what’s always been a hallmark of the BIG3 is giving players a chance to retire on their own terms. You came back to the WNBA at 50 years old and got to retire on your own terms. How important is that to an athlete like you?
Lieberman: I want to say you very rarely see athletes these days retire. We don’t want to retire. There are a lot of different reasons. It could be the extraordinary money, the locker room, the fandom, and the competition. The BIG3 – I’ve said this since the first year I was coaching and this is my fourth – what Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz and Amy Trask and Commissioner Clyde Drexler did – this became a stepping-stone for so many guys.
Think about mental health, depression, and anxiety. Think about this with me, John. You’ve been a guy who’s dedicated 13,14,15 years to playing. To giving your family generational wealth. That means you had to sacrifice. Missing recitals, missing games, missing plays, missing things that your family was doing. Mama Bear is holding down the fort. You retire, and you’re the odd man out. Everyone else has a routine, except you. They’ve been doing this without you for years, and it doesn’t mean they don’t love you, but life goes on whether you’re in the house or not in the house.
The BIG3 is one of the greatest things for athletes so that they can step out of retirement. So that the kids can be in the locker room. So Mom, Grandma, Wife, Aunties, your Girlfriend, can be in the locker room. We want you to show your family who you are. When you were starring in the NBA, your kids were either not born or they were 2,3,4 years old, they didn’t know what the heck you were doing. I want my players’ kids to see their daddies shine. I want them to see them in their glory and then go home and share it. To be able to see players send me pictures of the wife and kids watching the game on TV and the kids are talking about their daddy…man, that gives me chills. That’s what Cube has done for not only people like Julius, me, and Rick Barry, Rick Mahorn, and…all of us. It’s given us a very, very broad opportunity on this platform to continue to be who we are. And we love being around each other.
Krolik: You had the first overall pick in the draft, you took Glen Rice Jr. What do see his role for the team being?
Lieberman: Well, Glen is an extraordinary player. He’s only 31 years old. He’s a bucket. He’s pretty much been unstoppable at every level that he’s played at. I’ve known him for a long time, I coached him at NBA Coach’s Camp. It’s actually been a pleasure to reunite with him. I saw him play in Israel, he was TJ [Cline’s] teammate with [Hapoel] Holon four years ago. And the guy was absolutely unstoppable. And I’m thinking “man, he’s unreal.”
Krolik: So it’s safe to say he was very much on your radar before the Combine.
Lieberman: Yes. Because I have known him for so long, and I just have a lot of respect for him. He’s young, he’s talented, he can get up and down the court. I hope he continues to play inspired and to show his talent, I want the world to see his talent.
Krolik: What is the plan for Power schematically? You seem to have a lot of playmakers with size.
Lieberman: You remember Hoop It Up, right? The outdoor 3-on-3 basketball that was all over the country?
Krolik: I don’t remember Hoop It Up.
Lieberman: It was the largest 3-on-3 tournament in the world. And my ex-husband, TJ’s daddy Tim, was the Senior Vice President. It started in the late ‘80s. And I played Hoop It Up. And when you play 3-on-3, you have to understand basketball concepts, but you also need to have people who can pass the ball. Nikoloz is a great passer. Cuttino is a heck of a passer, savvy with the basketball. Glen is a passer. TJ is a great passer. He’s one of the few players in the history of the NCAA to have averaged…I don’t even know what it was, 18 points, 7-8 rebounds, and 6 assists. These guys can drop dimes.
And Royce White is one of the most gifted passers we have in the league. We’re big, we’re strong – Cuttino’s the smallest player we have at 6’4. We have a nice blend, but so do the other teams. We were just doing what we thought was right for our makeup and our chemistry. We’re anxious to see what that looks like when we get on the court.
Krolik: You mentioned how the BIG3 gives chances for families to come together. On that note, TJ’s playing for your team next season.
Lieberman: Who is that?
Krolik (Slow on the uptake): TJ Cline?
Lieberman (laughing): Sounds familiar. I think he’s got most of my money. If you see him, tell him I want my money back.
Krolik: Having been to so many training camps where you stood out, did that give you more confidence to fit in with the team where people might think he’s only there because he’s the coach’s son?
Lieberman: If anybody says that, they have no idea who I am. I am 100% about trying to win and if you are not good enough to play, you will not play on my team. It’s a player’s game, and you have to be able to be at this level. If you would have asked me two years ago about TJ, I would have said “ummm…he’s in Europe.” But he’s 27, he played in Turkey, Israel, Spain, Euroleague, Eurocup, he’s won three championships, and he spent most of last year with the Wizards’ G-League team. He has so much experience – not NBA experience, he’s going to have to learn – these are grown men who have been so successful and amazing at what they’ve done. But TJ will be up for the challenge. It’ll be tough, but he’ll have to figure it out.
It’s like when Doc Rivers coached his son Austin. He traded his son. He coached Seth Curry [his son-in-law], who I coached in Sacramento. He traded Seth Curry! First of all, I have players, captains. And I talked to my captains. In fact, two years ago, Corey Maggette said “I want TJ to run our practice.” And for an hour, he ran that practice. And I didn’t ask Corey to do that. That’s what he thought of him.
Krolik: Nikoloz looked impressive at the combine, his size really seems to fit his frame.
Lieberman: He looks good. I was very impressed with him at the combine, he was passing, he was stretching the floor. But we’ll see what happens. Look, here’s what we’ll do: We will get out there. We will work hard. We will try and put the right people in the right place. And then we’ll go play ball. And we’ll have no regrets.
And at the end of the day, every time I see Cube, I say “Thank you,” and there’s gratitude. Every time I see Clyde or Amy or Jeff, it’s “Thank You.” And there’s true gratitude for what they’ve done for all of us. It’s been remarkable. And I go out to restaurants and it’s “Coach, coach, how are you doing?” People love the BIG3. It’s just a concept…Cube’s legacy…oh my gosh, what is his legacy?
[Krolik and Lieberman chuckle as they reflect on the vast amount of things league Co-Founder Ice Cube has accomplished in his career]
Lieberman: And I’ve never seen him turn down an interview. I’ve never seen him turn down a fan. He gets it. He’s a great husband. He’s a great father. And it’s just an honor and a privilege to work for him and with him, and the fact he calls me his “spirit animal,” that’s just over the top. I think we’ve got a lot in common, just pursuing things people tell us we can’t do.
Krolik: Well it’s an honor and a privilege to talk to you, Coach Lieberman. You really have changed the game.