Nancy Lieberman was like a lot of other people Friday night. She didn’t sleep much. The Kings assistant coach and basketball Hall of Famer was grieving the loss of her decades-long friend Muhammad Ali, who died of complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Lieberman had been anticipating the worst. When she learned of Ali’s deteriorating condition late last week, she called Ali’s wife, Lonnie, at the couple’s home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“I said, ‘This sounds pretty bad,’ ” said Lieberman, who was visiting her ailing mother in Florida. “ ‘Lonnie said, ‘Pray for me.’ I guess I knew then. But I’m still devastated. Muhammad changed my life. He indirectly changed women’s sports, women’s basketball, women’s tennis, and we’ve been friends since I was 19 or 20.”
Their relationship, as Lieberman likes to say, was a most improbable friendship. She was a basketball-crazed Jewish girl from Brooklyn; Ali was arguably the most charismatic and influential African American sports figure of the 20th century. The two met at a joint appearance for former Olympians at the New York Stock Exchange in 1979.
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“I didn’t know the other Olympian was going to be Muhammad,” she said Saturday. “When I walked into the room, I couldn’t breathe. I mean, Muhammad Ali, this man changed my life. When people said I was stupid, asking why I was hanging out with black kids, why I couldn’t be more like my brother, who was a very good student, Muhammad told me to believe in what I was doing. He said, ‘We’re going to do things that are different. People can’t see it.’ ”
That chance meeting led to a bond that developed and was sustained by years of phone calls, visits, dinners. While Ali was devoting his post-boxing career to philanthropy, social activism, human rights and charity events, Lieberman followed her own historic career path. After her standout seasons at Old Dominion, where she earned the nickname “Lady Magic” for her flamboyant style, she played and coached in the WNBA, became the first female head coach and general manager in the NBA’s Development League and worked as a television commentator for several outlets.
She was a TV analyst with the Oklahoma City Thunder when she joined the Kings’ coaching staff a year ago. After being hired, the second call she made was to Ali and his wife.
“I told Lonnie, ‘I just found out Sacramento is going to hire me as an assistant,’ ” said Lieberman, 50. “She put Ali on speakerphone, and he managed to say, ‘Nancy, we are so thrilled.’ ”
When the Kings played the Suns in Phoenix on Nov. 4, Ali and Lonnie watched from a suite above the visitors’ bench and later were introduced to several of the players and coaches. The Kings played the Suns again in Phoenix on April 11. Aware her friend’s condition was deteriorating, making him virtually incapable of uttering more than a few slurred words, Lieberman took Uber to Ali’s home after the shootaround.
“He really couldn’t say anything,” she said, her voice catching with emotion. “I would just hold his hand. When he went to lay down, I sat with Lonnie for a while. When I got up to use the bathroom, I walked down the hallway and saw him in his bedroom, sleeping. I went over to him and whispered, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, but I love you.’ ”
Lieberman has cleared her schedule and plans to attend Ali’s funeral this week. After a few more moments of soft-spoken reflection, she passionately addressed his influence and impact on American society.
“Look at the stance he took on Vietnam,” she said. “He was absolutely right. He was a visionary. He taught me to fear nobody, respect everybody, have humility and stick up for the things you believe.”
She wanted to share one more personal memory, one that traces back to the day she met the former champ. After the appearance on Wall Street, she said, Ali invited her to lunch at the Plaza Hotel.
“We sat and talked,” she said. “He said, ‘Everybody thinks I’m racist, but I’m for everybody.’ He said, ‘Girl, you’re going to Rucker Park, and you’ll feel reverse racism. They’re not going to like a white girl coming to their park. You might have to fight. But you fight if you have to.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
Services for Ali
- Thursday: Private ceremony for family.
- Friday: Motorcade through Louisville, private burial at Cave Hill cemetery and a public memorial at the KFC Yum! Center.
- Eulogies on Friday: Former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel.