Nancy Lieberman’s life – no, her whole world – changed in a minute, with a simple inquiry from Kings coach George Karl. Was she interested in coming to the Las Vegas Summer League and auditioning for a position on his staff?
Lieberman, who is never speechless, who could have a conversation with a basketball, was speechless. She had waited months, years, decades for an invitation to the NBA’s exclusive club. Once it was extended, it was all over.
Though she knew Vlade Divac only in passing, there was no need to break down the doors. All the Kings general manager needed was a nudge, a formal introduction. In a matter of weeks, Karl’s recommendation was endorsed, a contract was extended, and one of the highest-profile figures in women’s sports history became the league’s second female assistant.
Wednesday night at the California Museum, Lieberman, 57, will be the featured guest of She Shares, an organization overseen by the California Center for Civic Participation to mentor and encourage the next generation of female leaders. Previous speakers include Maria Shriver, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, California Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, California attorney general Kamala Harris and Kings business president Matina Kolokotronis.
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The overriding challenge during any Lieberman discussion will be this: Where to start?
There are no holes in her résumé. A Hall of Fame point guard known as “Lady Magic” for her flamboyant style, she was a playground legend in her native New York, an All-American at Old Dominion, Olympian, WNBA player and coach, and perhaps, most significant for her current role with the Kings, a former head coach and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks’ NBA Development League team.
Women, men. Girls, boys. Toddlers, senior citizens. Lieberman, whose magical touch persists – she sank a one-handed, back-to-the-basket, halfcourt heave at a recent Kings holiday event – is in the midst of a surprisingly seamless transition. Two months into the regular season, she takes comfort in a routine that consists of working individually with players, collaborating with assistant Chad Iske on scouting reports for every third game, breaking down film, offering opinions when solicited, and, in general, attempting to establish a rapport with everyone in the practice facility.
“I think it’s been good,” said Karl, who for years had contemplated hiring a female assistant. “Sometimes I think we (head coaches) have been too macho about this for too long. Everybody connects with people differently, and some players communicate better with women. That’s why you want three or four assistants. With Nancy, obviously she knows the game. But the best thing she does is connect one-on-one with the players. She can take hard subjects and go to a player, and that’s very unusual in a young coach.”
If you didn’t know the Kings had added a female to the coaching staff, you could attend a practice and sense nothing out of the ordinary. Lieberman blends in, dressed in the off-day uniform of baggy shorts, sweatshirt and sneakers, with her strawberry-colored hair tugged back into a ponytail.
Game time is an entirely different matter. Lieberman, who describes herself as an enthusiastic “buyer,” not a “shopper,” has a wardrobe so varied and colorful that fans behind the bench often shout, “What are you wearing next game, Nancy?”
“I tell them, ‘You have to come and see,’ ” she said with a laugh. “You know me. In the big picture of life, I get a lot of attention. I’m not starved for attention by any means. I’ve been a star, but now I’m a role player and I’m just trying to fit in. You have to humble yourself. And I’m learning a lot. It’s very demanding with practices, games, watching tape, getting back on the court with players. You really don’t have a lot of time to yourself. But if you’re going to do it, you have to be all in.”
Lieberman, who bought a home in the Arden Arcade area a month ago, only sleeps a few hours and awakens at 6 a.m. to tend to her outside businesses. And this unique career shift came at a cost. A spokesperson for dozens of corporations and foundations these past few decades, she has hired an assistant and dramatically reduced her list of speaking engagements, business commitments and charitable appearances.
But there was no chance – absolutely none – that she would abandon the charity that funds basketball courts in lower-income areas. She recently contributed to a court in Del Paso Heights and is working with Charles Barkley on future facilities in Sacramento and his hometown of Leeds, Ala. Additionally, she continues to help fund 12 students through college.
Long known for her generosity and a charismatic, accommodating nature, Lieberman laughs and says, simply, “this all feels so normal. This is what I am supposed to be doing.”
The most difficult aspect of her new job is the conflict with her son’s college basketball schedule. T.J. Cline is a starter for the Richmond Spiders. Accordingly, her cellphone seldom leaves her pocket and she often sneaks a peek at the monitor for updates. On Thanksgiving morning, she took a 7 a.m. flight to Las Vegas to watch T.J. play in a tournament, had dinner with her son and ex-husband, and after dealing with thorny return flight issues, hired a private jet to get her back to Sacramento in time for Friday’s practice.
“George has been great,” she said, “and it’s been pretty much what I expected. I really like it here. The only other thing is, I don’t know a lot of people here. That’s the difference between me and Becky (Spurs assistant Becky Hammon). She lived in San Antonio, so that was home for her. It would be fun to have a group of people to hang out with, have over for dinner. But that will come. I am enjoying everything about this. Like I say; my life changed in a minute. Every day I come to work in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers and get to do what I love.”