Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings assistant Nancy Lieberman took long, winding road to NBA

Texas Legends head coach Nancy Lieberman, center, reacts as she tries to get the attention of one of her players during an NBA Development League game in 2011.
Texas Legends head coach Nancy Lieberman, center, reacts as she tries to get the attention of one of her players during an NBA Development League game in 2011. Associated Press file

The NBA is a game of angles and connections, which is why the hiring of Nancy Lieberman as a Kings assistant is such a head-scratcher.

What took so long? Lieberman’s robust Rolodex is probably trumped only by her life experiences. She has competed in the Olympics, starred at Old Dominion, played and coached in several professional leagues, worked as a television commentator. Years before joining George Karl’s staff, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native coached the Dallas Mavericks’ NBA Development League team into the playoffs, then moved into the front office as assistant general manager.

And somewhere along the way – well before the WNBA was conceived and the notion of women coaching men ever found the womb – Lieberman, 57, transformed Martina Navratilova into a superbly conditioned athlete and revolutionized the way female tennis players approach training.

So, again, what took so long?

“I think sometimes you can get taken for granted,” Lieberman said. “I’m like the loyal dog. My only frustration was wondering if this was ever going to happen – if somebody was ever going to take a look at me and say, ‘She can do this.’”

A major assist goes to Gregg Popovich, of course, who introduced former WNBA star Becky Hammon as a Spurs assistant a year ago. Hammon advanced the conversation last month when she guided San Antonio to the Las Vegas Summer League championship. The ensuing few weeks have been a blur of unconventional activity, with the Arizona Cardinals hiring the NFL’s first female assistant, the Toronto Raptors naming a woman to oversee their basketball operations, and Lieberman accepting a role she believes she was born to play: NBA coach.

She told me I was a nice little girl and that I should play with dolls. But I didn’t want to play with dolls. I wanted to play football, baseball, basketball. Then it became, ‘Well, the neighbors are talking.’ I asked, ‘Talking about what? Let them talk.’

Kings assistant Nancy Lieberman, on childhood conversations with her mother

For starters, everyone within the league knows Nancy, or at least knows of Nancy. Old film clips reveal a daring, charismatic 5-foot-10 blonde with the dazzling ballhandling and all-around skills that earned her the nickname “Lady Magic.” She also borrowed from Larry Bird and Walt Frazier, the flamboyant former New York Knicks guard who was her childhood idol. She wore Frazier’s jersey number – No.10 – throughout a playing career that ended with a brief WNBA comeback attempt at age 50.

Lieberman is quick to praise her supporters and thank those who influenced her ascent. She refers to herself as a victor, not a victim, and says she scored her first major victory in her living room in Long Island, against her mother.

On one particularly stormy afternoon, as she tells it, a bored, restless Lieberman ran around the house dribbling a basketball. When she refused to stop, her mother, Renee, deflated the ball with a screwdriver. Undeterred, Nancy grabbed another ball and resumed dribbling. Unwavering, Renee again reached for the screwdriver and destroyed another basketball. The family drama continued until seven balls were ruined.

“I asked my mom, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to hold me back? I want to work on my ballhandling,’” Lieberman recalled. “She told me I was a nice little girl and that I should play with dolls. But I didn’t want to play with dolls. I wanted to play football, baseball, basketball. Then it became, ‘Well, the neighbors are talking.’ I asked, ‘Talking about what? Let them talk.’”

Nancy Lieberman returned from the 1976 Olympics with a silver medal. Her mother, Renee, became an instant hit in the neighborhood and a fan of her daughter’s unique abilities.

The mother-daughter tango, a not uncommon phenomenon given the times and pre-Title IX realities, persisted until a 17-year-old Lieberman returned from the 1976 Olympics with a silver medal. Renee, a single mother of two, became an instant hit in the neighborhood and a fan of her daughter’s unique abilities. Sadly, her health is failing, and it is unclear whether she grasps the significance of her daughter’s job with the Kings.

“I tried to explain it the other day,” said Lieberman, softly, “but I don’t think she understands. She just turned 86. I’m going to visit her down in Florida, so we’ll see. I hope she gets it, but I just don’t know.”

Lieberman, who is divorced and has a son in college, has been flooded with interview requests and congratulatory messages seemingly from everyone except the president. Hammon and former Commissioner David Stern were among the first in a long list of past and present NBA luminaries to call. Her relationships with the Mavericks and NBA coaches, owners and executives facilitated her two historic coaching moves.

It was an obvious choice and it was historic, but frankly, it is long overdue. After she took us to the playoffs that first year, I honestly thought she would be the first (female NBA assistant), and that it would happen soon.

Dallas GM Donnie Nelson, who hired Nancy Lieberman to coach the Mavericks’ Development League team

Former NBA head coach Del Harris, now the vice president of the Texas Legends, the Mavericks’ D-League squad, recommended Lieberman to Dallas GM Donnie Nelson. Nelson and his father, Don Nelson, are tight with Harris, Popovich and Karl. Harris coached a young Vlade Divac with the Lakers. At various times, they all say, the possiblity of hiring women has been discussed, though more often for the front office than the coaching staff.

“I was looking for a coach who was local, who was respected within the NBA, the international scene, and who would be good at developing players,” Donnie Nelson said. “I had my little sheet of priorities, my list, on the desk. But like a lot of things in life, sometimes you find what you need right in your own backyard. Nancy was right there. It was an obvious choice and it was historic, but frankly, it is long overdue. After she took us to the playoffs that first year, I honestly thought she would be the first (female NBA assistant), and that it would happen soon.”

Doors open, others close, and personal circumstances often create obstacles. Lieberman, who coached the WNBA’s Detroit Shock for three seasons, coached the Legends for only one year because of the travel demands. With her son, T.J., in high school at the time, she moved into the Legends’ front office – a decision that probably hurt her coaching prospects. In her desire to remain relevant, to retain the all-important face time, she conducted clinics, supervised summer camps, granted interviews, attended annual NBA and WNBA events, broadcast men’s and women’s games, and nurtured longstanding friendships with individuals in all the pro leagues.

What is a zip cut? Boxes, elbows, fake screen? How do you talk to each other? It’s very different. I was a human question (in the D-League) because I wanted to understand how to help players get better.

Kings Assistant Nancy Lieberman

While taking a break during an exhaustive first week, the new Kings assistant acknowledges that breaking down barriers can leave bruises. Navratilova’s improved fitness prodded peers Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Hana Mandlikova, among others, to adopt more rigorous, at times painful training methods. Hammon has offered suggestions, thoughts, observations. Others have helped with terminology that can serve as a language barrier, but this is where her D-League head-coaching experience has helped.

“What is a zip cut?” Lieberman said. “Boxes, elbows, fake screen? How do you talk to each other? It’s very different. I was a human question (in the D-League) because I wanted to understand how to help players get better.”

Many of those same questions will now be directed to Karl, the veteran coach who, similar to the engaging, unfailingly accommodating Lieberman, isn’t shy about voicing opinions or flouting convention. “I can’t imagine a better mind and personality for Nancy to mesh with,” Donnie Nelson said. “George is creative, visionary, one of the best to ever wear a whistle around his neck, period. He simplifies the complicated, which is an art form. Nancy will soak it all up.”

Asked if he can envision an organization hiring a female head coach, Nelson didn’t hesitate. “I do. I am really proud of our league for what’s happening. But there has to be a first. And why can’t we move faster? Why not her (Lieberman)?”

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