George Karl was leaning against the media table during training camp last week at UC San Diego, three days into an intense Kings preseason, when he was asked about first-year assistant coach Nancy Lieberman.
Normally, the Kings’ coach will chat himself hoarse. He can talk hoops and movies and politics into the wee hours. No topic is off the table. But he was mildly irritated when pressed about the recent addition of Lieberman and the San Antonio Spurs’ hiring of Becky Hammon a year ago.
In his mind – and in the mind of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who will be on the opposing bench Thursday at Sleep Train Arena – this is no big deal.
And you know what that means, when accomplished NBA head coaches invite female assistants into their gyms, assign them the usual duties and accept them as one of the guys?
Progress. This is progress. We’ll say it twice because now there are two of them.
“I don’t want to overstate anything,” Karl said moments later with a grin. “Nancy’s a basketball coach. All that hype about hiring a woman? All we care about is getting better as a team, and she adds things. One of the things I see right now is that when she speaks, players listen. I’ve been around a lot of great minds in this game, but the reason they’re not great coaches is because people don’t listen to them. Players listen to Nancy.”
The Kings-Lieberman pairing might be most taxing on Lieberman. As she often points out, at 57 she’s part of an older generation. While Hammon, 38, benefited from Title IX legislation and is surrounded by players closer to her peer group, Lieberman developed her skills and advanced her career while funding for girls and women’s athletics was still in its infancy.
To get ahead, she learned to speak loud, louder and louder still. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native is someone who finds the empty seat on the subway. She commands a room at every level, often by dribbling a basketball; she famously shouted down her mother for discouraging her obsessive pursuit of a game that led her to Old Dominion, Olympic and world championship medals and a Hall of Fame induction (1996).
All that hype about hiring a woman? All we care about is getting better as a team, and she adds things.
Kings head coach George Karl on assistant coach Nancy Lieberman
The 5-foot-10 point guard, whose flamboyant style was modeled after Pat Riley’s “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, also was a standout in several now-defunct pro leagues before the launch of the WNBA. And the Kings are far from Lieberman’s first pro coaching gig, or her first experience coaching men. She was coach and general manager of the Detroit Shock for three seasons and, after working as an ESPN analyst, was hired by the Dallas Mavericks’ Donnie Nelson to coach the NBA Development League’s expansion Texas Legends.
When Karl asked if she wanted to work for the Kings at the Las Vegas summer league, she couldn’t pack fast enough. “I knew Nancy’s history, of course,” Kings general manager and vice president Vlade Divac said, “and I was curious. But then I watched her in Las Vegas, and I said to George, ‘Absolutely, let’s bring her in.’ She has a way about her.”
Make that many ways. And many looks. Lieberman dresses for the cameras and the profile photos with the best of them – nails polished, hair swept back and sprayed into place, slacks and heels perfectly matched.
But the gym is her home. During practices last week, she was just another assistant coach. In droopy shorts and a sweaty T-shirt, strawberry blonde hair tugged into a ponytail, she eased into the background, often taking her direction from Karl. When practices ended, she retrieved free throws for the guards and, later, resumed a foul shooting contest with Rajon Rondo that started weeks ago in Sacramento.
It’s important for me to show respect. To come in here and force myself into situations would not be good for team chemistry.
Kings assistant coach Nancy Lieberman
“I had just gotten into town,” she said during dinner last week. “It was 7 p.m. I had watched ‘SportsCenter’ for like the sixth time. I was bored. So I went over to the practice facility to shoot around, and Rajon was there. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said he was bored, too. We just started shooting, talking.”
Lieberman, who hints she is leading the contest that counts swishes, not just free throws, shuttles players from the hotels to the gym whenever they want to shoot around. No duty is too menial, or too unusual. One night last week at the team hotel near Rancho Santa Fe, she joined Rondo, Rudy Gay and Kosta Koufos for a yoga session at the spa.
She’s fitting in, probing the players about their backgrounds and philosophies and providing her insights and theories when asked.
“It’s important for me to show respect,” Lieberman said. “To come in here and force myself into situations would not be good for team chemistry. I’m a 57-year-old millennial. I want to know, ‘Why?’ I’m going to keep asking questions. I have a lot to learn. But one of the good things about George is that he wants things to happen organically, and I think that’s what’s happening.”
Asked if she has met any resistance within the organization, Lieberman shook her head forcefully: “No, none.” Several players reacted to questions about her with words and expressions similar to that of their head coach, leaving one to wonder why anyone still asks.
“I’m willing to listen to anyone who can help me become a better player,” forward Omri Casspi said. “I learned a lot of basketball from my mother. Obviously, Nancy has the vision of a former point guard, has ideas on how to guard the pick-and-roll. She’ll say to me, ‘You have to curl in there,’ and shows different angles coming off screens. I think we all feel we’re lucky to have her.”
Progress, indeed. When the Monarchs won the WNBA championship a decade ago, previous Kings executives made a point of skipping the celebration. The Monarchs were deemed intruders, unwelcome, the WNBA a game to be played elsewhere. So while the old Kings regime had its day, that day is past. Progress, indeed.
Night for history
- What: Female coaches will be on opposing NBA benches for the first time
- Who: The Kings’ Nancy Lieberman and the Spurs’ Becky Hammon
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Sleep Train Arena
- TV: CSNCA