One of the Guys

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“Say that again slowly?”

I had just received a call from Ailene, a writer for the SacBee, and couldn’t believe what she was telling me.

“Nancy, I just talked to Vlade Divac, and he told me in an interview that he’s gonna offer you the job. He’s hiring you for the assistant coaching job.”

Now, I’m sure many people see me, Nancy Lieberman, 57 years old, and say, “Wow, look at her career, look what happened.” But I don’t buy into all that. I look at where I started.

Before the national championships, before the WNBA, before becoming an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings — before all that — I was just a poor, skinny, redheaded Jewish girl from Queens.

Since then, we’ve come a long way to now have two women coaching full-time in the NBA. But for me, growing up, I always played with the boys.

At least, when they’d let me.

***

Football was actually my first sport. When I was eight years old, I played in a tackle football league. I was a big New York Jets fan — it was 1968, the era of the Jets. My family used to shop in thrift stores and at one of these dime stores, there was this New York Jets lamp. To be honest, it was a plastic piece of nothing that cost about 50 cents. The base was a Jets helmet with a little pipe through the top of it.

So I unscrewed the base and I took the wires and pipe out and I put towels inside the helmet. I didn’t have a chinstrap — because it was a lamp — so I used tape for my chinstrap.

I tried out for this football team, and I made the team as running back. I would run kicks back because I was really fast. I was running a kick back one day, and this guy put his helmet in my stomach and knocked the wind out of me. My helmet cracked in half, splitting down the middle and fell off my head. The only thing that stuck was the duct tape on my chin.

When I came home, I was holding the helmet, split in half, holding it by the duct tape, and my mother says, “What did you do to the lamp?!”

My true love, though, was baseball. It was my best sport. I played shortstop and left field. I was playing Police Athletic League ball for Coach Smitty. I was practicing every day with the team, but when we got to our first game, Smitty comes up to me and tells me I can’t play because they won’t insure a girl.

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“What does that mean?” I said. I was just too young to understand the politics of life. I felt so bad. I cried so hard and for so long.

By that time, I was nine years old and I started playing basketball. I went to this YMCA that was in my neighborhood and asked if I could join, and the guy goes, “Of course, you can play.”

“I can play, even though I’m a girl?”

“Of course you can.”

But getting into the leagues and playing with the boys, I learned, was only half the battle. Being sporty and athletic, shockingly, was not every mother’s dream for their daughter. Especially not for my mother. And being that it was the ’60s, my mother also wasn’t welcoming of the fact that through sports, I spent a lot of time playing with the black kids in our neighborhood.

Back then, I used basketball as a way to kind of hide my pain. My parents divorced when I was eight. I was told by my family that I was stupid, I was dumb, I would never make anything of myself. I just had so many things on my mind.

My family would tell me things like …

Girls don’t play sports.

Why are you playing in the schoolyard with all the black kids?

Why are you embarrassing us?

What are the neighbors going to think?

Those words hurt, sure. But they only drove me further to be the best. Then I remember I saw this man on the TV and he would say, “I’m the greatest!” That he beat Sonny Liston, that he beat Joe Frazier.

I stood in front of my TV, mesmerized, and I walked into the kitchen, put my hands on my hips and looked at my mother, then pointed at her and said, “You better get used to it. I’m gonna make history. I’m gonna be the greatest women’s basketball player ever.”

And I walked out the kitchen.

Muhammad Ali was my hero. He taught me to love me and to be fearless in my pursuit of excellence.

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So I decided back then, at 10, 11 years old, that I didn’t want to live my mother’s life. My mother had nothing. We would go into her closet and empty her purses to get change so we could put gas in the car to try and find my father to pay the monthly alimony.

I didn’t want to be in a house any longer that had no heat. I didn’t want to be in a house any longer that didn’t have lights. I didn’t want to be reliant on somebody else for my happiness. And sports took me in the direction that I needed to go.

I decided back then, at 10, 11 years old, that I didn’t want to live my mother’s life.

It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t supportive at first. You don’t know what you don’t know. And she lived in a time where women didn’t play sports — women were homemakers. She saw what my grandma did, and my grandma wore a dress every day. Probably a turning point for my mother was me making Team USA, and then the Olympics. She was growing in seeing my success, but she was also growing in her understanding of my life and what made me happy.

But, I look back on those days and I’m really thankful for a fews things. Mostly, I’m thankful that somebody told me that the greatest basketball players in the world play at Rucker Park in Harlem. And again, for Ali. Because if not for him, I wouldn’t have believed in myself to go up to the court on my own.

I used to go into my mom’s purse and I would take a dollar or two without her knowing it and I’d walk into town, I’d take the A train by myself from Far Rockaway, change trains in the city and get off at 155th and 8th Avenue and I would go into Rucker Park.

These guys would look at me and they’d go, “Little girl, are you lost?”

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“I heard you guys are really good, and I want to play against guys who are really good. And I ain’t afraid of you.”

It’s almost like we cut through a lot of social issues. I know you’re black and I know I’m white, but I just want to be the best and play against the best. I wish I knew where everybody was today because I’m so appreciative of how I was protected and respected. They’d get me in the games. The guys would ride the train back to Far Rockaway with me. I’d walk in my house and my mother would just be seething. She’d be so angry, but I was teaching my mother not to be judgmental, not to be racist, not to profile people.

Ali believed in me, these young men in Harlem believed in me — and I needed someone to believe in me. These guys were my foundation.

These guys championed me. They pushed me. They made me better, they didn’t baby me. When I tried out for Team USA — the PanAm team in 1975 — I was only a junior in high school. While everyone else was saying I couldn’t make it, they were saying I could make it.

When I was in college, I actually had the chance to meet Ali at an event for the Olympics, and we have been friends since that day. That man changed my life. He gave me so much advice and so much confidence. I didn’t have that love and support growing up, and he taught me to respect everybody, but fear nobody. Ali believed in me, these young men in Harlem believed in me — and I needed someone to believe in me. These guys were my foundation.

So playing in men’s leagues is normal for me. I’ve played my whole life against and with the guys. Pat Riley and I laugh about it now, but his first coaching gig was with the Lakers in 1980 when he became their assistant. He was the head coach of their Summer League team and I was his point guard. I’d show up for practice, and for three hours, they beat the crap out of me. I never cried and I never sat down. I even tried to start two fights. Every time coach would say, “OK, I need five guys out here to run this drill,” I’d step onto the court.

And then, finally, the WNBA came along.

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It’s the greatest women’s basketball league in the world with some of the most amazing legends who have played the game. I was fortunate to eke out a year at 39 years old, while my contemporaries, like Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski and Cheryl Miller, didn’t get that opportunity. And I know they would have loved to have had that chance.

The WNBA gave us hope. It gave us something to strive for. You wouldn’t know about Becky Hammon if there was no WNBA. She never would have met Coach Popovich if they weren’t playing in the same building. So every woman who gets an opportunity in TV, in coaching, playing in Europe — whatever — owes a “thank you” to commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver and to our WNBA presidents, from Val Ackerman, to Donna Orender, to Laurel Richie.

When I heard the news that the Spurs hired Becky, I got chills. I was coaching at my basketball camp at the time, and the first thing I did was stop camp, and I said, “Guys … coaches … everybody … we just had a historic moment.” I was so happy for her and so proud of Coach Popovich, because it takes a strong man with strong beliefs to do something that nobody has ever done before.

It had to happen for someone. Someone had to open that door. But if Becky got the job and nobody else gets hired, it’s a tragedy. Because it’s a one-off.

If Jackie Robinson makes it into Major League Baseball, but he’s the only African American who makes it, then it’s a tragedy. It’s a success when Larry Doby is the next player, when Nancy Lieberman is the next coach.

My path, however, was a lot different from Becky’s. In a weird way, it starts with the fact that I have a hard time sleeping. Seriously.

One morning back in 2009, I was up really early and I was going over to the mailbox near a Starbucks in Plano, Texas, and walking out of that Starbucks was Donnie Nelson, the GM and president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks.

He’s walking out and he goes, “Hey, girl!”

“Hey, Donnie, how are you? And by the way, congratulations. I heard you landed the D-League team.”

And he kind of looks at me with this strange look and he says, “Hey, let me make sure I have your number.”

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And so he calls me up, we meet, and he says, “Would you be interested in being the head coach of my team? I’m watching you and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe the best man for the job is not a man. Maybe it’s a woman.’ You played the game, you played in men’s leagues, you’ve coached the game. You check the all the boxes, especially the most important quality.”

“And what’s that?”

“You’re not afraid.”

So Donnie Nelson, who was ahead of Pop, who was ahead of everybody, he didn’t just say, “I want you to be my assistant.” He said, “Here, be my head coach.” And that really was the first time I ever thought, Maybe the NBA is a possibility.

Donnie deserves a lot of credit for changing how people think, because the D-League is so attached to the NBA that it changed the landscape. It made it easier, I believe, for Pop to hire Becky.

I remember Rajon Rondo coming over and giving me a hug. Then Willie Cauley-Stein, Seth Curry, David Stockton — every player.

To tell you the truth, I was not expecting the call from Vlade about the Sacramento offer. I knew I was getting closer with a couple teams — there had been a lot of talk — but when I was in the gym at Plano West with my son and I got that call from Ailene, I still couldn’t believe it was true. At least until Vlade told me himself.

Vlade actually went on NBA Radio on Sirius XM first, and within 30 minutes, there were over 600 interview requests. But I didn’t want to call any media back until Vlade, George Karl and I spoke. A short time later, they called to tell me that what I’ve wanted for so long was finally mine.

I’ve known George a long time, and I’m really proud that he truly believes in me. He makes you feel like you can do anything. This is a Hall of Famer. This is a guy who knows the game.

I arrived at Sacramento on a Sunday night, and the next morning, I got up really early and I went over to the Kings offices and practice facility. I walked in, and there was my office, with my nameplate on a door. I sat down in my chair for a minute. I thought, Can you believe you’re in Sacramento? In your wildest dreams, would you ever think you’d be here? And here you are …

Then I went out on the practice court and just shot a little bit. I remember Rajon Rondo coming over and giving me a hug. Then Willie Cauley-Stein, Seth Curry, David Stockton — every player. Some of them I knew because I coached Summer League with the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins has been one of the most amazing young men from the time I met him in Vegas. He just gave me this big old hug and said, “We’re happy you’re here.”

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Now, you can start to see the benefits. Becky was successful in Summer League. You’ll be able to see how we have interpersonal relationships with these guys. It’s a different voice. It’s really important. We have trainers, we have conditioning coaches, we have mind coaches. Why wouldn’t you have someone who connects to the players in a different way? If someone is qualified to teach the game, then that’s just icing on the cake. And a lot of these guys have daughters. Coach Karl’s daughter, Kaci, is 11. He’s getting to show his daughter that she can do anything if she’s willing to work hard for it.

Coaching in the D-League, I was firm, but I was fair. I was not a pushover. But I could get a phone call at 1 or 2 in the morning from one of my players, and they’d be like, “Coach, I don’t feel well,” or “Coach, I had a fight with my wife,” or, “My mother’s got cancer.” I was always there.

I can tell you right now that the relationships I’ve forged in Sacramento with Willie, Rajon, DeMarcus and other players are special. They just want to be coached. They do know that we’re coming from different perspectives, and that’s okay. It’s really okay. They want to know how they can get better and they wanna know my perspective — on life and on basketball.

The door is open now, but we still have to pay our dues. We still have to create these relationships of trust. We can’t just expect to get this because we’re women or because we played the game. We have to understand that we have to earn this right and we have to keep getting better at what we do.

Stepping onto the court in Sacramento for our first game of the season against the Clippers, I know I’ll be taking a deep breath. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the moment, and I will appreciate the moment.

But I’ll also be thinking of Ali and the guys at Rucker who got me here.

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