Lieberman gets chance to coach the men
Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman was introduced Thursday as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks' affiliate in the NBA Development League, which will tip off in November 2010.
The D-League team is partially owned by Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks' president of basketball operations. Hiring Lieberman was his idea, and he's confident young men won't have a problem taking orders from a woman - at least, not this woman.
"She's got the skins, the experience - she knows what she's doing - so I certainly hope that we're well beyond those issues," Nelson said. "Besides, if you can't respect authority, no matter what form or color it comes in, I don't want you on my team."
Lieberman has been a basketball pioneer since she was 17 and made the U.S. Olympic team for the first women's tournament, at the 1976 Montreal Games. She starred at Old Dominion and in various women's pro leagues, then in 1986 played for the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League. When the WNBA started, she returned as a player, and later was a coach and general manager. She returned briefly as a player in July 2008, at age 50.
Kobe Bryant later told her that he and his daughters were watching during her latest comeback. He also asked, "Why would you put your reputation on the line like that?" She told him she did it because she had no fear - and that's exactly why she's taking on this challenge.
"I know how these guys feel," she said. "I played in the minor leagues. I'm ultimately connected to that part of development in a player's life."
She's also proud to break another gender barrier, one she hopes "could be the last barrier."
"I kind of look at President Obama," she said. "Everybody knows it's historical because he's a man of color. But at the end of the day, regardless of his race, creed, color or gender, he has to be president. Everybody knows I'm a woman, but at the end of the day, regardless of my race, creed, color or gender, I have to win basketball games.
"In 1986, my goal was not to be a girl playing in a men's league, it was to be a player in a men's league," she added. "In 2010, I don't want to be a woman who is coaching men, I want to be a coach who is coaching."
NBA commissioner David Stern, a strong supporter of the development league and women's basketball, called the hiring "great news for all."
"This is wonderful for the NBA D-League," Stern said. "A basketball pioneer and Hall of Famer continues her journey."
While the hiring is the most notable in D-League history, it's no publicity stunt.
Lieberman has lived in the Dallas area for 28 years and happens to live about 3 miles from the new D-League team's gym in Frisco, a north suburb. She's run summer camps for girls and boys since 1983, so long that she's now teaching the children of some former pupils.
Her involvement on every level of basketball, along with the obvious marketing benefit, is part of why Nelson calls the hiring "a no-brainer."
"What she's done on a grass-roots level for basketball around here is second-to-none, and her experience can rival anybody's in basketball, from Olympics to professional to being in the Hall of Fame," Nelson said. "That, and the D-League is all about dreaming coming true, providing opportunities."
Staying close to home is especially important to Lieberman because her son, T.J., is 15 and she wants to keep watching him play basketball.
"When I told him I was going to do this, he was so excited," she said. "That was so different from when I came back last summer. He was like, 'Ma, come on.' But then the night I played, kids were blowing up his cell phone and he's like, 'Dude! I'm here with her! We're making history!"'
The Mavericks will loan several players from their roster to the Frisco club and obviously will have input on other signees. Lieberman said she would like to watch Mavs coach Rick Carlisle so she can run the same drills and use similar technical terms to make the transition between the teams easier on all the players.
Longtime NBA coach Del Harris will be the team's general manager. Former slam dunk champion Spud Webb, who is from the area, will be president of basketball operations. The team has yet to be officially named.