Lieberman nears playoffs coaching men
Every time Jada Daniels is around her dad's pro basketball team, she hurries off to find his boss. They share hugs and high-fives, the 5-year-old girl not even thinking twice about Coach Nancy being in charge of a squad of grown men.
Nancy Lieberman doesn't think about it much either.
She's been part of the above-the-rim action in men's basketball since she was a teenager taking the subway to Harlem for pickup games. Now 52, she's well aware of being the first woman to coach a professional men's team, but the only history she cares about is whether her Texas Legends win their final game Saturday night to reach the NBA D-League playoffs in their debut season.
So leave it to guys such as Donnie Nelson and Antonio Daniels to get all sappy and sentimental about the latest gender barrier shattered by the Hall of Famer known as ''Lady Magic.''
Nelson is the Legends co-owner who hired Lieberman, and Daniels is her point guard. While making the playoffs would mean a lot to them professionally, what she's already done means even more to them as fathers.
''For years, I sat across the breakfast table from my daughter, hearing her say, 'Dad, you know I can't do this, I can't do that, I've got to stick with things that are realistic,''' said Nelson, also the president of the Dallas Mavericks. ''Now, every little girl in America can look at Nancy and say, 'She broke barriers, why can't I?'''
Daniels has two of those little girls, Jada and 3-month-old Jordyn. He likes knowing Jada will grow up having already been exposed to this dynamo in heels drawing up plays for a dozen guys in high tops.
''When she gets older, it'll sink in and she'll understand,'' said Daniels, who played 12 seasons in the NBA. ''Or, maybe not. Maybe by then the door will be completely opened, as opposed to women just kind of peeking in.''
Lieberman was a pioneer in the women's game in the mid-70s, coming along just as the sport was starting to grow. She made the national team at age 17 and a year later helped the United States win a silver medal in the first Olympic basketball tournament. She later was the point guard on the first Lakers summer-league team coached by Pat Riley, and spent two years playing against men in the United States Basketball League.
She entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and was back in action the following year when the WNBA began, joining the Phoenix Mercury at age 39. When their workouts overlapped with the Suns, Lieberman would talk shop with their coaches, asking about pick-and-roll defenses and such. Nelson happened to be part of that staff.
The next year, Lieberman became general manager and coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock. Since then, she's launched a popular summer basketball camp and gotten into broadcasting and motivational speaking. There was even a return to the Shock as a player in 2008 - at age 50, breaking her own WNBA record for oldest player.
She's made the Dallas area home for several decades. One day in 2009, she bumped into Nelson at a coffee shop. He already had the D-League expansion club and was putting together a list of candidates to be the first coach. He wanted someone local, someone passionate, someone knowledgeable and someone who would help make a splash.
''When I left Starbucks, I was like, 'She's perfect,''' Nelson said.
Hired in November 2009, she had a year to get ready. She spent her own money traveling the country, becoming ''a human question mark,'' she said. There was NBA terminology to learn, as well as things like what angle to run a screen.
''I needed to have answers to the questions from my coaching staff and players,'' she said. ''If I walked in and Rashad McCants goes, 'Coach, why did we stunt, and tell me about our rotations,' I can't be like, 'Umm, uh, I don't know.'''
Her research was so extensive it included a day with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. She'd been impressed by him from afar, and wanted his advice on something she thought would be crucial to her job: How can I help make young black men better? What can I do to connect with them?
Given a roster featuring former NBA players such as Daniels, McCants, Joe Alexander and Sean Williams, Lieberman commanded their attention, and respect, from Day 1.
By Day 2, she was just Coach.
She strengthened her bond with players by having them to her house for dinner and taking them out while on the road. There was a team gathering for Thanksgiving, with everyone going around the table saying one or two things nobody knew about them, and there have been bowling outings.
''She's treated us like family,'' said Alexander, the team's leading scorer. Asked if she's been sort of a team mom, he said, ''It's just being a good, caring person, that's what it is.''
Daniels said opponents constantly ask, ''What's it like to have a girl coach.'' Then he laughed and noted that he heard similar questions when he was in the NBA, guys wanting to know what it was like to play for Gregg Popovich or Nate McMillan.
''The only difference is the fact we can't get dressed in the locker room if she's there,'' Daniels said. ''She knows what she's doing. From player to coach, you have to trust her. Just as it would be with a male coach.''
Lieberman is hardly noticeable during games. She'll call a player to the sideline to share something during a break in action, but doesn't micromanage. She believes her work is mainly done at practice. She said it was the same when coaching women, but she said there's a big difference between the D-League and the WNBA.
''You don't have 10 guys ovulating in the same locker room and an emotional wreck,'' she said. ''I mean, that's just a fact. People don't think about that. Men tend to let things go or have it out, where women hold onto it, don't let it go. It's just part of it.''
The Legends lost their opener, then won five straight. It's been up and down ever since: streaks of 5-1 and 4-1; skids of 1-5 and 7-8. They go into the finale 23-26, having blown a chance to clinch that playoff berth Thursday night.
How does she think she's done?
Never one to make excuses, Lieberman said the late Chuck Daly once told her all coaches are judged on only two things, ''W and L.''
She doesn't want to talk about what's next. Everything is wait and see, from whether she wants to return next season to if she wants to eventually move up to an NBA bench.
''I decided when I took this job, I was going to enjoy this day, this game, these players, that I would not be pushed ahead,'' she said.
Nelson said that, from the start, he and Lieberman agreed to re-evaluate everything after one year.
''She's got so many other skills, whether it's management, book writing, businesses, I think it's smart on her part to keep all the options open,'' Nelson said. ''Who knows? She might be the next Oprah Winfrey. Oprah's stepping down, right?''