Nancy Lieberman didn’t set out to be a pioneer, but there is no other way to describe her accomplishments both on and off the basketball court.
Featured earlier this month in ESPN The Magazine’s final issue, Lieberman was a member of the first women’s Olympic basketball team competition in 1976, and at 18 she became the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to win a medal. After competing in the Olympics and at the college level, she faced a crossroads. There were few opportunities for a professional female basketball player in the 1980s.
Rather than allowing the lack of a clear path stop her, Lieberman created her own. She became the first woman to try out for the NBA and the first woman to participate in a Globetrotters world tour.
When the WNBA was formed in 1997, Nancy was 39 years old. Her age did not deter her from trying out. She became the oldest player in the league and continued to play until she was 47. In 1996, Lieberman was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
How did this round ball wonder accomplish so much in a field dominated primarily by men? By never letting anyone else define who she could be or what she could achieve.
A Rough Start Ignites a Passion
Lieberman faced many challenges growing up. Her father abandoned their family, leaving her mother to raise their two children alone. “We were poor. Kids made fun of me for wearing torn clothes, having holes in my shoes, and using a paper garbage bag to carry my books,” Lieberman says.
She was also shunned by her peers for playing basketball. “Back then, it wasn’t common for girls to play sports. I was called a tomboy and more,”she recalls. “My mother didn’t approve either. She worried what people would think of me.”
But Lieberman channeled her hurt into determination. “I knew I was different. I knew I was special. And I knew I needed to work hard to get to where I wanted to go, although I had no idea where that was.”
Finding Acceptance in an Unlikely Place
In addition to playing on her high school basketball team, Lieberman began playing street ball. She would go to Rucker Park in the Bronx to play basketball with the men there.
Even though she was the only white person — and the only female — on the court, Lieberman felt like she fit in. “Unlike other people in my life, these men didn’t judge or tolerate me. They celebrated me,” she says. She credits these friendships for much of her later success, saying, “Our relationships grew organically through love, kindness, and mutual respect. Those young men empowered me on and off the court to go after my dreams.”
Becoming a Leader in a Male-Dominated Space
Reflecting on her in accomplishments in the male-dominated space of athletics, Lieberman says, “I never saw men as the enemy. If they tried to block me from my goal, I pushed through and set out to prove that I was deserving. I had to show I was worthy of the opportunity.”
Even though there are more professional female athletes today, barriers still exist for women in sports — and in life in general. Lieberman advises all women to be strategic in how they present themselves and to never back down from a challenge. “I’ve encountered many men who don’t believe that their hearts are sexist or racist, but their actions say otherwise,” she says. “I let them know in a firm but strong voice if I am being excluded or not represented at the table. Sometimes all it takes is pointing out that there isn’t a voice of diversity to make a change. But women are still only making 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, so there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Life Off the Court
At 61, Lieberman is a lot different than her 21-year-old self. As a young woman, she was angry, especially about her father’s leaving, and she suffered from anxiety and depression. Five years ago, she attended an Oprah workshop at the insistence of former NFL player Deion Sanders. She resisted the idea at first, but the event proved life changing. Lieberman reached out to her father for the first time in 14 years. “Reconnecting with him before he died helped me as a person,” she says. “I needed to forgive him so that I could be happy. When I let go of my anger, I became a better person, a better friend, and a better parent.”
In addition to taking care of her emotional well-being, Lieberman is also very focused on her physical health. She says that she is grateful for CBD to deal with the aches and pains that come from being a lifelong athlete. “Getting older, I have really learned to listen to my body and take a break when I need to without apology,” she says. “I stay active, eat well, don’t smoke or drink alcohol. I never even drank coffee. I want to live as long as I can for my son [TJ Cline, a professional basketball player] and to continue doing what I love.”
Lieberman’s passion for the sport she grew up with has not diminished with age. Although she retired from playing on the court when she was 51, she found a new home in coaching. In 2018, she became the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team. Today, she is the head coach of Big3 basketball team Power. Her team of retired NBA players won the 2018 Big3 Championship, and Lieberman was named coach of the year, a first for a female coach in any men’s league.
“For me, basketball is more about the camaraderie than the competition. The locker room, the teammates, and knowing you have people that have your back — that’s the magic. Basketball is the catalyst for everything good that has happened in my life. Through coaching, I know I can help people change their lives for the better, just as mine was changed. I am honored to have this opportunity to continue being a part of this sport I love.”