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Sacramento Kings Coach Nancy Lieberman On Breaking The NBA’s Gender Barrier

The NBA is back, and this year, things in the league look a little bit different thanks to several trailblazing women. Michelle Roberts is into her second year as the head of the National Basketball Players Association, Stephanie Ready is in the Charlotte Hornets broadcast booth as the first local full-time female analyst in the NBA, and there are now two women in the coaching ranks: Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman.

This summer, Hall of Famer Lieberman was hired as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings by head coach George Karl, after working as a member of the Kings’ coaching staff during the NBA Summer League.

This isn’t Lieberman’s first time coaching men’s professional basketball. The 57-year-old — who has an Olympic medal, back-to-back national championships, and served as a player, coach, and general manager in the WNBA — was the first female head coach in the NBA Development League, the minor leagues of the sport, when she led the Texas Legends to the playoffs in 2011. She stepped away from that job to be present for her son’s senior year of high school, but has worked her way back, and now hopes to be part of a movement that takes women to the top of the coaching ranks.

“We’re going to have to continue to gain experience and prove our worth, but I mean, I hope [a woman becoming a head coach in the NBA] is in front of us, I hope it’s right there,” she said. “I hope I get that opportunity one day.”

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With her first week as an NBA coach under her belt, I spoke to Lieberman by phone about the support she has received from the likes of Muhammad Ali and David Stern, the special connection she has with her players, her friendship with Hammon, and the lessons she’s learned along the way — mainly, to not be afraid to ask for what she wants.

You have already accomplished so much in your career, and men’s sports can often be such an inhospitable environment for women. So why was this something that you wanted to do?

Even though I’m a woman, guys always ask me what it’s like to be a Hall of Famer, they ask me what it’s like to be in the Olympics, they ask me what it’s like to win back-to-back national championships. Players are always asking me about [my career] — I remember in 2009 when I came back and I played in the WNBA at 50, I was doing TV for ESPN at the time and four days after that game I was working a [L.A. Lakers] game. After we finished interviewing Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, Kobe goes, ‘Nancy, I want to talk to you.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean you want to talk to me?’ He goes, ‘I need to talk to you.’ So we started walking and talking, and he said, ‘I want to know why you came and played last week at 50; I watched the game with my wife and daughters.’

Here was the MVP and the NBA champion Kobe Bryant, and he wanted to know what my mindset was; here’s this guy who doesn’t care if you’re a woman, he cares about why I would come back, why I would risk my legacy. He was so interested in the mental aspect of why I would do this and physically how I knew I could. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s Bryant or [current/former NFL players] Larry Fitzgerald or Deion Sanders — I mean, these guys really have always shown me tremendous respect as a peer, as someone they can come to and talk about their careers. So I knew that this was something I wanted to do in the next level.

Nancy Lieberman coaching the Texas Legends of the NBA D-League in 2011. CREDIT: Tony Gutierrez, AP
Nancy Lieberman coaching the Texas Legends of the NBA D-League in 2011. CREDIT: Tony Gutierrez, AP

How did you make this happen, particularly after stepping away from the great opportunity in the D-League because of your family? A few years ago I was talking to David Stern, and I said, ‘David, I’m ready to coach again.’ And he looked at me, just as David always does, and he goes, ‘[The NBA coaches and owners] are not mind readers. They don’t know why you’re not coaching anymore. They don’t know if you quit or retired or got fired. They don’t know. You’ve got to tell people what you want. Nancy, be who you’ve been your whole life, you’ve been a strong woman, be a strong woman now.’ I was worried, I didn’t want to be a pain in the behind.

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And then the other thing David Stern told me, which was a game changer for me, he said, ‘You need to be where people are going to hire you… You have to go to the NBA coaches symposium in LA, you have to be with the people who are going to see you, talk to you.’ So every year I started going… for three years I was the only woman at the NBA symposium and the NBA coach’s camp, and I was around all of these amazing guys, head coaches, assistant coaches, general managers, assistant GMs, and it put me around the people who got a chance to see my work ethic, not as Nancy Lieberman the Hall of Famer, but as Nancy Lieberman the coach. How did I relate to people? Did the guys respect me? They got a chance to see up-close and personal that this thing meant something to me just the way it meant something to them.

So did putting yourself out there like that lead directly to your job in Sacramento?

The last three years I had gone to the NBA Summer League on my own nickel, and I was just trying to make sure I was in the right place and around the right people so they could actually see me and talk to me. And I did what David Stern said, and told people what I wanted: “Oh, I’m just here at summer league because I want to coach in the NBA, I want to try and catch on with a team.’

I started to tell my story to people, and it was really pretty powerful. And different coaches would talk to me, even guys like Jason Kidd and whatnot, and they would just say, ‘We had no clue you wanted to coach.’

I don’t mind paying my dues, that was the easy part.

Then this year, when George wanted me to come work [on the coaching staff in the NBA Summer League for the Kings], he got to see how it’s real and how there’s nothing strange about having me out there — it was just business as usual. I don’t mind paying my dues, that was the easy part… but you have to find someone like George Karl who is open minded, has a willingness to give you a chance and has the strength and the guts to [look at you and] say, ‘That’s my coach.’

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Clearly you’ve been trying to break into the NBA for a while. What was your reaction when you found out that Becky Hammon had been hired by the San Antonio Spurs last summer?

I was at my basketball camp in Dallas when the news broke, with 50–60 kids and staff, and I immediately called them to half court [to tell them the news]. I had chills, I was so proud of Becky and I was so excited for her. It was an amazing day, it really was.

I knew that Becky would be able to do anything she wanted to do. Very talented. We were not in a competition… you know, one of us, somebody needed to open that door. It was a beautiful day when Becky got hired, but it would have been a tragic thing if a year or two or three later, she was the only female in the NBA. When whoever is behind us gets that next call, that just shows you that we’re all winning, that we’re having inclusion in the workplace.

You said that you and Becky aren’t in competition with each other — but do you feel that’s rare with women in sports?

I will say this, when I got hired, over 90 percent of the calls I got from around the world were men — from Muhammad Ali’s family to Fitzgerald to Sanders. I mean, it was amazing. It’s just sometimes, we have to get better at this as women, we really do have to support each other and be happy for each other.

When Becky and I were both coaching in the Summer League, I made sure that when she coached her first game, I sat first row. I wanted her to know and I wanted everyone to know that I was there to support her. That was very important to me. We have such an incredible friendship. When I had my first game here the other night, Jen Welter [who became the first female coach in the NFL when she held a coaching internship with the Arizona Cardinals this summer] flew out here and surprised me, and she came to support me. I mean, that’s what we should all be doing for each other. It’s very, very important.

Magic Johnson and Nancy Lieberman in 2010. CREDIT: Tim Sharp, AP
Magic Johnson and Nancy Lieberman in 2010. CREDIT: Tim Sharp, AP

Why are these doors opening right now? Has something, in the NBA or in the culture at large, changed?

A lot of these guys have daughters and they have nieces. George Karl has a beautiful daughter, Casey, and he gets it, he understands it. If these guys didn’t want this to happen, it’s not going to happen. But they’re different. They see a bigger picture and they know they’re changing the course of history. George Karl is no longer just a Hall of Fame coach, he is changing history by having a woman as a coach.

I remember in Vegas this summer when Vlade Divac [the manager of the Kings] and I were sitting there talking about whether or not we were going to have a press conference [to announce the hiring.] He looked at me and said, ‘No, why, if we have a press conference it’s because it’s special. We don’t need to have a press conference to tell everyone. It needs to be normal. If we make a big deal of it, it’s something that’s not normal.’ I’ll never forget him telling me that.

How familiar are the players with your Hall of Fame history?

I don’t know, I haven’t asked them, but we’re in a society where you’re one google away. These guys are smart. They know I’m not the flavor of the month. I’ve been around a long time.

We were in L.A. the other night, and Jamal Crawford came up to me before the game and said, ‘Coach, you’re one of my heroes. I think so much of you.’ I just about choked up. It meant so much to me and was really humbling.

So many people are ready for this — but how do you deal with the people who aren’t, with the ones that still say that men’s sports just aren’t a place for women?

I don’t worry about people who are not open minded. It’s going to happen. You just show your class, show your character, and do your job. My job is to make it normal. I remember about five years ago I was invited to the White House and President Obama looked at me and said, ‘Change is hard, isn’t it?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, don’t you know?’ He said, ‘We have to make things normal… I know I’m an African American, you know you’re a white woman, our job is to make things normal.’

I don’t worry about people who are not open minded.

That’s all I do every day is try to make things normal. Be loving but kind, firm but fair, do my job to the best of my ability, make sure that I’m supportive of all the other coaches, the video team, the trainers. It’s important to me to make sure that I show our players and our organizations the ultimate respect. It’s not my birthright to coach in this league, it’s an opportunity, and I have to show people every day that I’m worthy of it.

So there haven’t been any horror stories with players disrespecting you because of your gender, or days where it’s all been too much and you thought that this might not be worth it?

Not one day. I wake up happy, sometimes tired, but I wake up happy and I do everything in my power to be ready. I don’t want to disappoint anybody, most of all I don’t want to disappoint myself. We have the most incredible players… I mean there’s not a day that we don’t show our love and our kindness to each other.

Opening night came and I wrote hand-written notes to all the players in the locker room. I started doing that in 1998 in the WNBA, and I gave them to my players in the D-league too. I’ll never forget about a year ago, I got a text from one of my players, Joe Alexander [a former lottery pick from West Virginia who has been playing in Europe over the last few years]. He texted me a note with a picture of what I wrote him, and he said, ‘Coach, I didn’t understand it when you gave it to me, but I put your note in my memory box, and I was going through it the other day, and I realized how much you meant to me. Thank you for how you treated me.’ I about cried when I read it.

How did the Kings players react when you gave them the cards last week?

I didn’t write them looking for a response, I wrote the cards from my heart, to thank them and tell them each individually how I felt about them. They deserve it. They’re busting their butt every day for this city and organization and this community and for themselves, they deserve to know how much we appreciate them.

A lot of players just said, ‘Thank you, thank you. Appreciate you.’ And I appreciate them. We’re doing life together, I promise you that. We’re going to be at each other’s weddings and funerals.

Nancy Lieberman talks with Sacramento Kings forward Marco Belinelli, of Italy before a preseason NBA basketball game. CREDIT: Rich Pedroncelli, AP
Nancy Lieberman talks with Sacramento Kings forward Marco Belinelli, of Italy before a preseason NBA basketball game. CREDIT: Rich Pedroncelli, AP

Out of all the messages of support that you received when you got this job with the Kings, which one stood out the most? My son was with me when I heard the news; I was in the gym working out with him at his former high school when [I got the news]. He was so overly excited and so proud.

Besides my family, I called the Alis, because me and Lonnie Ali [Muhammad Ali’s wife] have talked about this for years, and Lonnie kept saying, ‘Champ says this is going to happen, it’s going to happen, we know it’s going to happen.’ I called her [the night I got the news] and I said, ‘Lonnie, I just got hired by the Kings,’ and she was screaming, ‘Muhammed! Muhammed!’ It was so cool. I mean, he’s my hero. I fell in love with him at 10 and met him at 20 and we’ve been lifelong friends, and it’s been so amazing to be able to share this with them.

What advice do you have for other women who want to follow in your footsteps?

Never stop working, wanting, or dreaming. Anything is possible, but you have to believe in it. If you don’t believe in it, why should I believe in it? That’s what Muhammed taught me a long time ago. You better love you. The greatest love of all is inside of you. He taught me that, and I never forgot it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.