Nancy Lieberman: ‘Played Against Guys My Whole Life’

Nancy Lieberman is in a lot of Hall of Fames.

Like, a lot.

She doesn’t take them for granted, and she certainly isn’t unappreciative of them. But if you ask her how many she’s in, she won’t be able to tell you off the top of her head.

“You know, I stopped counting,” Lieberman said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “It is a blessing, right? Think about it. You play this game because you love it. You’re a kid. Then the game continues to say thank you to you for your contributions. It’s very humbling, but I really actually don’t count.”

(Incidentally, Lieberman is a member of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame with Tiki Barber, but we digress.)

The truth is Lieberman, 57, deserves every award and honor she’s gotten, and she’s deserved every job or promotion she has received, including her most recent one. Lieberman is now an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings.

“Donnie Nelson hired me five years ago to be the head coach of the Texas Legends, which was the Mavs’ affiliate, so I knew that my goal at that point was to eventually get an opportunity to coach in the NBA,” Lieberman explained. “After my first season when the Legends made the playoffs, I stepped down because I had missed my son, T.J.’s, entire junior year. I knew that would kind of slow my process down, but it was a risk that I was willing to take. You know what the grind is like. You grind, you do your work. And then Coach (George) Karl mentioned when he got the job that he would be interested in hiring me.

“So you don’t need 29 or 30 teams to want you,” Lieberman continued. “You need one that appreciates you and wants you to be a part (of it). And when George called me and said this is something he’d like to do, I was thrilled. But the summer league was really important to me. I knew that I needed to be on a bench with my guys so they could realize that this was normal and that everything would be copacetic having a female on the bench and in the locker room.”

Lieberman may encounter some close-mindedness in her new role, but overall she doesn’t expect a difficult transition – in part because she has been preparing for this since her youth.

“My whole life, I’ve played against guys,” Lieberman said. “I was the 13-year-old in Rucker Park playing against all the guys when I was younger, playing for the Lakers and Pat Riley in 1980 in their summer league, two years in the USBL – which is equivalent to the D-League over 60 games. So my job was not to be a girl playing in the men’s league; my job was to be a basketball player. That’s the same thing with coaching. See, I don’t have to go against you guys any longer. I don’t have to have Karl Malone dunking over me. That was the really difficult part – the physical difference. But now all I have to do – or Becky (Hammon) or Jen (Welter) has to do – is help these guys get to the next level. And quite frankly, this generation of young players in any sport, they’ve been around powerful women their whole life.”

Indeed, this isn’t your grandfather’s NBA – or your grandfather’s world. Today, women run households, they run companies and they run for president.

An assistant basketball coach is just par for the equality course.

And for those worried about a female – especially a female with a leadership position – being in a male locker room, don’t.

“It’s actually easier because people don’t understand it because they’ve never been around it,” Lieberman said. “People think that we’re in the guys’ locker rom all day long. We’re not. The coaches – it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female – you come in the locker room at a certain time on the clock. That is their private sanctuary. We come in as a staff, we give them the information, then we leave and they do what they have to do before they hit the court or the field. So it’s actually very normal. We’re not just roaming around in their locker rooms when they’re running around coming out of showers or prepping for the game.

“So again, it’s normal for me – and the guys that I have coached, it’s been normal for them,” Lieberman continued. “But it’s the outside world that in many cases is trying to get their mind around what kind of dynamics is this going to be. It actually works on every level.”

There’s a reason for that.

“You guys know this as well as I do: You’ve been taking information from women your whole life,” Lieberman said, laughing. “Your mom, your grandma, your sister, your auntie, your wives – we’ve been telling you what to do your whole life, so what’s the difference? Now I’m telling you (how to guard) a screen-roll. What’s the difference?”

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