Nancy Lieberman is one of the most decorated female athletes of all time. She has made significant contributions to basketball and achieved many firsts during her career, including being the first woman to ever play basketball in a men’s professional league, the first woman to be inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, part of the first class inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and ultimately, the first woman to coach a male professional team in North America when she was named head coach of the NBA D-League Texas Legends, whom she led to the playoffs in their first season as an expansion team.
Her nearly 40-year career was launched when, at 18, she became the youngest basketball player in Olympic history—male or female—to win a medal, earning second place silver for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team in Montreal. During her years as a collegiate national champion at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., she earned the distinction as the top women’s basketball player in America, and the nickname “Lady Magic” as the female counterpart to NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
After college, Lieberman joined the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s Professional Basketball League, led the team to the WABA Championship and was named league MVP. In the late-1980s, she toured the world as a member of the Washington Generals, opponents of the famed Harlem Globetrotters, and was named head coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. Later, she served as head coach of the Dallas Fury, an NWBL team she guided to a championship title. In 2008, at the age of 50, Lieberman bested her own record as the WNBA’s oldest player when she returned to the league to play with the Detroit Shock. She had previously played with the league’s Phoenix Mercury at the age of 39.
Lieberman also served as an analyst for ESPN/ABC for a number of years, and she has provided commentary for NBA-TV, NBC and the NFL Network. Starting in the 2012-2013 season, she joined Fox Sports Southwest as an analyst for “Thunder Live,” the pre- and post-game shows for the Oklahoma City Thunder. “It’s been a tremendous journey and very humbling,” she says. “I’m very blessed.”
Opportunist:When did you first realize you wanted to be a professional athlete?
Nancy Lieberman:We all have epiphanies in our lives. Mine was when, at about 10, I saw this man on TV telling a sports announcer ‘I’m the greatest of all time ... I beat Sonny Liston and I can beat George Foreman like I beat Joe Frazier … I’m the greatest!’ It was Muhammad Ali, and I was mesmerized. I remember walking into our kitchen and telling my mom, ‘ I’m gonna be the greatest of all time … I’m gonna whip everybody! I’m gonna knock you out in two rounds, and then I’m gonna get the boy,’ meaning my brother. She kind of glared at me and said, ‘I am your mom. Why are you talking like that?’ as if to scold me, so I put my hands on my hips and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m talking like this, but you’re gonna get used to it because I’m gonna be the greatest basketball player of all time.’ There was no clinical explanation for my behavior—there was no Dr. Phil or Oprah at that time [Laughs—I just knew basketball was going to be my way out.
I had a shaky childhood in New York. Dad left when we were little and Mom was the sole provider. We were one grandparent away from food stamps at that time—some days we didn’t have heat or lights—and sports was an integral part of keeping me occupied and out of trouble. I played baseball, softball, football and basketball.
Five years later, I was on the women’s USA Basketball team that went to the Pan American games and the youngest player in U.S. history. I was 16 when we won the gold medal. The next year, 1976, I was a senior in high school when I made the U.S. Olympic team and that took me to a whole new platform of focus and determination where I realized there was so much more ahead of me—even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that was.
Opportunist: Do you remember how it felt to win your first medal?
Nancy Lieberman: When we won the gold at Pan Am, I remember looking at it and thinking I wonder if this thing is real gold? [Laughs] I was probably a little too young to get crazy giddy. Things happened so fast for me. Some athletes train their whole lives to get a chance like that.
Opportunist: What has it been like for you, as an incredibly successful woman, to compete in a male-dominated world?
Nancy Lieberman: I have to tell you that I don’t have a lot of war stories. Honestly, in every opportunity that has come my way I have been championed by men. Donnie Nelson [president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks] doesn’t get enough credit for allowing me to coach in the NBA’s D-league. Somebody said they heard Mark Cuban on TV a few weeks ago saying ‘We were ahead of everybody when we hired Nancy to be our head coach.’
Opportunist: In your latest book, Playbook for Success, you teach professional women the same rules of success that you teach players. What was your motivation for writing the book?
Nancy Lieberman: Many women have never had that playbook. But as an athlete, I’ve always lived by it and known exactly what we were running against—whether a long shot, a shot clock or man-to-man—and I’m conditioned to the system. It’s a great business book for women, to help with interpersonal relationships, skills, communications and what’s happening in the workplace. The neat thing, though, is when I was coaching every rookie in the NBA D-League orientation got a copy of my book. Guys were coming up to me and telling me, ‘Nancy, this book is not for women—this book is for everybody.’ I cannot believe how many men have read the book or written me to say it was really important. Even the Ali family read the book.
I wrote it to teach you how to be a better you because if you’re a better you and I’m a better me, we’ll be a better we. And if we are a better we, we will be a better they—and exponentially be able to influence the masses. That’s what leaders are: influencers. I didn’t go to Harvard Business School, but I learned real life street lessons and then started doing TV and learned how to communicate.
The idea for the book kind of came up in talking with Warren Buffett about the people I’ve met through business and sports and the lessons I learned. We had talked about him writing the foreword but he had just written one for his sister and then Magic Johnson did it.
Opportunist:We would love to hear how you became friends with Warren Buffett.
Nancy Lieberman: It’s a great story. It was 1989 and I was in Omaha with my events marketing company doing tennis events with Martina Navratilova and Zina Garrison. I needed to set up interviews and get sponsors, and the young man I was working with arranged for me to meet with a man at the City of Omaha. So I went to this guy’s office to tell him we were going to bring Martina and Zina to the biggest tennis event Omaha had seen in years, and raise money and give 20 percent to charity. Howie was his name, and on his desk was one of those silly gadgets called the ‘Wise Guy,’ and when you pushed a button it would say stupid things like ‘ I’m smarter than you’ and ‘I know everything.’ I told Howie it would be phenomenal if he could introduce us to a sponsor because I was recently married and I joked that ‘If I don’t find a sponsor I won’t be able to go home to my husband for Thanksgiving—so obviously the blood is on your hands.’ We shook hands and exchanged cards and the day before Thanksgiving I get a phone call: ‘Nancy, this is Howie,’ and I’m thinking Howie … Howie … who’s Howie? and he says, ‘You know, the guy who had that talking thing on his desk.’ I was asking where he bought it when he said, ‘Look, my dad would love to have you for Thanksgiving.’ ‘Who’s your dad?’ I asked, and he said ‘Warren Buffett. Would you come over tomorrow for Thanksgiving?’ ‘Oh really? Is your dad a singer—I’m thinking Jimmy Buffett—did he sing Margaritaville? No? Seriously, your dad’s not a singer?’ So I wrote down the address and hung up. The people in the room with me were mortified and couldn’t believe I didn’t know who Warren Buffett was. So I looked him up and realized I’m an idiot.
The next day I drove up to the house and this man opens the door and, thinking it was the doorman, I said, ‘I’m Nancy and I’m here for Mr. Buffett.’ ‘You are?’ he asks. ‘Well, I am him.’ I think he almost liked the fact that I was stupid. [Laughs] His wife, daughter Susie and Howie and a few other people were there and we had dinner and he wanted to chitchat about sports and was fantastic and kind. Later on, he called to ask if he could play in my tennis event and I’m like, ‘Are you sure you could play?’ Berkshire Hathaway bought all the courtside seats. He wanted to play mixed or celebrity doubles with Martina, so I said, ‘OK, whatever you want.’
He has such a keen sense of humor and he’s very kind and I’m grateful to know him. Whenever I call and ask if Warren is there, they’ll punch me over to him and I’ll ask ‘Are you managing my one share or playing bridge with someone in Yugoslavia? This is serious business ... are you managing my one share?’
I was there for one of his shareholder meetings one time, and he says, ‘Nancy, I want to introduce you to someone. Nancy, this is Bill Gates.’ Knowing he has a great sense of humor, I’m like ‘Gates, Gates … the name is so familiar. What do you do?’ [Laughs] He just looked at me and said, ‘I cannot believe you did that.’ His humility is second to none, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to listen to his stories of where he invested and what he’s done.
Opportunist: How can the lessons and skills learned in sports be applied in business?
Nancy Lieberman: First, it’s important to note that what happened for me as a basketball player had a tremendous impact on who I was in the business world. During my last few years playing for ODU, we won national back-to-back championships and the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. We were the face of women’s basketball, and I was speaking at every Rotary Club and breakfast on behalf of the university. I did the right thing, didn’t get in trouble and honored the game, which, in a sense, was developing me into who I would be in business: show up, be reliable, dedicated, learn how to win and how to lose. But, quite honestly, you don’t know it all. When I graduated in 1980 and signed with the WBL, they paid me $100,000. That’s a lot of money even today. I couldn’t believe somebody was paying me—the same kid who didn’t have money to go to the movies or buy nice clothes—to play basketball. I wasn’t sure what to do with it or where to invest.
Opportunist: Things don’t always go well for young athletes who get a big payday early on. What kept you grounded?
Nancy Lieberman: I was very fortunate to have good people come into my life. I remember being excited about getting picked to try out for the USA team in 1974 when 250 girls had tried out and telling my mom, ‘Ma, you’re not going to believe this. I made the tryouts and I’m going to Albuquerque!’ ‘ Like hell you are,’ she said. ‘How am I going to send you when I can’t put food on the table?’ So a woman at school typed up a letter that said ‘We are endeavoring to raise $300 to send Nancy Lieberman to the USA tryouts. Please donate what you can’ and taped it to an empty can and sent it around the neighborhood. She raised enough money for me and my coach to go to Albuquerque.
You and I would not be talking today if strangers didn’t put money in that can. It’s about blind faith. I have tremendous confidence in myself and I’m clear about what I want to do and how to go about, but that doesn’t mean I have to be a jerk. I’m not looking to be a diva. I’m looking to be a good citizen. I can talk to a janitor with the same love and kindness that I would show someone at the White House.
We all have abilities; mine just happened to be sports. The philanthropic side of me is very important. We come in equal and leave equal. That dash between your date of birth and death is your legacy. It’s not about you; it’s what you’ve done for others.
Opportunist: Please tell us about the Nancy Lieberman Foundation.
Nancy Lieberman: It was founded in 1989, and it’s become part of my life’s work. We became a 501(c) (3) in 2009, and we have given millions of dollars to deserving kids and charities. In the last few years we sent six kids to college. We have also given over 150 laptop computers and over 5,000 backpacks with school supplies. In my partnership with WorldVentures Foundation, we have built 13 dream courts. Growing up, it was my dream to play on a court because people didn’t judge me, profile me or care if I was white or a girl or whatever. We are building play spaces and basketball courts in cities all over the country, starting with Atlanta and Chicago, and I’m excited to say we will open three to five in 2015. I’m humbled and thrilled to be able to do this for children. Sometimes you don’t know who that person is who’s going to walk into your life and help you. When I drive by a court or I’m with kids we helped go to college, I cannot believe we’ve been able to do this. I’m very fortunate.
Opportunist: What do you consider your greatest triumph, on or off the court?
Nancy Lieberman: I dig being a mom. There’s nothing more important to me. A lot of it has to do with my own childhood and not having that family structure. My son T.J. plays basketball for the University of Richmond, and last Tuesday I flew up to ODU because his team, the Spiders, was playing there.
Opportunist: How was it to watch your son play your alma mater?
Nancy Lieberman: It was such an unbelievable experience for me. I wanted him to recognize the fact that there was going to be hype and TV cameras and interviews because Mommy played there, but ‘It’s your turn to do for U of R what they need you to do.’ ODU ended up winning a back-and-forth game and T.J., who plays forward, was the high scorer. I was still in the arena when I heard Jeff Jones, ODU’s head coach, tell a radio show ‘We could not stop T.J. Cline. We had no answer for that man.’ I was just beaming for my kid. He was fantastic.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in the coming years?
Nancy Lieberman: Coaching the NBA. I’m a teacher at heart, so I want to continue sharing what I know and keep learning what I don’t know. The men in this league are unbelievable. I go to NBA coaches’ camps and come out after a week thinking I don’t know anything. I have been given so many incredible opportunities that I feel a tremendous expectation to be everything those people want from me. I continue to learn—I’m a push-the-envelope kind of girl—and I’m loyal and hardworking and that has made me what I am today.
I fell in love with basketball when I was eight and I’m still in love with it at 56. Tonight I’m going to walk into an arena with the Brooklyn Mets and Oklahoma City Thunder. I still get chills when I’m around these amazing athletes. The love and respect they show me is awesome. I’m thrilled and very, very blessed.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
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