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Nancy Lieberman

Nancy Lieberman
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Name: Nancy Lieberman
Sport: Basketball
Role: WNBA player, Coach, General Manager, Sports Broadcaster for NBC, ABC, ESPN & FOX, Author and First Female Coach to coach a men's team under the NBA umbrella.
Organisation: WNBA, NBA, ESPN, FOX,
Nationality: America
Date: Sep 2014

This interview took place in November 2014 and since then, Nancy has gone on to become an full time Assistant Coach in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings.  From everyone at FCN, a huge congratulations to you Nancy!

The world has been blessed with some truly inspirational sports women over the last century.  From Florence Griffith Joyner setting the World Record for the 100m in 1988 which still stands today, Mia Hamm changing the face of women’s Soccer and Serena Williams dominating the tennis world for over a decade, we sure have some incredible female sporting heroes and role models to look up to.

But if there is one woman who can truly take the crown for being a pioneer in women’s sports, it has to be Nancy Lieberman.  She has raised the bar for women all over the world and redefined what it is to be a sports women, a coach and a leader.

Nancy Lieberman has achieved some of the biggest accolades in world sport and carries the title of many ‘firsts’ for a woman in the sporting world.  In 1976, she became the youngest ever basketball player (male or female) to win an Olympic Medal (a record which still stands), the first (and only) women to play in a professional men’s league in 1986 and in 1999, was the first woman to be inducted into three major Hall of Fames across the US.  More recently in 2008, Nancy became the first female Head Coach of a men’s professional basketball team and in 2014, the first female to be on the Board of Directors for the National Basketball Retired Players Association.

Too add to this, in 1997, at age 39, Nancy became the oldest women in history to play professional basketball when she joined the Phoenix Mercury in the year the WNBA began.  And then in 2008, she went on to break her own record by joining Detroit Shock at the age of 50 and playing again in the WNBA league.

We are very happy to say that the FCN had the opportunity to chat to Nancy to find out about her coaching career and her philosophies behind her phenomenal success as a player, coach and business woman.

I was very fortunate. I was born in Brooklyn and then grew up in Queens.  For me back in my day I was a poor kid from a one parent family and sports really saved my life because it gave me something to stay focussed on.   I am very grateful because when there was all this craziness going on in my house, I was able to just focus on sports and get out there in the school yard and parks with the kids.  It took my attention away from some of the drama that was happening to me in my home.  So I just felt very grateful.  When I was little they would call me ‘Tom Boy’ and ask ‘why are you going out to play with the black kids?’.  I would just say to them ‘look I am happy that these guys want me to play ball or they want me on their team’, that made me feel good about myself.  My self-esteem and my confidence was very important to me. 

My hero was Muhammad Ali.  I saw Muhammad Ali on TV one day when I was about 10, and he was saying that he was the greatest of all time and this is who he beat; “I beat Joe Frazier, like I beat George Foreman, like I beat Sonny Listen back in 1964, I am the greatest of all time!”  I can remember seeing that and thinking “Oh my Gosh!”.  I ran into the kitchen to my Mother and I looked at her and I was like “I’m the greatest of all time, I’m going to beat you, I’m going to beat my brother”!  And she goes “I am your Mother!”  All I said was “I don’t know, but I’m going to be the greatest of all times!”.  I put my hands on my hips and looked at her and as I walked out said “you better get used to it,  I’m going to make history and I’m going to be the greatest female basketball player ever.”  So I don’t have a clinical reason for my defiance, that’s just what I believed.  And crazy as it sounds, shortly thereafter I ended up being the youngest Olympian.  I was a junior in high school when I was on the Pan-American team and I was and still am the youngest Olympic basketball player male or female for US basketball.

You know sometimes someone’s determination comes out of different places and for me, mine came out of pain, the pain of my childhood.  I didn’t have anyone to look up to, so when Muhammad Ali became that person, I kind of felt like I could do anything.  He taught me before he knew me to love myself and to believe in myself and I’ll never forget that to be quite honest.

It did.  You have probably heard the song The Greatest Love of All? “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow.  If I fail, if I succeed, at least I will live as I believe.  No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.  Because the greatest love of all is inside of me.”  I learned that from Muhammad and by the time I was 19 or 20 years old, we met and we have been lifelong friends since 1979.  He was in Phoenix and I took my son to meet him, I want my son to meet the man that changed his Mommy’s life.  I love Muhammad Ali, I love him so much for what he has given me and for the support and love he has given me my whole life and career.  I never thought I couldn’t do anything because I had to learn how to believe in me.

Exactly.  You know I don’t want this to sound anything other than what it is, with kindness and firm but fair, but the players, be it men or women that I have coached are human beings.  It’s like coaching your children, there has to be a lot of tough love and there has to be kindness.  There are times when you have to be stern and disciplined.  It’s not how we get along on our best days, it’s how we get along on our worst days and what we communicate to one another.  And that’s something for me that I think about every day.  How am I communicating what I want or what I need?  How am I telling this guy who’s dream it is to be in the NBA who has been cut four times, how do I keep his dream alive?  How do I give him hope?  I could do it through communication, through film, through extra workouts, but he has got to know I’m there for him.  That’s very very important to me that they know we care.  Not just whilst they are good, or while I need them, we want them to know that we care long term.  You’re not going to be best friends with every player, I don’t want to be best friends with my son, but I want to be a positive influence in their life.  I want them to know the power that they don’t know they have.  I want them to learn to show up.  The first step in making a team or getting a job is show up!  If you are chronically late, or you’re irresponsible, you cause problems or drama, it doesn’t mean I don’t like you, but you’re probably not going to be on my team, or work in my office.  Those are things we are trying to communicate, do the right things the right way.  Handle your business.  Don’t handle my business, don’t handle their business, handle your business. We try to give them things to hold onto.  We have a saying “no excuses, no explanations”, because if you’re trying to explain your excuse, you don’t want accountability.  So it’s no excuses, no explanations.  Just do the right thing.  There’s a lot of people that want these jobs, whether it’s my job whether its whoever’s job, there is a lot of people who want our jobs.  I get it, I know that

I believe that my life was set up for me to teach and to coach, I really believe that.  I wouldn’t have said that 25 years ago, but everything I learned in the streets playing, all the obstacles that were placed in front of me, I look at it and I say “Oh my gosh, this is amazing!”  All these things set me into leadership, understanding, being compassionate, being a good teacher, having empathy, pushing people beyond what they thought they could do, you know what I mean?  That’s why you have a trainer, that’s why you have a coach, because they push you beyond what you think you are physically capable of.

Well, I had some great coaches.  I played for Pat Summitt who was my team mate in ’75 and ’76.  We actually were team mates together, a lot of people don’t realise this.  Pat was an extraordinary player, she was Captain of the ’76 Olympic team.  She was the oldest player on the team and I was the youngest player on the team at 17, so to have that wisdom from her was amazing!  I learned so much from her about dedication, about being mentally tough and then a few years later she was coaching me internationally and coaching against me when she was at Tennessee and I was at Old Dominion.  And I was playing for her in International teams.  She was tough on me, there were many days she was in my face and I had to realise that some people crater and some people get empowered, I was going to show Pat that I could do what she said I wasn’t doing. 

You didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the stare!  There’s no doubt about it!  But if you take all the coaches that I have played for, I remember when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, at that point I had had 27 coaches and at that point everybody had given me something.  Some people taught me what I don’t want to be, some people taught me what I do want to be.  You have to remember I played for Pat Riley.  I was Pat Rileys first Point Guard when he was coaching the Lakers in their summer league.  I played for the Utah Jazz for Frank Layton, when I played in the mens league for 2 years in ’86 and ’87 in the USBL.   I played for Henry Bibby and the late Dean Meminger , it was unbelievable.  I feel very very fortunate to have had coaches both men and women that pushed me pretty hard.

I just think that men are really great, men have been very important in my career and they have been tremendously supportive.  If you treat yourself like an equal and do your job they will treat you like an equal.  So, its my job to make it normal.  I don’t go into playing in the USBL for the Lakers and go “Oh my gosh, I’m a girl”.  No! I’m a player.  If I start believing I’m a girl in a mens league that’s how I’m gonna act.  If I start believe I’m a girl or woman coaching men, that’s how I’m going to act.  It is my job to make it normal.  I have responsibility here, I have to earn the respect of both men and women and they are not mutually exclusive.  I have to make sure I earn their respect, no matter where I go or what I do.  If I do hopefully get an opportunity to coach in the NBA one day, I just have to do my job, put my head down, do my job and make sure that I’m doing exactly what my Head Coach wants from me. 

I think it has a lot of merit when you have a pedigree, you know they know you didn’t cut corners.  Sometimes I think people, which I hope not, sometimes people think ‘well maybe she’s too big a personality’ and you don’t want people to think that you are bigger than the show.  Because you are just part of the team and you want to blend in and do your job.  One of the good things about me is that I’ve been around for so long and I have been embedded in the game of Basketball.  Nobody can ever say I don’t love this game, I’ve been in it my whole life!  I didn’t just happen upon it the other day.  So that’s one of the things you have to think about.  Are there people that maybe a little intimidated or nervous because you are well known or a bigger personality?  You have to expel that by being around these guys and showing them that your just a team player and you want to be one of them.  That’s why I think Becky will be fantastic because she has been around the guys, they know that she is just a good person who knows the game.

I’d want to be an Assistant Coach as I don’t believe in my lifetime there will be a woman Head Coach in the NBA.  I do think that there can be, as Becky has already proven.  We no longer have to wonder if there will ever be a woman in the NBA as there is already a female Assistant Coac

I think time.  The NBA is very sophisticated.  I have to tell you, they don’t get enough credit, it’s unbelievable the amount of time these coaches put into getting their players ready for the game.  It’s really absolutely breath taking to see what they do.  I am the biggest support of men, they are fundamental.  People say ‘oh they are just athletes’, no their not.  They are very fundamental and they are very good and they work really really hard.  They don’t get the credit for how hard and fundamental they are.  So with that said, for me, I look at the players and I am just a huge supporter of what they do.  The coaches and the assistants and the video coordinators, there’s such a team effort in how this thing works.  Work together with your front office and I think it’s important to have that synergy and trust amongst each other.  Mens basketball is really phenomenal, I have learned more in the last 5 or 6 years since 2009 being around it.  I thought I knew a lot about the game, I’m here to tell you that every time I am around these guys, I learn something amazing.  I really do.

Yes!  The terminologies are different, how they run their plays, how they space the floor, the rules are different.  We just started running rules that are congruent in the WNBA with the NBA, the 3 second defensive in the lane defensively.  You can see the womens game morphing more into the mens game in strategy.  I wish the rules were Universal, from International, from FIBA to the NBA, to High School. I just wish they were all the same.

think what I like most about them is that everybody shares information with one another and it filters down to the High Schools, to the Colleges and to International level.  Everybody is working together.  So we are trying to make the game bigger, better and more efficient both on the mens and womens side.  You are seeing the growth, so for example: Sandy Bondello who won the Championship, I drafted Sandy in the last round of the WNBA draft in 1998 when I was coaching Detroit.  She was a brilliant player, very heady player right there and she has learned from really tremendous coaches.  Cheryl Reeves she learned from Bill Laimbeer and Ricky Mohorn.  So you can see she gained a lot of information.  So the coaches of the teams that made it to the playoffs are learning from their brothers but they are tweaking it to their teams on how they want to play.  And we are learning a lot from the guys, it’s phenomenal.  I go every summer to the Coaches Camp in Vegas and I walk out of there and I go “I know nothing!” and I think I know a lot!  I walked out of there and think “Oh my Gosh you don’t know anything!”  I say this in a good way not demeaning, or slandering myself.  I learn so much all the time.

You can access my website at www.nancyliebermanfoundation.org .  My foundation is a reflection of me.  I couldn’t have gone to school without a scholarship, so that’s why the foundation gives scholarships to high school seniors to go to college.  I didn’t have backpacks to go to school, my book bag was a brown paper trash bag and my pencil holder was a brown paper sandwich bag and kids used to make fun of me.   So we want kids to feel good about themselves.

The ‘Read to Achieve’ programme, we want to make sure that kids are reading.  I don’t care if they read a sports book,  I didn’t read anything other than sports when I was younger.  So that’s really important.

We have a mentorship programme ‘Each One Teach One’, a mentor is for life.  I get to teach and link my generation with the next generation.  And then that generation gets to link to their baby generation.  If I’m a better me, I’ll be a better we, if we are a better we, then we’ll be a better they and all those rungs of the little concentric circles, they keep filtering out and we get a chance to influence more people on how to do things the right way, whatever your vocation is in life.

The ‘Dream Courts’ that we have built, we have 11 built and we are opening up our twelve in Atlanta on October 16th.  Chicago, Tampa, Indiana are all ready for 2015.  It was my dream to be on a court because they didn’t judge me, they didn’t profile me, they just let me play.  That’s why it’s called Dream Court.  Our big gala every year, our big fundraising gala in April is called the ‘Dream Ball’ because it was my dream to have a ball!  Because I felt safe.  You know what I mean? It’s that simple.  I just wanted to feel safe and I wanted to be in a trusted environment and I was.

I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m supposed to be helping kids.  We come in equal and we leave equal.  You know that little hash mark, you know Nancy Lieberman 1958 – , your legacy is not about you, your legacy is what you do for other people.  I’m just trying to do my part, that’s all I’m trying to do.  I just want to do my part for other people to the best of my ability and I dig the opportunity, it’s amazing!

You must believe in you, why should I believe in you if you don’t believe in you?  If you don’t love you, why should I love you? And I teach this to my son every day, I say TJ, you gotta do the right things.  If you do things consistently it becomes a habit.  If you do things over and over again it becomes a sustainable habit with sustainable growth.  And you’re not going to know any other way but the right way.  We talk about repetition and putting other people first.  Be the team mate you always wanted to be, be the friend you always wanted to have.  Be that person and if you can’t be that person don’t expect it.  If you break it down and make it simple, sometimes it resonates.

I just want to be able to help.  People around the world say that I’m their hero, it makes me smile because actually people like you inspire me, talking to kids inspires me.  I just want to be the best I can for people every day.  As long as I am on this Earth and the good Lord gives me a chance to take a breath, I want to be a good person to people.  I’m not perfect, but I want to inspire people and that’s the beginning and the end of my story.

I wanted to write the book because I wanted to change people’s lives.  Many times women don’t have a nab system for success.  They’re tied too much to their title, like if you went to college for economics, that’s what you do, if you went to be a lawyer, that’s what you do, if you wanted to be in broadcasting that’s what you did.  We have to be flexible in life because you don’t know what life is going to throw at you.  I used to play short stop, I used to play left field and I used to play first base in baseball, I can play any position.  I played centre in high school, I played forward and I played point guard.  I’m ok, just play me and give me a chance to be on the team.  So many times someone will give me their business card and their like “I am in sales”… ok, congratulations, I don’t need a sales person, I need someone who is a marketer and has great communication skills.  “Oh, well that’s not what I do” … ok well it was really nice to spend time with you, good luck!

I’m not going to make you a better interviewer or a better doctor or a lawyer, but I’m going to make you a better you.  If you are better at what you do, you will be better at what your vocation is.  The one thing that I know is that I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid of challenges.  I’m not afraid to do things that I might not be great at.  So many times in life people are so afraid of failure that they can’t find success.  And women, we have a propensity sometimes to, you know you see a really pretty girl walking across the street and you say “I cannot believe she is wearing that outfit to work” instead of saying “Dang! She looks amazing, I wish I could wear that!”.  We don’t say that, we don’t say ‘you look amazing’ we tell our friends ‘can you believe she is wearing that?’  So I tell women ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’.  It’s ok to give someone a compliment, it’s ok to ask her how she got promoted instead of saying ‘I can’t believe she got promoted, I’ve been here 5 years!’.  Well maybe you haven’t done your job, maybe you’ve been too busy complaining and being drama, and that’s why you didn’t get to the job.  So you know, we really implore people to have a positive take on life.  Like I said, the only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude and belief.  I mean, if you have a crappy attitude, no one wants to be around you.  You want to be around me because I’m funny, I’m sarcastic and there’s truth.  That is exactly who I am, I’m funny sarcastic and with truth. People want to be around people that smile and make them laugh and hold them to higher standards and measures.  I think it’s a good recipe for success and if you do it with love and kindness you have a winning formula.  That’s what the book is about, teaching you how to be a better you.

I’ve been blown away by the letters and the emails of people reaching out to me.  It just makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing and that people know you care.  Just because you know who I am doesn’t mean I have to be a jerk or look down on people, I will never do that.  I will leave that to some other super amazing person that thinks they are better than you.  That’s not how I look at people. And I pretty much do not hang out with people that think they are bigger than the programme.  We are all blessed in certain ways.

Don’t make decisions based on emotion; you will almost always make the wrong decision.  You get all riled up and make a knee jerk reaction like “Your off the team!!” or “don’t ever talk to me again!!”.  You know what, just relax, just don’t make decisions based on emotion.  Don’t fire up, take a minute and walk away go do something else.  I think that’s the best way to handle it.

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