In honor of Nancy Lieberman’s return to the Legends Of Sport microphone at the recent Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony (where she, a 1996 inductee, presented new members), Legends Of Sport is re-releasing her inspirational basketball story as a Classic episode. In a discussion with fellow Hall-of-Famer, Andrew D. Bernstein, Nancy relayed her incredible journey in basketball at every level and position: from the sidelines, to the press box to the middle of the world’s largest courts.
As a child, Nancy sought to compete at the highest level. After facing restrictions in football and baseball, Nancy pivoted to basketball: the sport she spent the rest of her life loving.
“I went into this local … YMCA and I asked the guy at the desk … “you know, I’m a girl, can I play on the boy’s basketball team?” and he went “yeah, of course” … And I was like ‘oh my gosh, okay, and I love basketball’, but when he said I could play on the boys team, that was it, that was the turning point.”
A native of Queens, Nancy grew up playing with New York City’s best at the famous Rucker Park.
“Even though we didn’t look alike, you know white little Jewish kid from New York, a girl … they encouraged me to be great and I am very grateful as I look back … on my career,” she said.
“I got so tired of being profiled and these young guys, they didn’t see me as anything other than another ball player, another friend. So, you know, me making the Olympics in high school is a part of them believing in me and them being a champion of my dreams and my goals.”
In 1994, Nancy’s junior year of high school, she competed with the US national team in training camp before breaking her ribs on the second day. This only empowered her to return for the 1976 Olympics where she won silver as the then youngest-ever Olympic basketball medalist.
“Alberta Cox, the head coach of the US team … goes ‘now honey, you just get home and you get better ’cause we’re gonna need you in 1980’ … and I looked at her and I said ‘I’m not smart enough … ’cause I’m from New York, but I know 76 comes before 80 and you’re gonna get used to me ’cause I’m gonna be on the ’76 team’ … I went back to Far Rockaway and I busted my behind every day, every time I was tired I would think about what Alberta Cox said to me,” Nancy said. “So then in ’75 I go to the Pan-Am tryouts and I make the Pan-Am team as a high school Junior and then in ’76 I make the Olympic team as a high school senior.”
Nancy went on to attend the formerly-unremarkable Old Dominion University, leading the team to back-to-back national championships in 1979 and 1978
“I had … over 100 scholarships … I wanted to go to a school that nobody had ever heard of and a school that had the worst record, and I wanted to be a part of the team … changing their history,” Nancy said. “I always thought I was an underdog. There were 6 other freshmen and we made a bond that we were gonna take an upperclassman’s job and that we were going to change how things happen on the court, and we went 23 and 9 our first year … then we go 37 and 1 my junior year win the national championship, and then we went 35 and 1 my senior year and won back to back championships.”
Nancy earned the spot of captain on the 1980 US Olympic team, though the team could not compete due to the boycott of the Moscow Games.
“I really think we could’ve beaten the Russians in Moscow if it weren’t for the boycott… It was hard, you know you’ve gotta support your president because this thing is bigger than just us, but it was just surreal.”
After that summer, Nancy was the first draft pick for the Women’s Basketball League Dallas Diamonds.
“I was getting paid a lot of money to play basketball, which I couldn’t believe … Then, unfortunately, the league folded and you know … It’s sad … you’re at the high point of your career,” Nancy said.
She then spent years training with tennis icon, Martina Navratilova
“We just trained at a high level … mentally, physically … and a lot of that was … basketball tactics and we laugh about it today. You know, she wasn’t laughing in ‘81.”
Throughout her career, Nancy became a basketball media icon, analyzing and broadcasting for ABC, ESPN and NBC.
She and Andy discuss one of tennis’s great rivalries between Navratilova and Chris Evert.“Their friendships are long and deep, and just because they’re on different teams doesn’t mean there’s not that love and those special relationships.”
After taking a break from playing professional basketball, Nancy unexpectedly returned to the court in 1997 with the WNBA Phoenix Mercury.
“I was in Atlanta at the Olympics in ‘96 and Magic and I were sitting together and he goes ‘so are you gonna play in the WNBA next year,’ and was like ‘I don’t know … I’m 39,’ and he goes ‘Nancy Lieberman, I have never heard you … say I can’t,’ and so I went home and TJ’s in the house … I go ‘TJ what does your mother do for a living,’ he goes ‘you’re my mom’ I go ‘no, I don’t do that for a living, okay’ … he goes ‘you do TV’ I go ‘yes I do but what does your mom do,’ and he goes ‘I don’t know,’ and I say ‘go in there, and get your father and tell your father your mother’s coming out of retirement,’ … “And I trained my butt off to be ready to play in the WNBA, it was awesome,” she said.
“David Stern … around ‘83 or ‘84, (said) ‘before my time is done, there is gonna be a WNBA … and my only wish is you’ll still be around to play in the league.’ So when the league started … I (said) ‘I’lll do whatever it takes to show that I can play.’”
Never one to back down, Nancy returned again to play for seven days in 2008 with the Detroit Shock.
“I was doing TV for ESPN and they asked me to run through the skills contest … and I ran through it in my dress clothes … Bill [Laimbeer, Detroit Shock head coach] was sitting in the corner and he goes ‘that’s unbelievable … your time is with the current athletes’ … he goes ‘let’s make history … come play for me,’ and I said ‘I would love to.’”
In 2007, Nancy transitioned from the women’s game to a highly successful, and traditionally, men’s coaching role. She served as a coach for the championship G-league Texas Mavericks and the NBA’s second-ever woman assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. In 2018, Nancy became the first woman head coach of a men’s professional basketball team, taking the court with the BIG3 Power, where she earned a championship and a Coach of the Year title.
She called the 2018 championship “one of the most amazing things that I have ever been a part of.”
Today, as Nancy continues her career in broadcasting and coaching, her impact with Nancy Lieberman Charities extends far beyond the court.
“We have sent 55 high school seniors to college, we’ve built 77 dream courts and they’re called dream courts ’cause it was my dream to be on a court… We’re just trying to show people different healthy ways that they can gain confidence… and the best way is through sports.”
Hear Nancy Lieberman’s trailblazing stories in the Olympics, WNBA, NBA and BIG3, hilarious anecdotes from thousands of courts, expert opinions on current sports and more in this episode of Legends Of Sport.