Posted Nov 18 2010 1:05PM
FRISCO, Texas -- Nancy Lieberman looked over her team at their very first gathering together about 10 days ago and offered up a poem. The coach of the expansion Texas Legends had two words to share.
Muhammad Ali delivered that classic, considered by many to be the world's shortest English poem, at Harvard's commencement address decades ago. The message rings truer than ever now, as Lieberman embarks on a groundbreaking season in a grassroots league.
The Legends open their inaugural NBA Development League season Thursday night on national TV (Versus, 8 p.m. ET) in McAllen, Texas to take on the defending champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers. It's a new beginning for Lieberman and the boys.
"They were locked in and they got it," she said, recalling that first meeting and the Ali verse. "They understood that we're in this together. The better they are individually, the better we'll be as a team. We want to make sure we have responsibility and accountability.
"I also told them, 'No excuses, no explanations. If you're explaining, you're using an excuse. You don't want accountability.' "
Lieberman, 52, wants and expects to be just as accountable. She's the first woman in position to coach NBA players. (Rookies and second-year players are eligible for D-League assignments.) Former NBA players Antonio Daniels, Reece Gaines, Rashad McCants and Sean Williams dot the Legends roster.
Williams, a first-round pick by New Jersey in 2007, admitted it took some time to get used to this unique gender-reversing arrangement. It just didn't take long.
"I definitely see her as a woman. It's hard not to notice that," he said with a chuckle. "I've never had a woman tell me what do on the court before. But she knows what she's talking about. She has an aura."
While this season is about Lieberman in so many respects, she has a job to do. Nowhere in that job description are the words "pioneer" and "innovator." If you want to talk about trailblazers, go to Portland.
Lieberman took this gig to develop players with NBA aspirations, win games and experience basketball in another sphere. Leave that trendsetting business for others to pontificate on. She's been through that before, more times than she cares to count.
"This is what I've done my whole life," Lieberman said. "I've done this since I was 15 years old. This is really normal for me being in this role. I've been around men my whole life in sports, business, TV, playing, in communicating, as a mom, as a wife. I've done this my whole life."
Her résumé includes being an Olympian at 18; a three-time All-American, two-time player of the year and two-time national champion at Old Dominion; a pro career with stops in the men's USBL and WNBA. She played summer-league ball for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.
She made her WNBA debut at age 39 and suited up briefly again at 50, setting a record in the process. She also coached the Detroit Shock for three years. She even coached tennis great Martina Navratilova and had a playing stint with the Harlem Globetrotters' perennial foil, the Washington Generals. Lieberman also worked as a TV analyst for years, most recently for ESPN and the Dallas Mavericks.
Legends co-owner and Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson is the architect behind the D-League team's basketball operations department, which includes general manager Del Harris and president Spud Webb. Nelson had a specific prototype in mind for the team's first coach: Winner, coaching experience and a history of overcoming odds and obstacles.
He composed a list of potential coaches he insists contained 125-150 names. Lieberman, a Dallas-area resident for 29 years, wasn't on it.
Oversight? Sure. Slight? Looking back, Nelson isn't sure what he was thinking.
Lieberman found her way onto Nelson's radar through the magic of a frappuccino. Stopping to mail a letter about 16 months ago, Lieberman noticed longtime Mavericks favorite Rolando Blackman walking out of a Starbucks and went over to say hello.
A bear hug from behind soon followed. It was Nelson. They chatted for a bit. Lieberman congratulated Nelson for buying an expansion D-League franchise. That was basically their talk. Except a light went on in Nelson's brain.
"I walked away and I remember saying to myself, 'Man, I think I just met my head coach.'"
Nelson didn't consider gender as he mulled over the decision. He set up several meetings with Lieberman to discuss the idea and quickly found out that she was simply the best person for the job.
"One thing we're not afraid of around here is cracking the mold," said Nelson, one of the first NBA executives to embrace global scouting. "The next great basketball player may be born into a female body and we will never know if we don't give people like Nancy a chance."
If that sounds like some great social experiment, perhaps it is. But the notion of this being the kind of publicity stunt often associated with minor-league sports was quickly dismissed by Nelson.
"I don't care about that," he said. "I wouldn't sit here and talk about Nancy if I didn't think she could do the job. We're all in this boat together. My reputation is at stake here as well. This is my first ownership venture, and if things don't go right, I'm treading water just like everybody else.
"It's a risk, but I think it's a risk that's really been a long time coming. To me this should have happened a while ago."
Lieberman took the job last November and didn't waste time getting to work. She began traveling the country, visiting with NBA coaches and observing their practices. She met with Larry Brown, Alvin Gentry, Rick Carlisle and Vinny Del Negro, among others. She scouted the D-League Showcase last January and the NBA Summer League this past summer.
Lieberman picked up plenty of pointers, practice drills and other helpful hints. But her time spent with those NBA minds didn't erase her core beliefs in fundamentals, or the tricks she's cultivated through nearly 40 years in basketball.
"There may be things I don't know about the NBA, but quite frankly there are things that some of those coaches don't know about what I've done as an athlete and a player," Lieberman said confidently. "They haven't had to overcome some of the challenges that I've had to overcome on the court. I had to find solutions."
But why coach men? Wouldn't there be as much satisfaction and fulfillment coaching in the WNBA or a major-college women's program?
"It's a man's world, and the next level of success has always been to compete," she said. "It's normal for men to coach women at the highest levels. Why not the other way?"
Those men have been receptive as they embark on the 50-game schedule Thursday night under a spotlight that doesn't normally shine in the D-League. Williams realized from Day 1 that he was learning from a true "gym rat."
"Personally, I've never worked harder in training camp the way she's pushing us as players," Williams said. "I don't know if another female would handle this situation as well as she has. Man, the way she's set up our program, I don't see any way we can't be successful."
Man, woman. Maybe not as eloquent or as powerful as Ali's poem. Lieberman, though, can relate.
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