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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Nancy Lieberman: All she wanted was a chance to compete

Texas Legends head coach Nancy Lieberman, center, leads

Texas Legends head coach Nancy Lieberman, center, leads her team during a timeout in an NBA Development League basketball game against the Springfield Armor in Frisco, Texas. on March 30, 2011. Credit: AP / Tony Gutierrez

Nancy Lieberman knew the world was changing. She just wasn't sure it was changing fast enough for her.

Lieberman, 57, has been a pioneer over and over again.

As a teenager from Far Rockaway, she rode the train to play against the boys at Rucker Park in Harlem.

At 18, she was the youngest member of the first U.S. women's basketball team to compete in an Olympics in 1976.

In her 20s, she was the first woman to play on a professional men's basketball team, joining the USBL's Springfield Fame and Long Island Knights.

At 39, she became the oldest player to compete in the WNBA when she played in the league's inaugural season before making the transition to coaching.

Lieberman has always wanted to play with the best, to do her job on the highest level. Yet somewhere in her second decade of coaching in the WNBA and D-League, she began to wonder if it was ever going to happen for her, if her dream of coaching in the NBA would ever come true.

"I knew I was qualified and I thought I would get a chance, but doubts would creep in my mind," Lieberman said in a phone interview this past week after the Sacramento Kings announced they were adding her to coach George Karl's staff. "All it took was one, one coach who wasn't afraid to be different."

That coach was the Spurs' Gregg Popovich, who flung open a door and seemed to inspire other coaches to follow when he hired Becky Hammon as an assistant coach a year ago.

Consider what has happened since. The NFL has named Sarah Thomas as a full-time official. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has added Jen Welter to his staff for training camp. The Memphis Grizzlies promoted video coordinator Nicki Gross to an assistant coach with the D-League squad. And now Lieberman, one of the most accomplished players in the game, is joining the Kings.

Is this a trend? Is 2015 a tipping point for women who want to work in the higher-paying, higher-profile jobs in men's sports? Two generations after the passage of Title IX, will young women be able to aspire to work in any job they think they can do?

Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, is hopeful.

"It's too soon to tell if it will be a trend,'' Kane said, "but I believe it will because of the people who have been hired. Becky Hammon. Nancy Lieberman. Jen Welter. These women are not tokens. They are not being hired for political correctness.

"These hires have the imprimatur of people like Gregg Popovich. He doesn't need a feel-good story for marketing. These guys aren't being pressured by the league to do something that's politically correct. Some of the most successful and iconic coaches in the league are saying these women have something to bring to the table.''

Hammon already has proved that by coaching the Spurs to a summer league title last month. Lieberman credits Hammon for opening the door for her. The two have known each other since Lieberman coached against Hammon in the WNBA and they talk frequently. Lieberman also is friendly with Welter as they both have homes in Dallas. She said they are keenly cognizant of their roles as pioneers.

"It's not just about me being an assistant coach,'' she said. "It's about society's changing and we're all a part of it. Look, we have an African-American president and a woman with a legitimate chance of becoming president. This is not the same world it was 30 years ago.''

No, it's not. It's a world where Lieberman finally is going to get a chance to measure what she can do on the highest level. As a teenager riding the A and E trains after school to Rucker Park, that's all she ever wanted.


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