Some know Nancy Lieberman for leading Old Dominion University to back-to-back women's basketball national championships in 1979 and 1980. Others know her as the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to medal (1976). More recent headlines praise her as the first woman to coach a men's professional team, the G League's Texas Legends.
Given a rolodex of titles and accolades, Lieberman is undoubtedly a pioneer for women's basketball. She recently joined Madelyn Burke on Her Playbook podcast to detail her storied basketball career and transition into coaching.
Lieberman recalled an early obsession with sports. First, she played football and baseball before ultimately finding her love for basketball when she was around 10 years old.
She became infatuated with the New York Knicks given their hot streak in the early 70s, and Lieberman recognized the way the sport transcended society.
"I just loved what they stood for," she said.
Lieberman idolized players like Willis Reed and Walt Frasier, and today Lieberman considers them personal friends.
By the time Lieberman was old enough to ride the train alone, she began sneaking off to Harlem's famed Rucker Park from her homebase in Queens to participate in pickup basketball games.
"It helped me develop as a person because I needed basketball more than basketball and sports needed me," Lieberman remembered about her troubled family life.
Meanwhile, Rucker Park was dominated by boys, but Lieberman never let her own identity bar her from partaking in the sport she loved most.
"I wasn't afraid," she said.
Lieberman befriended the boys, who quickly took on the role of her protector.
Though her basketball idols had a strong influence on her, it was boxer Muhammed Ali who truly armed her with the courage to become great. If there's one piece of advice Lieberman still lives by today, it was his words of "Respect everybody, but fear nobody."
"It means I have to try, and I cannot be afraid to try," she explained. "Because of Muhammed Ali, I'm not afraid to play in the Olympics in high school. I'm not afraid to play in the WNBA as a rookie at 39. I'm not afraid to play at 50. I'm not afraid to coach men. I'm not afraid to win, and I'm not afraid to change lives."
She matriculated at Old Dominion University on a full scholarship, and it was there that Lieberman came into her identity.
"It took me from a kid to a woman," Lieberman said. "It made me understand my role to have perspective for the history of the game and what I needed to do – I needed to be a great ambassador. I took that seriously."
Inspired by basketball legend Magic Johnson, a Virginia news outlet bequeathed Lieberman the nickname "Lady Magic."
Lady Magic never imagined she'd change the women's basketball landscape, but she did just that.
Lieberman was also inspired by late NBA Commissioner David Stern's commitment to creating a WNBA. She recalled making a promise to herself that she'd be playing when Stern's dream became a reality. At 39 years old, Lieberman saw that promise through.
Upon completion of her own playing career, the Hall of Famer notched yet another first. In coaching the Texas Legends, the Maverick's G League affiliate, Lieberman became the first woman to coach a men's professional sports team.
"In the locker room, it's not men or women," Lieberman said. "They're ballplayers. … My job is to celebrate them."
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