Monday, December 13, 2010

Nancy Lieberman Dishes Out Her Greatest Assist


On a recent episode of the "hit" TLC reality show Sarah Palin's Alaska (you know, the Alaska that imbues its residents with the magical power to spy on the Russians, gaining valuable foreign policy experience as they gander), Sarah, Todd, and the rest of insulated and occasionally homophobic Palin clan welcomed in another out-of-touch, insulated TLC celebrity, Kate Gosselin. Kate, of John and Kate Plus 8 minus John fame packed up her moneymakers (and by moneymakers I mean her sextuplets and twins, which somehow still feels dirty writing) and paid the former gubernatorial darling and 2012 presidential hopeful a visit. What happens when two massively large egos, 10+ kids, and no outdoor plumbing collide? Well, of course, anxiety tinged hilarity ensues.

"Why would you pretend to be homeless? I just don't get it. I just don't get the concept. There are no paper towels? How can you make sandwiches for eight kids on your arms? I don't see a table! I don't see utensils! I don't see hand-cleansing materials!" Kate would continue to voice her disappointment at receiving the life-altering revelation that camping outdoors is not like being indoors which, upon further review, is kind of the point. "This is not ideal condition! I'm freezing to the bone. I have 19 layers on. My hands are frigid. I held it together as long as I could and I'm done now. I'm hungry!" she lamented while her kids happily played and ate around the campfire, some of them sans gloves. All the while, Sarah Palin looked calm, cool, and collected in the face of the Gosselin whirlwind. I guess that if spending several months on the stump with John McCain will teach you any virtue, it would be that of patience...and political expediency but I digress.

As seemingly inane as the combination of syllables and vowels that spill from the vocal cords of Palin and Gosselin may be, these two (for better or for worse) represent upward social and financial mobility by women in the United States and around the world in the 21st century. They represent what many of us have always known from our experiences with women in our lives - that entrepreneurial drive and vision need not be divorced from the responsibility of raising a family. In fact, as Palin and Gosselin have shown, the more children you have, the more of a brazen careerist you can strive to be.

America is the greatest democracy the world has ever known but we are slow to change and can become downright irascible when the status quo is upset too quickly. You needn't look any further than the still lagging wages of women compared to men, the approval rating of President Barack Obama amongst non-millennial white voters, and the stalemate currently taking place in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate over the extension of unemployment benefits to nearly 2 million Americans, Immigration Reform, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and making sure that the U.S. and Russia don't team up to annihilate the entire world in a nuclear holocaust. Sports have always acted simultaneously as a form of escape from these many and varied issues as well as a reflection of our prejudices and social progress as a Republic. No story is more reflective of the tremendous steps that we have taken as a civilization and the immense amount of mental and social muck that we have yet to rid ourselves of like that of one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Naismith Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman.

Lieberman has had nothing short of an illustrious career in basketball. She attended Old Dominion University where she won two consecutive National Championships in 1979 and 1980. Lieberman was a 3-time All-American and the first 2-time recipient of the Wade Trophy, given to the national player of the year in women's college basketball. Upon graduating from Old Dominion in 1980, Lieberman held school records in assists (961) and steals (562). Both school records still stand and are believed to be modern records. Nancy Lieberman was a member of the first U.S. Olympic women's basketball team at the 1976 competition in Montreal. At age 18, she became the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to medal when the U.S. team took home silver. Lieberman went on to have a professional career in several leagues including the USBL, a men's league, and with the Washington Generals, the frequent punching bag of the Harlem Globetrotters. When the WNBA was formed in 1997, Lieberman plied her talents with the Phoenix Mercury. Already a Naismith Hall of Famer after being inducted in 1996 (for some reason the Women's Hall of Fame didn't come calling until 3 years after the boys), Lieberman became the oldest player in WNBA history at the ripe old age of 39. In true Lieberman form, she would eclipse her own record when, on July 24th, 2008 at the age of 50, Lieberman signed a 7-day contract and suited up for the injury riddled Detroit Shock.

Now, at the age of 52, Nancy Lieberman is embarking on a new journey where she is re-writing not only the history books but re-stitching the social fabric of America. In November of 2009, she became the head basketball coach of the NBA Development League's Texas Legends, affiliates of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. Lieberman is the first female head coach of a men's basketball team affiliated with the NBA. As with her previous endeavors into "a man's world", many people were critical of her ability to coach men and questioned the motivation behind her accepting such a high profile position. "What I do in a man's world sometimes is perceived to be not normal. It's irregular. A woman coaching men? Really? My job is to take being a woman coaching men, which is perceived to be irregular, and it's my job to make it normal."

As with every foray by a woman into traditionally male space, there were those who were concerned with how the boys would react to having someone sans testicles tell them how perfect their profession. As former NBA and current Legends player Antonio Daniels explained to ESPN, Lieberman's Hall of Fame credentials demand respect no matter what gender she is. "She transcends gender. That's not even an issue. You know, it's not like we come in and see the fact that Nancy's the female coach. It's the fact that we go in and see that Nancy's a very, very good coach she knows what she's talking about, and she's very confident in herself and she does a great job of instilling that confidence in us as a team."

The man potentially falling on the sword for hiring Lieberman was Dallas Mavericks General Manager Donnie Nelson, who is also the owner of the Legends. Nelson, the son of legendary coach Don Nelson who currently holds the record for most coaching victories in NBA history, has been around the game in various capacities all of his life and knew Lieberman from stops along the way. When asked how he made the decision to hire Lieberman, Nelson said, "Wow, umm, I had my...as anybody has your little list of coaches and I serendipitously bumped into Nancy, I think it was at a Starbucks, and after a brief encounter I left there and I was like maybe the best man for this job isn't even a man."

At first, Nancy couldn't believe that Donnie Nelson wanted her to be at the helm of the Legends franchise. "I just kept looking at him and thinking, Donnie, you're just going to be crucified for this thought...Nobody's ever done this before. He was convinced it was the right thing and when Donnie really, and I saw that in the text, when Donnie said Nancy this is exactly what MLK marched and died for. I looked at him and said, a 47 year old white dude using the MLK card on me? He had me at MLK." She called her close friend, former NBA player and current head coach of the Phoenix Suns Alvin Gentry, in hopes that he would dissuade her from taking a potentially controversial step. What she heard was not what she wanted to hear but what she needed to hear. "I called (Suns coach) Alvin (Gentry) and I'm like, dude, I said give me two reasons not to do this. He goes, Nancy, you have to do this. You're the one. They'll never question it. I was like, fine, I'm never calling you for important stuff anymore but he was right and I knew it."

Dallas Mavericks billionaire owner Mark Cuban, known throughout the sports industry for his willingness to push the envelope (he's currently working on a rival institution to replace college football's controversial BCS system), was behind Nelson's decision from the very beginning. "Donnie's a natural born promoter. He's a hustler. He loves basketball and it's in his blood and so I really didn't have any second thoughts about it at all. You know, I've known Nancy for 25 years. We play pick-up basketball together all the time and so its come full circle." With the owner on-board and his coaching choice in the front seat, Donnie Nelson was able to face his detractors with the same fervor and zeal that Lieberman faced down her opponents during her amazing career as a player and a coach. When asked what he thought about people who viewed the hiring of Lieberman as a publicity stunt, Nelson stated emphatically, "You know, I've got that a lot. My answer to that is, number 1, I don't care because we're going to make the best decisions for this franchise regardless. We're projectors of talent, OK, whether it's basketball players or coaches and she's got the talent. She just needs the opportunity."

Well, Nancy has that opportunity and she is not disappointing. After losing her head coaching debut, Lieberman's Legends have won 6 of their last 8 games. With her early success, speculation is already beginning to circulate that Lieberman's ultimate destination may be a NBA bench near you. Nancy doesn't see the future quite the same way as these clairvoyants. "For me, I don't have an aspiration to be on an NBA bench. I didn't really aspire to coach in the D-league. I'm qualified but that's not my aspiration. I'm happy in this moment and I'm going to enjoy this moment because this means something and I want it to matter and I'm going to make it matter."

Nancy Lieberman is making it matter everyday and every step of the way. In an era of massive upheaval of the status quo and an awakening by men and women to their inalienable rights as humans, Lieberman is yet another shining example of ability, will, and talent trumping prejudice and social conventions. It may not happen in her lifetime but, due in large part to the doors that she has unlocked at every step of her brilliant career, a woman will sit on the bench of an NBA team as the head coach in the near future. If that hiring is met with small captions in newspapers and brief snippets of blogs, we'll know with certainty that Lieberman's goal of making women coaching men "regular" has been achieved.

As for those pundits that contend that Lieberman is only taking this position to bolster her already substantial legend, what would "Lady Magic" say to them?

"I would say that since I was 15 years old I've been in some sort of media as an athlete or, you know, as a ground breaker or playing in men's leagues. I've earned the right to be here. I've invested my life in basketball for 40 years. We joke around, don't hate the player, hate the game. Don't hate. Appreciate and admire people if they're successful."

As much as it pains me to say this, that appreciation and admiration should also include the likes of the Palin and Gosselin matriarchs (I'm not ready to accept Nancy Pelosi, Christine O'Donnell, and Janet Brewer into my circle of appreciation quite yet). During the 2008 Presidential election, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton spurred voters to turnout in record numbers, motivating them to put "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling." With the continued efforts of pioneers such as Nancy Lieberman coupled with increased understanding by the entrenched patriarchal factions that women's rights are human rights, the shattering of the glass ceiling may very well be the pivotal moment for this generation in much the same fashion that the monumental fall of the Berlin Wall represented the extinguishing of the last vestiges of Communism, ushering in a new age of democracy and freedom for Baby Boomers and the newly born Generation Xers.

This could very well be the greatest assist of Lieberman's career.