Nancy Lieberman is proving she can be successful in a man's world -- the world of the NBA. She's been named the first female coach in the National Basketball Association for the NBA Development League expansion team, the Texas Legends.
But to talk to her, you'd never know that she's especially different. She's been doing things the same way since she was first inspired as a 9-year-old by boxing great Muhammad Ali.
"When I was 9 he was on TV and said, 'I am the greatest of all time,'" she recalls. "There was no Title IX, no ESPN. He gave me this vision."
Twelve years later, as a nationally ranked college basketball player on scholarship and the youngest Olympic basketball medalist, she met Ali at the New York Stock Exchange. She was speechless so her mom broke the ice. "He says, 'Come here kid, your mom says that you're good,'" she recalled. "I couldn't even look him in the eye. I said, 'I'm not good or nothing, I'm the greatest,' and he says, 'Give me a hug, there's two 'greatest' in the room.'"
They've stayed in touch and Ali plans to attend opening night in November when Lieberman, 51, takes the court at the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco, Texas. There's still work to do -- she's scouting players both domestically and abroad and building a coaching staff.
A familiar role
Regarding her locker room plans, she's all set. Lieberman makes a good point: Every man in a locker room has taken instruction from a woman since they were a baby -- whether it's from a mom, a wife, or a girlfriend.
"We've told men what to do since the beginning of time. They're used to getting information from us," she says. "My team is winning no matter what's on the scoreboard. My job is to help their work ethic. I'm coaching them for life."
Her perspective is realistic, since 80 percent of her players will not make it to the NBA from this minor league. But major leaguers are paying close attention to Lieberman.
Men of the game already look to her for inspiration and offer their advice. Men who are known by one name, like Kobe and LeBron. Coaches like Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks and Alvin Gentry of the Phoenix Suns are watching her. But they're not looking over her shoulder -- they see her as competition.
"All these people want to beat me in six months but I appreciate all the help," she says. She knows she's going to be judged.
Mars vs. Venus
Lieberman approaches her job mostly from a gender-blind perspective, but she can't ignore that men and women are different.
"I will be respectful. I will teach. It probably won't be as emotional as it might be in a women's locker room. With the men there will be no surprises -- they'll know what our philosophy is, our expectations are. Sometime it will be tough love. We push players to places people don't normally want to go to on a daily basis. I won't let them be sloppy in their preparation to be successful."
She says if you're a good leader, you don't have to tell people you're a leader; they see it. And lead she does. When Lieberman's not coaching, she runs basketball camps and the Nancy Lieberman Foundation, which uses basketball as a motivational tool for youths. She worked for 28 years at ESPN. And she's an author. Her third book, 'Playbook for Success,' will be released in October and focuses on teamwork and leadership.
"I'm not in control of my reputation, but I'm always in control of my character -- and that's what I want to teach my guys," she says.