Nancy Lieberman has been breaking basketball barriers for almost four decades, and she's not done yet. The 52-year-old Hall of Famer is currently in the midst of her first season as the first female head coach at the NBA level, calling the shots for the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League (the equivalent of Triple-A baseball). Being a pioneer in the sport is nothing new for Lieberman, whose accomplishments are, well, legendary: Olympic silver medalist at age 18; two-time collegiate player of the year while leading Old Dominion University to back-to-back national titles; first woman to play in a men's pro league; player, coach and general manager in the WNBA. Lieberman isn't shy about her competitive nature, but she's not afraid to show a softer side with her players. "I am wired to win," she says. "I don't know how to lose, to be quite honest. But I know how to love. And I love my guys. But I'm also really tough on them, because I want them to walk away from this saying they got better." With the Legends — currently battling for the eighth and final playoff spot — hosting the Austin Toros on Saturday in a nationally televised game (11:30/10:30c on Versus), TV Guide Magazine caught up with Lieberman to talk about the latest chapter in her basketball diaries.
TV Guide Magazine: What's been the most surprising part of this job?
Lieberman: Well, nothing has really surprised me as far as there being any issues. What continues to strike me is how it's affected the lives of people that I don't know, who I hear from on Facebook, Twitter, e-mails. And I'm not the flavor of the month, I've been around for a bit. [Laughs] I get so much kindness and so much love, and am so thankful for the opportunity to do what I do. It's not just about basketball. It's about a bigger picture. It's about inspiring people to do things that they never thought that they could do. I owe a lot to [Dallas Maverick general manager and Legends co-owner] Donnie Nelson. Because it took his guts, and his vision and his foresight, along with the D-League, to change people's lives and use me as that vessel.
TV Guide Magazine: My next question was going to be what's been the most rewarding part about this, but I think you just answered that!
Lieberman: It's rewarding to be able to make young men be better men. My job is to give them vision to who they're going to be down the road. If my guy's have vision to who they want to be, it's going to help them achieve what they want, not only on the court, but off the court as men.
TV Guide Magazine: What about the pressure you must feel to win?
Lieberman: I know that I'm going to be judged on winning and losing, and that's OK. This is a very competitive league and we know that every night we have to come with the goods. But every day we should come with the goods as people. And that's the message that we're trying to show our guys. It's not going to be perfect every day. There are going to be days when you're not too happy with your coaches, but we've invested enough love: We tell our guys virtually every day that we love 'em. We hug 'em. I was talking to one of my guys, and I said, "Look, I'm not sure Phil Jackson tells Kobe every day that he loves him, but you hear from me that I love you, and I mean it."
TV Guide Magazine: You're an icon in this sport, but did you feel like you had to earn the players' respect, or did you have it from Day 1?
Lieberman: I had to earn their respect the same way they had to earn my respect. That comes with preparation and work ethic. I can't be just as good, I have to be better than my male counterparts.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you OK with that?
Lieberman: Oh yeah. For me this is really normal. I'm so used to doing this that it's a part of my DNA. I'm used to being the youngest Olympic basketball player ever, I'm used to being the first woman to play in a men's league. So I'm used to my journey, it's really normal to me. I know I'm the first woman coaching at an NBA level men's team, but I have a job to do, and I have to make things normal. My goal is be [just] another coach in this league.
TV Guide Magazine: The volume of your accomplishments is pretty amazing.
Lieberman: Sometimes I can't believe it's me. I wish my life on everybody. To love something at age 8 or 9 and still be in love with it at 52, is that not a cool love story? Muhammad Ali says, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth." If you had done this interview with me 25 years ago, I was probably a self-centered, egomaniac jerk, because I had no self-esteem and no confidence, and it was hidden behind basketball. Today, nothing is about me. I know that I'm here to serve people. I want to be my son T.J.'s hero. I want to be the best mom I can be.
TV Guide Magazine: I read that President Obama invited you to play basketball with him at the White House. Has that happened yet?
Lieberman: He was so cute. Can I call the president cute? Is that a faux pas? I said to him, "If you give me the red-phone number I'll give you my cell phone number." [Laughs] Look, it was the day of his BP press conference, he was being annihilated by the media, so I thought he needed a little humor. I'll get up there at some point.
TV Guide Magazine: You must be pretty busy.
Liberman: It's a lot of work and I'm not getting a lot of sleep, but I can honestly say I'm having a lot of fun. This is a very unique moment. I want to live the memory with my guys. This is going to be a memory in their lives. And it's an honor to do it with them.