Nancy Lieberman has broken more than a few gender barriers during her life. So on Nov. 5, when she was announced as the head coach of the Mavericks' new D-League affiliate in Frisco, Texas, that fact that she would be the first woman to coach a men's professional basketball team wasn't the first thing on her mind.
"Donnie [Nelson] was going to get killed by the media," she said. "I was more concerned for him because this is normal for me. But here's this incredible, legit man who's worked incredibly hard to establish who he is and I was thinking, man, people are going to think he's just nuts."
Donnie was going to get killed by the media. I was more concerned for him because this is normal for me. But here's this incredible, legit man who's worked incredibly hard to establish who he is and I was thinking, man, people are going to think he's just nuts.
”-- Nancy Lieberman, on her first thought upon being offered the head coaching job for the Frisco D-League team by owner Donnie Nelson.
If you don't know Lieberman, her initial response may surprise you. But if you have spent any time with her, you recognize that as who she really is. As a woman who has spent most of her adult life being the first, she doesn't stop and say, Look what I did. Instead, she reverts to her classic point guard play and thinks of everyone around her.
So how did the former player known as "Lady Magic" become the first female coach of a men's pro team? She says she's not sure exactly what the thought process was but thinks it was a random run-in with Nelson that sparked the idea.
"It was July, and it was 8-something in the morning," she said. "I was parking to go work out. There's this blue mailbox. I got out of my car, and I put the mail in the mailbox. And Rolando Blackman was walking out of Starbucks, and I said, 'Hey, Ro.' We just started chit-chatting and commiserating. And out of nowhere, a guy hugged me from behind. I turned and said, 'Hey Donnie, how are you?' And I think the light went on, because he just looked at me and said, 'I need to talk to you.'"
Lieberman probably won't approve of the use of "random run-in" because she will tell you that "the good Lord has a plan for me." But there's no denying she was surprised at where this encounter led. She and Nelson began texting. That led to meetings at Starbucks, where Nelson began asking about her family, what she wanted to do, and whether she was happy where she was.
"I thought I would be involved. But I thought it would be the front office," she said. And that alone might have been a tantalizing offer. Lieberman admits that after 28 years as an analyst with ESPN, she was thinking it might be time to get off the road. Just last year, she spent 150 days traveling for ESPN. "I love my job, and I love what ESPN has meant to me but my son is 15, and he's got three years before he'll go off to Oklahoma."
In 1976, the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team won a silver medal in Montreal. As a member of that team, she became the youngest player in Olympic history to win a medal, at the age of 18.
She was the first two-time winner (1979, 1980) of the Wade Trophy, an award given to the national player of the year in women's college basketball, when she played for Old Dominion.
In 1986, she became the first woman ever to play in a men's professional league when she joined the Springfield Fame of the USBL.
In 1996, she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1997, she played for the Phoenix Mercury in the inaugural year of the WNBA. She was 38 years old.
In 1999, she was a member of the first class of inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2008, she signed a seven-day contract with the Detroit Shock, making her the oldest player in league history, at 50 years old.
When Nelson finally broached the subject of the head coaching job, he deftly touched on the subject that was most dear to her -- her son. She would be 3 miles from where practice would be held. She would be 3 miles from where 25 games would take place. He added that she could be home for dinner. Thinking back to that conversation, Lieberman said: "It was amazing. It was the thing I was looking for."
So a job was offered and accepted. Another day, another first for Lieberman.
"She's the best candidate for the job," Nelson said. "She was the youngest Olympic basketball player to medal, at the age of , and played her last professional game at the tender age of 50. Her contribution to our sport is worthy of a novel. [A Naismith] Hall of Famer with head coaching experience that has won at every level. She's been rolling up her sleeves and teaching North Texas kids for 30 years. That kind of passion for the game and dedication to our young people is what we want representing our franchise. The D-League is a league of opportunity, and I don't know of anyone who is more deserving."
While the mind swirls with what ifs and how abouts, Lieberman could not be more calm or more confident. She shows no signs of fear about being accepted by a group of young men trying to make their way to the NBA.
"Whatever their preconceived notions are that's theirs," Lieberman said. "I can't worry about that. What I am worried about and what I'm responsible for is the organization, the preparation, doing my job, and gaining more knowledge of the situations that they're going to be in."
Lieberman is not afraid to reach out. Not that she has to. After the formal announcement of her hiring was made public, she says she heard from 30 coaches around the sport. Men, women, college and pro players, colleagues, star athletes, friends from high school, and parents of players.
"I mean, the phone calls, the volume," she said. "For the first couple of days, I couldn't keep up with the volume."
One such call came from Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, who told her to look at her schedule and find two or three days to come out to Chicago. He wanted her to be a part of his staff, attend meetings, go through the playbooks. He told her he would make notebooks for her, including offense, defense and messaging, so she could get more familiar with the terms being used in the NBA.
"I'm going to do everything I can to prepare myself for success," Lieberman said. "That's not a flaw. Shame on me if I don't reach out to those people, and I have the confidence to do so. I want to hear different philosophies that have been successful."
And for Lieberman, it goes way beyond the X's and O's of basketball. She reminds you that only 20 percent of the guys in the D-League make it to the NBA.
"I'm going to help them build their character, their self-esteem, their decision-making," she said.
In addition to finding the right passing lane, it's also about making better human beings, whether they play professionally or find a job away from basketball.
It is her direct approach that could lead to the one of the biggest successes of her storied career. She is supremely competitive, and there's no doubt she wants her team to win. But what she counts as a win is not only what the scoreboard shows, but also what her players will go on to achieve, in the NBA and in society.
Kelly Webster is an on-air personality for ESPN 103.3 FM and will continue Living The Dream for ESPNDallas.com.