Lieberman’s uphill climb to an NBA bench

Nancy Lieberman

Pioneers don’t usually get to enjoy the benefits of the new ground they broke. Most often, they strike down barriers in service to future generations. So it’s gratifying to see Nancy Lieberman, a revolutionary of women in sports, herself walk down the path she’s paved for others.

The Sacramento Kings have hired Lieberman as an assistant coach, making her the second woman on a bench in the NBA. The first was Becky Hammon, who joined the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff last year and might have the best shot at becoming the first female head coach of a major professional men’s team — at 38, she is nearly two decades younger than Lieberman. “Becky opened up a lot of doors even for myself,” Lieberman told the Associated Press after the Kings’ announcement. Certainly, Hammon signaled a major shift in attitudes in traditionally male sports, which has allowed other women, such as Lieberman and newly hired Arizona Cardinals coach Jen Welter, to follow suit.

But if Hammon opened those doors, it was Lieberman and her contemporaries who unlocked them. At 18 years old, Lieberman was on the U.S. women’s basketball team in the 1976 Olympics — the first year women’s hoops was added to the program. That team is widely credited with opening up the country, and the world, to women’s sports. The decades since have seen the inception of the WNBA and the expansion of the Olympics to include women in every single event — even boxing. Lieberman, meanwhile, would go on to have a stellar career at Old Dominion before turning pro, playing for pre-WNBA women’s leagues and becoming the first woman to play on a professional men’s basketball team, joining the USBL’s Springfield Fame in 1986. She was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and eventually played in the WNBA in its inaugural season in 1997 before transitioning to coaching.

While Hammon became the NBA’s first female coach last season, Lieberman became the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team in 2009, when she was hired by the Texas Legends, the Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. She moved into the Legends’ front office in 2011.

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Lieberman’s qualifications are indisputable, and the usual, condescending question of how a female coach can get male players to respect her authority is moot. She’s already proved she can command a group of men, and is able to relate to them both as a player and as a member of a marginalized group. “I tell these guys we have more in common than you think,” she told the New Yorker in 2009. “Young black men don’t want to be profiled, and old white women don’t want to be profiled.”

With 40 years of experience under her belt and all the progress women have made in basketball, thanks partly to Lieberman’s contributions, her absence from the NBA has been glaring until now. And like the Spurs with Hammon, it took a particularly progressive team to finally make it happen. The Kings aren’t exactly the most stable team in the league, but they are among its boldest innovators. From Bitcoin to Indian players to women coaches, Sacramento seems determined to help move the NBA forward. By hiring Lieberman, they’re pushing basketball further into the future with an integral piece of its past.