Basketball Culture 101: She got game

[Editor's Note: Spencer Ryan Hall is the proprietor of the ESPN TrueHoop Network Utah Jazz blog Salt City Hoops. Here, Spencer writes about the first lady of basketball, dubbed "Lady Magic," Nancy Lieberman. Including an enlightening interview, this post makes clear how Lieberman has gone from a 13 year old Jewish girl playing at Rucker Park, to a successful head coach in the NBA's D-League.--Beckley]

A typical introduction for Nancy Lieberman might include a list of accomplishments and firsts. She’s the head coach of the Texas Legends in the D-League, the first woman to coach a men’s professional team. Her roster includes former Pacer Antonio Daniels, Mandarin-speaking NBA lottery pick Joe Alexander, and baller hobbyist Rashad McCants. She played two seasons against men in the USBL. She barnstormed with the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters. She played a game in the WNBA at the age of 50.

But all you really need to know about the aura of the woman nicknamed “Lady Magic” you can learn by watching the following clip:

That’s the evidence of her baller status. Clearly, the first female basketball superstar is comfortable in the rare air she inhabits. She considers herself lucky, but not a fluke. She knows she belongs. How many can casually include themselves in a list of legendary New York icons? Who gets included in coffee table books with sepia photos of PS 104 and uses the familiar when referencing Kareem and Dr. J?

We spoke on the phone after I read her autobiography, Lady Magic, written in 1991. In that conversation, as in the previous clip, she shouted out Warren Buffett and Donald Trump and Jerry Jones (with a story that started “…so I’m talking to Warren and Bill Gates…”), providing further evidence of her influence beyond basketball.

A conversation with Nancy Lieberman is a reminder that most of the influence in basketball is shared through stories; and Lieberman is full of them. Every story is punctuated with a maxim or aphorism to sell the idea she is pitching.

“Behind every great man is a great woman.”

“No excuses, no explanations, no deflections.”

“Every day is a chance for you to be better.”

“Warren Buffet says you never take a shot you can’t make.”

Her stories rely on the mythology of sport and she can call down the names of all the gods of basketball, baseball, boxing, and tennis.

Even the stories surrounding her rough upbringing in New York read like a sporting version of Horatio Alger, if Horatio Alger were a tough young Jewish girl who loved basketball:

Nancy and her brother, Cliff, grew up in a one-parent home in Queens, New York, in a tough section of town. She reflects on her early memories: “You don’t know what poor is when your grandparents are coming over three days a week putting food in the refrigerator and your grandma is cooking for you.” Being poor finally hit her one day when the electricity was suddenly turned off. “Why did the lights go out?” eight-year-old Nancy asked her mom, who answered quite frankly, “Well, your dad didn’t pay the bill.” What followed was a scene in her mom’s room where they dumped all her mom’s purses on the floor to search for loose change so that they could buy gas and go look for her father.

“It was one of those epiphanies. I looked at my brother and I said, I ain’t living like this! And he said, Nancy, we’re poor. And I said, You’re poor, not me. I’m not doing this!” It was in this moment that Nancy made up her mind: If you want to live like this, go ahead. But my life’s going to be different. “I looked at my mom and I said, This is not going to happen to me

“I would take the A train by myself from Far Rockaway, which was a fifty-minute train ride to Harlem. I had my head down because you don’t want to make eye contact on the train. I’d stuffed my jacket with T-shirts, and I’d feel someone looking at me, and I’d look back at them like, Whatcha lookin’ at? Is there something wrong with me? I was always pro-active, so they thought I was crazier than they were – which was awesome – so nobody ever said anything to me.”

“So there I was, a thirteen-year-old Jewish white girl, getting off the train at 155th Street, walking into the famous Rucker Park. And I had my basketball, which was my ticket to getting into the games.

“All these black guys would look at me, and I’d look at them, and they’d look at me. And I just said, I know, I’m white. Thank you, I wasn’t sure until you were staring at me like that. I said, I didn’t take the train here for fifty minutes for you to stare at me, you know, I’m not afraid of you. I got next – I wanna play. Either these guys were thinking This little girl is crazy or they were like, God bless her.” Revealing this part of her life, Nancy stops herself and laughs. “I can’t believe I did that, by the way! But they would let me play.”

“I was the odd duck. I was the Jewish girl playing sports.”

“When the guys in the park said, We’ll take the girl, that was saying, I love you, I want you, I need you. I need you to be a part of my team, because if I take you we’ll be successful and we’ll win. So the more reinforcement that my skills meant something to somebody else besides myself, that was very important to me.” (Source)

Here is a paraphrased re-telling of our conversation. Lady Magic isn’t a role she inhabits, it’s a legend she lives:

“I’ve done this since I was 15 years old. This is really normal for me being in this role. I’ve been around men my whole life in sports, business, TV, playing, in communicating, as a mom, as a wife. I’ve done this my whole life.”

Spencer Ryan Hall: I like the way you’ve responded to the questions about coaching in the D-League, saying that men are used to having women in their lives and it’s nothing new for a young man to receive advice from a woman.

Nancy Lieberman: Exactly. It’s no different than being the youngest coach in the NBA, for example. Coach Spoelstra with the Heat is up against some of the same challenges. The bottom line is whether you can do your job. It’s the same thing.

Imagine someone starting a new job or getting a new boss and saying ‘I can’t work for a women, she’s too emotional.’ Or ‘I can’t work for an African American.’ It sounds ridiculous because it is. People have to be judged on whether they can do the job or not, and I’m glad we live in a world where people have opportunities to chase their dreams.

I’ve actually played in the minor leagues, I’ve coached and played in the WNBA, I’ve been a commentator with ESPN. I actually know a lot about the things these guys are going through.

If I were to give up on my dreams simply because people said I couldn’t do something, I would have quit a long time ago. We have a rule on the team that says “No excuses, no explanations, no deflections.” And that goes for me, too. I can’t make excuses for myself or ask for special treatment because I’m a woman. I have to get the job done.

SRH: That leads into my next question about Title IX. With the rise of opportunity for female athletes and the increased enrollment of women in universities, are we entering a post Title IX world? Is it still necessary?

NL: Title IX is not an opinion, it’s a law. Any parent wants their children to have every opportunity. That being said, we all have to have the drive to take advantage of every opportunity available. I always tell the guys on the team, “History is not having a woman for a coach. History is winning in the D-League.” We need to focus on our goals and those opportunities should be available for everyone, regardless of their skin color, their gender, etc.

I had a player come up to me after I told the players that and he said ‘Coach, I’ve never been a part of history.’ It really stuck with him, that each of us has a chance to make history if we work hard enough, and a lot of that is a legacy of Title IX.

SRH: What needs to happen for the women’s game to get to the next level?

NL: Just time. Everything needs time. The NBA didn’t become what it is overnight. The Britney Griners of the world now have an opportunity to play and to compete and can set goals to play professionally. Those kinds of things set an example for others to follow. The best part about basketball, though, is that it breaks down every barrier. You and I have only spoken for a short time but I’m sure we could sit down and talk for hours. That’s the beauty of basketball.

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Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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  1. [...] was a good friend of Frank Layden and once played for the Jazz on a summer league team. In an interview in 2011, I asked Lieberman to reflect on her experience coaching men: Spencer Ryan Hall: I like the way [...]

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