Nancy Lieberman knows a thing or two about breaking barriers.
The Hall of Famer is a pioneer in her own right, making hoops history in almost every way imaginable.
She was the youngest athlete in Olympic history to win a medal — during the 1976 games in Montreal — and the first woman to play in a men’s professional league.
Now, as the first female to coach a men’s professional team, Lieberman took it one step further — guiding the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends to the playoffs in her historic inaugural season.
While the Legends became the first NBA expansion team to make the postseason in their first year of existence, many will simply focus on Lieberman herself. But the 52-year-old coach doesn’t quite see it that way.
“History is not a woman coaching men,” Lieberman said. “History is us being the first expansion team to make the playoffs.”
Although the Brooklyn native, nicknamed “Lady Magic,” downplays the gender dynamic, she understands the magnitude of her accomplishment in the eyes of her peers.
On the eve of the Legends’ final regular season game — one they needed to win to make the playoffs — her phone blew up with texts and calls from a who’s who of coaches and athletes including New York Yankees’ skipper Joe Girardi, former Texas women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt and NBA champion Darvin Ham. Even actor Kevin Costner called.
“Not only have these guys embraced me, but they care enough to verbalize that they’re pulling for me,” she said. “It was actually a little overwhelming for me to know that these guys care this much.”
The support paid off, and the Legends outlasted the Austin Toros 134-128 in double overtime to sneak into the postseason as the eighth seed. But things could have gone differently for Lieberman as her squad managed to overcome a six-point deficit in the final 30 seconds of regulation to keep its playoff aspirations alive.
The ending was indicative of the Legends’ “us-against-the-world” attitude, engrained in the team by Lieberman.
“Nobody would have ever thought that we would have been in this position,” she said.
What many people did think, however, was that the Legends would struggle in their first year in the league. But the players, including four former first-round NBA draft picks and an NBA champion in 11-year veteran Antonio Daniels, tuned in to her message from day one. Lieberman and her team gelled instantly.
“It wasn’t like, ‘OK, some chick is coaching my team.’ My job is to let them know what I’m talking about,” she said.
While some of the youngsters on the Legends’ roster were unaware of all of her basketball prowess, the 36-year-old Daniels says he knew what he was getting in Lieberman.
“She transcended gender a long time ago. The fact that she’s a woman and so many different things, it doesn’t matter,” Daniels said. “She knows what she’s talking about, she’s confident in what she preaches, and when you have a confident coach, it’s easy to follow.”
Assistant coach David Wesley, who played 14 years in the NBA for a pair of Hall of Famers in Dave Cowens and Chuck Daly, said Lieberman’s attention to detail was a major factor in the Legends’ success.
“She just expects excellence,” Wesley said. “She strives to teach and get guys all on the same page. She works really hard at what she does.”
While it’s easy to get caught up in the X’s and O’s, Lieberman is often reminded of the significance of her feat. Almost everywhere she goes, someone approaches her with a tale of how the coach inspired a young female athlete.
“You don’t realize the people who you influence and how you do it, and I just thank God that it’s me, and I’m so honored,” Lieberman said. “How many lucky women in the world are there? Because I’m one of them.”
The D-League is a springboard for players and coaches alike to make it to the next level. While the NBA may not be on Lieberman’s radar right now, one thing is for certain: whatever the future holds for this pioneer coach, she’s sure to break more barriers.