Nancy Lieberman A Legend Who Has Reached Beyond the Norm
As a pro basketball player, Lieberman has set many records. She’s been inducted into several Halls of Fame, including the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and was also the first woman to be inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame as well as the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame. Lieberman is also a two-time Olympian. She may have played in several team leagues but as a professional basketball player, coach, and philanthropist, Nancy Lieberman's outstanding achievements have placed her in a league all her own. As a Hall of Fame player, Nancy Lieberman has scored countless points for her teams but what matters most is her attitude, drive and dedication to help others succeed. From the neighborhoods courts of Harlem to the courts of the WNBA, Lieberman’s career has been an amazing journey of dreams, hard work, fearlessness, perseverance, determination and confidence. People were telling Lieberman, “You’re crazy, you can’t become a professional basketball player" or "It can’t be done." She would reply, “Yes I can -- wait and see. I will achieve my dream." It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you're from. Tomorrow’s journey begins when you use the courage within to step out of your comfort zone. As a young teenager who believed that she would someday become the best female pro basketball player ever, Lieberman learned to move out of her comfort zone. She was deter-
mined to not allow “growing up poor” define her future nor dim her bright outlook on life. She was bold and fearless in her approach to become a winner at life and at basketball. “I had to place cardboard in the bottom of my tennis shoes, because I couldn’t afford to buy a new pair," Lieberman says. Riding on New York’s dingy subways in Harlem, this young woman aimed unswervingly for her goal -- to become the best at basketball and to define her own future and do it her way. She wasn’t afraid to be different -- to move toward realizing a dream that others thought was crazy, and even impossible. Joel Barker once said “Those who say it can’t be done, are usually interrupted by others doing it.” Lieberman did it her way. She interrupted the negative thoughts of many who didn’t believe in her at that time, but later realized that she was a force to be reckoned with. Before you can lead others to success, you must define your path and lead yourself to victory. She wore jersey number10 on the basketball court and today, in many ways, she’s still a ten. Her remarkable impact on the lives of others is truly exceptional.
A pioneer in women’s sports, Lieberman was the first woman to play in a men's professional league and also coach an NBA team, the Texas Legends, and lead them to the playoffs in the first year. This is just the beginning of her amazing records of “firsts” and her remarkable achievements. In her book Playbook for Success, author Lieberman offers women proven strategies for achieving success which can be applied on and off the court. She is a legend who has set the gold standard for women who have followed her in the game of basketball. That standard, however has reached well beyond the boundaries of basketball. Her commitment to humanity has inspired people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to live purposeful lives, to view adversities as opportunities and to say to those who don’t believe in them, "Wait and see." The founder of Exceptional People Magazine was thrilled to speak with Lieberman about how her childhood vision became a reality and how she is inspiring others to achieve their dreams. Monica: As a young girl growing up in Queens New York, when did you first realize that you wanted to become a professional basketball?
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Nancy: It was never a dream of mine. It came from happenstance. I was a poor kid from a one-parent family growing up in Far Rockaway, New York, specifically in Bridgewater. When I was a kid, there was so much fighting, yelling and negativity in my home. I can remember that I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. I couldn’t wait to go someplace where people were laughing and smiling and having a good time. It became an escape for me. I played football first, then baseball. The last sport I took up around the age of 9 or 10 years old was basketball. I can remember people looking at me and saying, “She’s a tomboy.” I played with all the boys -- white kids, black kids, it didn’t matter. My grandparents would ask “What is wrong with you? What did we do? Why can’t you act and be like a little girl?” I would tell them, “I love sports, I like playing with the guys.” Back in the sixties there were no examples for women to follow to become successful in sports, except maybe Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, and Billie Jean King. One day while I was sitting in my room, and I saw this guy on television. It was Muhammad Ali. I heard him saying “I’m the champion of the world…I’m the greatest.” And I thought, “That’s cool.” I walked into the kitchen and I looked at my mom and said, “I’m the greatest of all time. I’m going to whip you and I’m going to beat you in four rounds.” She said, “I’m your mother,” and I replied, “I’ll beat you in three rounds.” I put my hands on my hips, stared at her and said, “You better get used to it. I’m going to make history,” and I walked out of the kitchen. Monica: I’m sure that left her speechless. Nancy: How crazy is that? It was really kind of cool because Muhammad Ali gave me this vision. It’s amazing how someone can inspire another person and not realize it. From that day forward, I knew that I could be whatever I wanted. He was my eyes. He was my vision. He allowed me to believe in myself. If you have nothing, you had better believe in yourself. I met him when I was twenty and now he is a life-long friend of mine. Every time I see him and his wife I never leave without telling him “I love you and I thank you, because who and what I am is because of you.” Everybody has a Muhammad Ali story. Monica: As you began your journey to becoming the greatest female pro basketball player, who helped you lay the foundation for the amazing career that you have experienced? Nancy: Life is about solutions. I didn’t really have any role models except for Muhammad Ali, but I loved Willis Reed and Walt Frazier of the Nicks. Walt Fraser wore number 10 and I 6 | Exceptional People Magazine | March-April 2012
wore number 10 my entire life and now my son TJ wears number 10. When you’re young, that number is your identifier. You sign your autograph and include your number. People buy your jersey with your number on it. That means you’ve done something right. I just had an insatiable drive to be the best at what I did and not cut any corners. If I learned of really good players, I wanted to be around them. The one thing that Ali taught me was to be fearless in the face of any situation or challenge. I’ll never forget I went into my mom’s purse one night and took a dollar or two. I told her that I was going to the park. I didn’t tell her that I was getting on the A-Train to go to Rucker Park in Harlem. I was wearing a t-shirt and I had placed additional t-shirts in my jacket so I would look bigger on the train. People would look at me and I would stare at them as if to say, “What are you looking at,” and they would resume reading their magazines or newspapers. I started walking down Malcolm X Boulevard into Rucker Park. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a number of young black men about 16 or 17 years old, who were staring at me strangely. I said to them, “Yeah, I know I’m white, thank you.” They’d asked, “Little girl where did you come from?" I told them, “I took the train from Far Rockaway and I came to play. I didn’t come here for you guys to look at me, I’m not afraid of you.” Well, they nick-named me Fire. The way you played in Harlem was that no matter how big or good you were the first six people to hit their fast shots were in the game. I couldn’t dunk, jump or run like those guys, so I always made my fast shots and I always got in the first game. It was a solution for me. It wasn’t about how big you were; it was about form. It was about concentration and repetition. So I would always get in the first game. At the end of the game they would ask me how was I getting home, and I would say “I’m taking the train back to Far Rockaway." They took the train back with me, walked into my house and my mother would look at me as if to say “Who are these three black guys?" One day she said to me, "Young lady come into the back room," and she asked me, “Who are they?” I told her, “They’re my friends. I went to Harlem to play and we won two games together an hour ago. They’re my friends and they’re hungry, can you make us some spaghetti?” Here I am teaching my mother not to profile and not to judge. She doesn’t know that I’m teaching her about life, about treating people equally and giving them a chance. Don’t judge them because they're black, they’re my friends and they care. How do you know at the age of twelve or thirteen that you’re teaching your mother how to cross social barriers? That’s where it all started, this vision of fearlessness, treating people right, trusting, having blind faith in the people you’re working with. I loved those guys. If I could see each of them right now, I would probably have tears running down my face trying March-April 2012 | Exceptional People Magazine | 7
to thank them for helping to mold me and for caring about me. Monica: At that point you were preparing your mindset to begin achieving success. You have to have a certain mindset. Nancy: You’re absolutely right about that. Oprah speaks about her vision board. I always believed you have to see it. You have to do it, to be it. You have to speak it into existence. Monica: It’s one thing to have coaches on the basketball court when playing the game and it's another to have others guide you as you make life decisions. Did you have mentors and coaches to help you make appropriate decisions about life? Nancy: Yes, I did. Pat Summit has been a great mentor and someone who has also been a friend, teammate and opponent. I actually don’t know how many people can say they were her teammate, played for her and played against her in our generation. She taught me about hard work, ethics, how to prepare and to take on a winner’s mentality. Muhammad Ali taught me how to be fearless and accept every challenge. In 1989 I had the incredible fortune to meet Warren Buffet and to be invited to his home for Thanksgiving. I have maintained friendship with him over the last twenty years. I can pick up the phone and call him and say “I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think?" I see his loyalty, the way he doesn’t make decisions based on emotions. I see his philanthropy and his consistency. I have been friends with the Jacksons for many years. I saw how they handled the enormity of their fame, just to have watched Michael and how he handled judgment and pain, how he stayed genuine to his core values. These people really affected my life. Monica: I’m sure they have, each in a different way. Nancy: You take something different from each of them, and you use the good to mold it into who you are; what you want to be and how you want to affect people’s lives. Monica, I know this for a fact. We come here equal and we leave equal and that hyphen, that dash before we expire, to me, is our legacy. What are we doing to help people? Another car, another house or any other material thing isn’t going to make me a better person. I’m trying to teach philanthropy to children. I'm sponsoring my fundraiser in April. It’s called A Night of Magic with Lady Magic and it’s the first annual Nancy Lieberman Foundation Gala. My foundation has been around for 30 years and we have given over 14,000 scholarships and over a million dollars. I want to be a giver, not a taker. I want to affect the lives of kids, because they don’t care if I am a 53 year-old white lady. They know they like hanging out with me. They love and trust you, you are making them laugh and smile and you’re inspiring them to become more than they thought they ever could be. That’s what my book; Playbook for Success is all about. It’s not about teaching you how to be better in business or in writing. It’s about teaching you how to be better within yourself. 8 | Exceptional People Magazine | March-April 2012
I coach in the NBA D-Leagues and my goal is to make everyone of my guys better so that each of them will have a career. If I can make you better today, help you to become more self-confident, raise your level of selfesteem and change how you view yourself, you’re going to be a better Monica. You are going to become a better friend, a better writer. People will want to be around you. Monica: To become the best at the game, wouldn’t you agree that you must learn to lead and be a team member? Nancy: If you don’t know and understand team, you don’t know life. The strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf. No one who has ever been great at anything has ever done it by themselves. You must have good and trusted campadres around you. Monica: You used the leadership skills that you applied on the basketball court to serve your peers by coaching and leading teams to success. How did you transition from becoming a professional player to leading other leagues to great success? Nancy: I think the foundation of who I am, if I’m looking at myself as a concentric circle; the dot in the middle of that circle is Nancy who started playing basketball and sports. That built a foundation of trust and teamwork, responsibility and accountability. Isn’t that what life is? We have a saying in sports, "You can’t make the club if you’re in the tub." The first thing to becoming successful is, show up. If you want a job, show up to the interview. You can’t make my club if you don’t show up to the tryout. So that takes accountability. You’ve got to have real skin in the game. If I put a deposit into the people that I love, that becomes equity excellence. Equity is what you put in and you continue to strive for excellence. That is how you develop trust. Monica: Absolutely. You should always strive for excellence. Nancy: I’m not in control of my reputation, but I’m always in control of my character; it’s mine and I own it. I have the right to do the right thing always. Not on the days that I feel good or on the days that I’m sort of cranky, but always. Everyday I wake up and thank God for that breath of fresh air and to see another day because I’m excited that I’m living and I’m breathing. I’m going to make someone’s life better today. It could be a smile, a pat on the back, a high-five, or a comment such as, you look beautiful today; that dress is awesome. It doesn’t cost anything. Monica: It’s amazing how words like that can change someone’s life. Nancy: Absolutely. Muhammad Ali said “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” It’s March-April 2012 | Exceptional People Magazine | 9
about “What can I do for you?” We have a mantra for my thirty years for conducting camps. This year it’s called “Each One, Teach One”. It’s simple. A mentor is for life. That’s who we are and who we should be. We should be mentoring each other and sharing. Muhammad Ali wrote the shortest poem in history. It’s says, “Me, We.” Me -- I have to be strong and fearless. I can do this but I can’t do it without you. It’s Me, We. We’re a team. As a leader I have to give people a reason to follow me -- it could be my daily actions. People see that consistency and say, “I want to be like that or I want to be around people like that because they empower me.” I used to think God put me on this earth to be best woman basketball player ever but I understand that’s not why I’m here. I’m supposed to change people’s lives. I’m supposed to show them the way and I take it seriously. Monica: Your goal is to change lives and you’re doing it through your profession which happens to be basketball. It’s the same for all of us. We’re put here on earth to serve others, we can do it however we wish through our individual fields or professions, but we are here to serve others. Nancy: Absolutely, everyday. We have that opportunity every day. Every day my son has to do three random acts of kindness. I ask him to tell me what he does each day. I tie these things back to my book; Playbook for Success and this book has become a legacy for me. When you take a look at the book and those who have endorsed it, it’s a Who’s Who of the world. I look back and I am so grateful and honored that these people trusted me enough to put their names on my book. They cared enough about me to do it. They had a choice to say yes, or no. Monica: You were the only woman to play in a men’s professional league. What kind of reception did you receive from them and how well were you accepted in the beginning? Nancy: People recognized me from college, but that will only get you so far. I had to earn their respect every single day in practice. I’ve been playing against guys my entire life, so that was normal for me but not for them. In 1980, I played for the Los Angeles Lakers in their summer league and I played for Patrick (Pat) Riley, the head coach of the summer league. As Pat often mentions in his speeches, I taught him to be fearless every day and to accept every challenge because I was over-matched every day. In 1986, I played for the Springfield Fame (United States Basketball League, USBL). I played for two years in over 60 games. I had to come with the goods every day. My job was not to be a woman playing in the men’s league, but a player playing in the men’s league. I had to earn my teammates' respect by how I played the game and how I treated them. They had to earn my respect also. It’s normal for me to compete hard, to be unafraid and to respect people. Monica: You are raising a teenaged son. What are some lessons that he’s learned from you, not just as a mother but as a woman in professional sports? Nancy: He respects people. He works hard. He has a healthy respect for women. There’s inherent pressure because people think he is supposed to be good because of his family. He takes it in stride. He’s got a lot of 10 | Exceptional People Magazine | March-April 2012
humility and kindness. He’s hysterically funny and he gives a great effort every single day. He’s a good, soft-hearted young man and I love that about my son. Monica: That is wonderful. What are some things that he’s taught you? Nancy: He’s taught me that he’s funnier than me, which I didn’t think he could be. He’s taught me a lot of kindness because he’s genuinely kind. He loves to solve problems. Sometimes I can be stubborn and he’ll say, “Mom, come on [they] didn’t mean it,” or he’ll say, “You’ve got to work this out.” He’s very good in that way. I’m going to miss him when he goes to college. One of the neatest things is how he wears my uniform number. That’s like your kid going into your profession and wanting to be like you. I love it. It’s different when it’s your mom and not your dad. Monica: Do you think the media coverage for the women’s league has improved over the years? Nancy: It’s gotten a lot better. We have earned a lot of media attention over the last 15 or 16 years, especially with the commitment to the WNBA and NCAA, not with just the individual sports, but our team sports. So the coverage has increased but we don’t get the reviews that men get. If you open up USA Today, it’s about 98 percent focused on men’s sports. When you look at magazines, there's a more of a focus on our sexuality rather than our athletic ability. There should be a balance to that. We happen to have some of the most beautiful athletes in the world, both men and women, but attention should be directed to our performance, precision and athletic ability, rather than our sexuality. Monica: What are life lessons that you’ve learned from playing basketball that you can share with the everyday person about pursuing dreams? Nancy: It’s everything I’ve just said. You have to want it, you have to trust in yourself, and own your responsibilities. Maya Angelou stated it best. “Don’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.” It can’t always be about you. What are you giving back? What are you doing to improve yourself? What are you doing to make people around you better in business, sports, life, family, relationships, and friendships? Monica: In 2009, you were appointed as the first female head coach in the NBA, another excellent milestone. What was that experience like? Nancy: It was normal for me, but not for the general public. But the fact that I had been around for so long, people in the sports world are not going to say, “Who is she?” People know me. I’ve been around for 35 years and they know that I have dedicated my life to my sport. So it’s not unusual for them to see me come out of retirement at 39 and be the oldest player in the WNBA for the Mercury. It’s wasn’t unusual for me to come out of retirement and play at 50. I’m not afraid of success. Some people are so mired in self-doubt, they think about failure. I don’t think about it. I think about success and what I need to do to become successful so others can become successful. Honestly, I knew we were going to win because I was going to take young men and make them better in all respects, including on the court. March-April 2012 | Exceptional People Magazine | 11
The fact that we made the playoffs in our first year validated the fact that a woman can win. A lot of people championed my success. I’m grateful to all my counterparts in the D-League; the men who willingly and openly showed me love, kindness, respect and shared what they knew. They did not have to do it. The NBA D-League is a phenomenal league, from the president of the league, Dan Reed, to Commissioner David Stern from the NBA, who has been so supportive. Monica: You have set an amazing example throughout your entire career and your life for women of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Nancy: I hope I’m a good measuring stick for what you can accomplish. I hope it’s infectious. I want to continue to do it. Monica: Can you speak a little more about your book, Playbook for Success? Did you write it strictly for women? Nancy: Initially, when I was thinking about writing a business book, which, of course, you have to convince people you’re not just an athlete. People get used to what you do or who they think you are. Of course I’ve been in business all of my life, but it gave me the chance to talk about areas of leadership, communication and game planning. I’ve had playbooks my whole life. When I get ready to coach my team I give each player a playbook. It’s their system for success. It tells them what we’re going to run, how we’re going to run it, the philosophies, the players they’re going to be playing with, the schedules of who we’re going to play, what our opponents do, what their strengths and weaknesses are and how we’re going to improve. We focus on ourselves, not the other team. I wanted women to have a playbook. Lots of women have never had one because they've never been on a team. So the playbook is to teach them to become a better teammate or team player. The book was initially for women but many men also read it. I didn’t realize it at the time but at one of the orientations sessions with the NBA D-League, every player received a copy of my book. I received calls from players and coaches telling me how much they appreciated it and how it affected them. It’s been amazing. Monica: You’ve worn many hats and played many important roles throughout your life. You have led others to remarkable success, both on and off the court, but one thing I want to speak about is your foundation and your core vision. Nancy: The Nancy Lieberman Foundation is Nancy Lieberman. I was that kid. I was that poor kid when they were turning the heat and lights off in my house. I was that kid who had to put cardboard in the bottom of my Pro-Keds because the sole of the shoe had worn out. I didn’t want people to see that I had cardboard in them. I was the kid at school who didn’t have a book bag, so I would take a sandwich bag, put my pens in it and take a larger garbage bag and put my books into it. I would put a belt over it and hide it under my jacket as I walked to school, when all the other kids had nice book bags. When we see kids who can’t read or don’t have books, when we see children who don’t have shoes, backpacks or school supplies, how do you think that affects their self-esteem? We’re building self-esteem, but sometimes these kids need the tools. 12 | Exceptional People Magazine | March-April 2012
You couldn’t write this story if you did not have a computer. There are children who don’t have computers, and they’re not on a level playing field with other students. We teach them how to be emotionally and mentally strong and to believe in themselves. Some days I go into camp with my scholarship person at 8:00 a.m. in the morning and a little girl will tug my leg and say “Ms. Nancy, I’m hungry.” I will ask, “Did you eat breakfast?” “No.” “Did you have dinner?” “They didn’t feed me.” That breaks my heart. We feed these children three meals a day at my camp, our underprivileged children. We give them breakfast and lunch. When they leave camp, they have an insulated bag with their names on it. When they bring it back the next day, we refill it with dinner. We do what we can to help. I look at these children and they bless me everyday and they trust me. In 1974, I went to a USA tryout at Queens College. There were 250 women at this tryout. At the end of the day I was one of ten selected to attend a USA National team tryout in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was 14 years old. I came home and told my mom that I made the tryouts for the USA Team and I was going to Albuquerque. She said, “We have no money. How are you getting there?” People took labels from cans of food and wrote on pieces of paper, “Send Nancy to the Olympics.” They taped the notes to cans of corn or carrots. People went door-to-door in my neighborhood. Strangers put money in those cans to raise money to send me and my high school coach, Larry Moore, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when I was a sophomore in high school. I will never forget the people who trustingly put money in a can with a handwritten note that said, “Send Nancy to the Olympics.” I went on to gain exposure for an Olympic committee, and the next year I became the youngest USA player ever. I was a junior in high school on the Gold Medal-winning Pan American Team. In 1976, I became the youngest Olympic basketball player ever, male or female, when I was a senior in high school. History as we know it would have been much different if strangers hadn't put money in those cans. And that’s my story. Monica: It’s an amazing story. This is what I live for, being able to share the remarkable stories, to inspire others to greatness and help them realize that no matter what the circumstances are, you can always change your life and become a positive role model for others. Nancy: It is so true. I’m always honored that so many people care. Monica: Your last word? Nancy: Never stop working, wanting, or dreaming.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Muhammad Ali March-April 2012 | Exceptional People Magazine | 13
Thank you...Founder, Monica Davis
â€œService to others is the first step to being remembered by them. Always seek to add value to the lives of others.â€?
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