Nancy Lieberman is queen of the court
We continue our Power Play series, highlighting women in the sports industry, with Nancy Lieberman. She led the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks' D-League affiliate, for one season before announcing in July that she would be stepping down to become the new assistant general manager of the team.
espnW: After being the first and only female coach of a men's professional basketball team last season, why did you decide to give up coaching the Texas Legends to become the team's assistant general manager instead?
Nancy Lieberman: I didn't know I was going to transition to this position. I went to our owner, Donnie Nelson, and said I'm not coming back as coach. He knew why. I have one kid, T.J., in his senior year of high school. I needed to free up time to be around my son. He'd say, "Hey Mom, are you coming to my game tonight?" I'd say, "I'm sorry honey, we play tonight," but he never made me feel guilty.
Since I made my decision, I've gotten texts and tweets from a lot of people in the sports world supporting my decision. Guys who are on their second and third marriages said, "I missed out on my kids growing up, like going to my son's football games, but I'm not going to miss out on this stuff with my next family." I don't want to go through that coulda, woulda, shoulda in my life.
It took me so long to have this extraordinary opportunity, and here I am giving it back, but Donnie is such a great guy, a great family man. He came back and said we'll promote you. He sees the glass half full.
espnW: How do you manage your work schedule with raising T.J.?
NL: For me, he's the most important thing. I live for him every day. I want to be T.J.'s hero and his role model. I'm very OCD and organized. I manage my schedule. Nobody touches my schedule. I schedule things around what my son needs.
When I was married and T.J. started talking, he'd say "mama." Then he started saying "dada" and Tim, my husband at the time, said, "Oh he's saying dada!" And I said, "Not so fast, he's saying 'Dah dah dah, dah dah dah' -- the theme from 'SportsCenter.'" I used to have "SportsCenter" on in the background when he was little, and he caught on. We still have our "SportsCenter" hour. Every morning, we make breakfast together and watch the show. That's how we start our day.
espnW: What do you hope to achieve in your new position as assistant GM?
NL: I want to help continue to grow Donnie's vision of this team and make us powerful. We want to be the model franchise on all levels, from how players act to the in-arena experience. I want to hire a great coach who will lead us to a championship.
espnW: What was it like being first and only female to coach a professional men's basketball team?
NL: An honor and a privilege to be quite honest. It's actually very normal for me to be in a work environment with guys. I've been doing it my whole life, whether it was while I was playing or working for ESPN. When I grew up playing on the streets of New York City, I was playing against boys. I was also Pat Riley's first point guard. He came out of the broadcast booth to coach the Lakers, and I was on the Lakers summer league team that year.
I was invited to the White House in May of 2010, and Barack Obama said to me, "Change is hard." I said, "Yes sir, don't you know that?" We just started laughing. He said, "You know Nancy, you just have to make things normal." My job is to make sure it's not "Hey, there's a girl coaching guys," but "Hey, there's Coach."
espnW: You were both a WNBA player and a head coach. What made you decide to give men's pro basketball a try?
NL: I was doing a lot of NBATV and games for ESPN. I have such great friends in the NBA. When Donnie started to talk to me about it, I thought, "Basketball is basketball; I can do this." You know what I had to do? He hired me a year before I started coaching. I spent about five grand traveling around. I talked to Vinny Del Negro, Mike Brown, Phil Weber, Rick Carlisle -- anybody who would share their thoughts about the NBA. I flew to Phoenix to be a part of the Suns coaching staff. I flew to L.A. to be a part of the Clippers coaching staff. Anyone who'd give me a chance to listen to how they teach and how they coach, I would listen.
I called Mike Tomlin one day, and a week later, I was in Pittsburgh spending the day with him talking about what my players needed from me. We talked about the details, big picture, terminology, managing staff, managing distractions. We exchanged playbooks. I knew that I had to have the answers. I knew that I was going to be judged.
espnW: Did you ever had a bad experience with a player on your team accepting you as female coach?
NL: From Day 1, it's been so normal. There's never been a day when there were any issues. Players from other teams would even call to say I'd love to play for you. I get texts from my players all the time saying they're just checking in to see how I'm doing. They want me to meet their wives. On my birthday, every one of my players texted me. Do you think the big NBA coaches are getting texts saying we love you and miss you? We've made an impression on these guys.
espnW: What needs to be done to increase the number of women coaching men's teams, and what advice do you have for women who may be interested in those positions?
NL: They need to go and want to coach. You have to put yourself in a place to have success. Don't tell me nobody is going to give you an opportunity if you don't tell anyone you're interested. Go volunteer for local teams. You'll create relationships and meet people.
espnW: Your career path has already surprised us, but what other career ambitions do you have? Sports? Politics? World domination? NBA commissioner?
NL: I want be part of owning a pro team, either men's or women's. It could be football, baseball, basketball. I don't care what sport.