Nancy Lieberman: Women in Leadership

RICK HORROW, NIGHTLY BUSINESS REPORT ANCHOR: The glass ceiling — it’s an invisible barrier that’s kept women from advancing to the top ranks of many businesses. But in the world of professional basketball, it didn’t stop Nancy Lieberman. Instead, she’s smashed through the barriers to women’s participation for more than three decades. We’ll look at her leadership and the lessons that can be learned from it.

Most people are afraid to test their limits. Few even dare to try; something about being impossible. On the basketball court however, one amazing woman has almost single-handedly defied gender segregation and has crashed through almost every barrier put in her way. That trail-blazer is Nancy Lieberman and she continues to make her mark on the game, as the first woman coach of a professional men’s team. Perhaps more than anything else, Nancy’s leadership stems from her drive and determination and it goes all the way back to her childhood.

This is Far Rockway, New York — part of Queens in New York City. And this is the modest house where Nancy Lieberman grew up in the 1960s and early ’70s. While still in elementary school, Lieberman began playing a variety of sports, but it wasn’t long before she ran into her first barrier.

NANCY LIEBERMAN, BASKETBALL TRAILBLAZER: Well, I played football and baseball first and foremost. I tried to play PAL baseball and I was the starting left fielder and the day before our first game, I was told that I couldn’t play because I was a girl, even though I played with the same guys all the time. I was so disappointed in that that I ended up playing basketball.

HORROW: As Lieberman got increasingly involved in playing basketball, her mother, Renee, tried to push her in a different direction.

RENEE LIEBERMAN, NANCY’S MOTHER: And I said to Nancy, this is for boys. I says, you’re never going to be a ball player. You’re going to be a secretary or something. and I always remember, she put one hand on the refrigerator and one on her hip and she says to me, you know what, ma, I’m going to make history. That’s what she told me.

N. LIEBERMAN: And I would dribble around the house. My mom would sleep and she’d come in and she’s like what are you doing? This noise and like I’m just practicing and she’d say stop bouncing the basketball.

R. LIEBERMAN: I said, you’ve got to stop this and I went ahead and I took the screwdriver and I put it through the ball.

N. LIEBERMAN: She’d go back in the room and go to sleep. I’d go in my closet, get another ball, whip it out, start playing basketball. About eight basketballs later of puncturing, I’m like, why are you trying to hold me back? What’s wrong with you?

HORROW: When she entered Far Rockaway High School, the five-foot nine-inch Lieberman got a spot on the women’s basketball team and quickly became a star player. But to further improve her game, she decided to take the subway to Harlem’s Rucker Park — the starting point for many NBA stars. Classmate Barbara DeLorenzo recalls Lieberman was not afraid to travel to the inner city.

BARBARA DELORENZO, CLASSMATE, FAR ROCKAWAY HIGH SCHOOL: For her it was normal. For her mom and everyone else, they thought it was a little risky, it wasn’t what young girls did, especially Jewish girls coming from a nice Jewish neighborhood. It was something that she felt necessary in order to expand her ability to play a sport. And if it meant getting on an “A” train and traveling two hours to Harlem, it was just part of the job.

HORROW: In 1974, Lieberman was invited to try out for the USA national team. Annie Erner, Lieberman’s high school teammate, says Lieberman didn’t even let a broken rib delay her.

ANNIE ERNER, TEAMMATE, FAR ROCKAWAY HIGH SCHOOL: She was told by the coach, watch out, you’re going to make the 1980 Olympics and we want you to keep working at your game. And she said, 1980 Olympics. I’m not making the 1980 Olympics. I’m making the 1976 Olympics. You watch. That’s what she told the coach. And she ended up making the next USA national team tryout. And, of course, she played on the 1976 Olympic team which won the silver medal.

HORROW: At age 18, Lieberman was the youngest basketball player ever to be an Olympic medalist. Also on the team — legendary player-coach Pat Summitt. She says the Montreal Olympics transformed both of them.

PAT SUMMITT, HEAD COACH, LADY VOLS, UNIV. OF TENNESSEE: Oh, I think the Olympic experience was tremendous for us because it does, it really kind of tests your mentality. It will test your focus and your toughness and your togetherness as a team. You know, I think there’s no substitute for being together with a great team that’s on a mission.

HORROW: More than a hundred colleges tried to recruit Lieberman. But she made a surprise choice — Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Lieberman proved her value, leading the Monarchs to several championships. Classmate Wes Lockard said it was an exciting time.

WES LOCKARD, FRIEND AT OLD DOMINION UNIVERSITY: She came in and put the school on the map. They started packing the field house and winning a couple of championships and she won the Wade trophy — best player in college two years in a row.

HORROW: Despite the personal glory, Lieberman says she really learned to be a team player at Old Dominion. She credits coach Maryann Stanley’s advice to shoot less and pass more.

N. LIEBERMAN: I thought I was unselfish, but apparently I wasn’t as unselfish as I thought. And it’s changed my life. That meeting changed my life. Because instead of being a volume shooter, I found out that if I could make people around me better, then we could win and winning was the most important thing, not just individual honors.

HORROW: Out of college, Lieberman was drafted by the Dallas Diamonds, part of the new women’s pro basketball league. While she led the Diamonds to a championship in 1984, but the WBL didn’t last and Lieberman was out of a job. Then she got an offer that would let her make history — as the first women player on a men’s pro team, the Springfield Fame of the United States basketball league.

N. LIEBERMAN: It was like absolutely! I just wanted to play, I didn’t care where, I just wanted to play again.

HORROW: And you didn’t care that it was against some of the best men in the world.

N. LIEBERMAN: No. I just love this game so much and I was willing to put it on the line. I knew that my job was to make sure that when this was said and done, I wasn’t viewed as a girl player in the league. I was viewed as another player.

HORROW: Lieberman played in the USBL for two seasons. Then in 1997, she got a second chance to play in a women’s professional league — the newly formed WNBA Lieberman was 38 years old when she was signed by the Phoenix Mercury, but the league’s Renee Brown says that didn’t matter.

RENEE BROWN, CHIEF BASKETBALL OPS. & PLAYER RELATIONS, WNBA: We were thrilled to have her be part of the original group of players playing for so many reasons. You know she’s a Wade trophy winner, an all-American. She’s an Olympian — all of those reasons. And it being Nancy Lieberman, really it was a great boost for the WNBA.

HORROW: When she retired from the Mercury at age 39, she had set had set another first, the oldest player in pro basketball. Eleven years later, she broke that record, when she came out of retirement at 50 to play for the Detroit Shock. It was only for a single game, but Lieberman says she wanted to prove she could meet the challenge.

N. LIEBERMAN: So I knew I was going to train and be ready because I respect the athletes and the league too much. But I was excited about it. I was excited for the history and to be able to show people that you can still do that mentally and physically if you’re competitive enough.

HORROW: So you were the best as the youngest and the best as the oldest. How did that make you feel?

N. LIEBERMAN: I am proud of it. I’m most proud of the love story that I have with basketball. I’ve loved it when I was eight or nine and I’ve loved it at 52.

HORROW: In 1998, Nancy Lieberman celebrated her 40th birthday and her silver anniversary as a player on women’s and men’s teams. Lieberman knew it was time for a change, but she didn’t want to leave pro basketball. So instead, she moved across the court and across the country to become head coach and general manager for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. After playing under 29 different coaches, Lieberman thought she was prepared for her new role, but she found managing others harder than she expected.

N. LIEBERMAN: Coming right off the court, I think can be difficult at times because the people that you’re coaching — they’ve been your peers. And now you become a head coach and a general manager, like I did in Detroit and then all of a sudden, I’m your boss. And I think it’s hard for people to separate that. But quite frankly, I’m your boss and there are certain things that you have to do. When you’re a player, it’s about production and if you don’t produce, I’ve got to either help you find a solution or I’ve got to put somebody in that position who can produce.

HORROW: So we know that a trait of a good manager is to listen to other people – you talked about that — and to delegate. Are you a good delegator?

N. LIEBERMAN: I’ve become a lot better. I think my experience – I know my experience in Detroit was great, because I wasn’t the most trusting person. Maybe that’s my background, you know in New York when you’re growing up in my family, so I think I probably micromanaged my environment to protect myself. And I had to let go because I had so many responsibilities, and letting go actually felt good. It was a little cathartic for me because it meant I surrendered and had to trust. And that was something that I had never really done on a regular basis.

HORROW: Nancy stayed with the Shock for three seasons. But nine years later, an even bigger challenge came along — the chance to be the first women’s coach of a men’s pro basketball team. It was a brand-new franchise in the NBA’s development league or “d-league”– the Texas Legends, based in Frisco, near Dallas. The team’s co-owner Donnie Nelson came up with the idea to hire Lieberman, after a chance encounter with her at a local Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX).

DONNIE NELSON, CO-OWNER, TEXAS LEGENDS: We bumped into each other and at the time, I had my little list together of coaching candidates, and thought I had exhausted the entire country. And I walked out of there and I said, “man, maybe the best man for the job isn’t a man at all!”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Number 10, Nancy Lieberman!

HORROW: Lieberman was hired for the job, beginning with the 2010 season. But there was still a big question mark: could she command the respect of the team’s players? No one knew what to expect from the group of former college stars, none of whom ever expected to be playing under a woman coach.

NELSON: The first two days of training camp, it was almost like a first date, you know, in high school, where you’re kind of seeing this thing happen. But after about the second day of practice, she just became coach, and she became sexless in the best sense of the word.

JOE ALEXANDER, PLAYER, TEXAS LEGENDS: I’m sure people were skeptical. But among the players, once she showed up and saw what she could do, no one really voiced any opinions about her not being qualified.

JUSTIN DENTMON, PLAYER, TEXAS LEGENDS: It’s been like any other coach. Although she’s a woman, she still comes about things like a man’s coach.

N. LIEBERMAN: Somebody look like you care! They are outplaying us. They’re out-hustling us.

HORROW: Do you see your role as a female basketball coach of a man’s basketball team as an asset or a liability, or it doesn’t matter?

N. LIEBERMAN: Being a woman coaching men, it’s really — it’s significant and historical, but for me, it’s never been an issue. It’s been very comfortable for me. I mean, I get on very well with men. I have always a little humor, a little sarcasm, a lot of kindness, trust, respect amongst each other. I’m having a great time. You know, people talk about the great respect that people have for me, my players. I have such respect for them. I love my guys.

HORROW: If there is something that Nancy Lieberman does differently than male coaches, it may be that she brings a sense of connection to the team.

N. LIEBERMAN: Let’s go guys, together. One, two, three, together.

ALEXANDER: She’s done a really good job of bringing us together kind of as a family. In pro sports, it’s tough to find an organization that wants to bring guys together in that sort of college-type atmosphere, where everyone cares about each other and everyone’s pulling for each other. I feel like she’s done a good job of that.

HORROW: Lieberman also gets high marks for her people management skills from one of her competitors, coach Chris Finch.

CHRIS FINCH, HEAD COACH, RIO GRANDE VALLEY VIPERS: In our business, the higher you go, in basketball, the less it becomes about just “X”s and “O”s and a lot more it becomes about managing people, managing egos, managing conflict and being able to get those people to understand that you’re ultimately on their side.

N. LIEBERMAN: Get him! Time (ph) to guard somebody!

HORROW: During its first year, the Texas Legends had its ups and downs, with a 24-26 win-loss record. But thanks to a strong finish, the Legends made it into the league playoffs, a major feat for an expansion team. And longtime NBA coach Del Harris (NYSE: HRS), now the Legends general manager, says Lieberman deserves much of the credit.

DEL HARRIS, GENERAL MANAGER, TEXAS LEGENDS: Absolutely. You can’t have it both ways. If they had not made it, why, they would have blamed the coach. So if they do make it, you’ve got to give credit. That’s what we sign up for as coaches. That’s the way it is, whether you’re male or female.

HORROW: Will you be a coach in the NBA someday?

N. LIEBERMAN: If I’m a coach in the NBA, that will be somebody in the NBA’s decision. Right now, I’m the coach of the Texas Legends. I promised myself that I would stay in the moment, because so much in your career as a public person, you always look back at what you did, you’re always looking ahead at what can be. And I want to make sure, this experience is very uniquely ours on a business level, on a historic level, on a winning level.

HORROW: Nancy Lieberman’s life still revolves around basketball, but off the court, she’s a very savvy businesswoman and she told me her interest in making money goes back to her childhood.

N. LIEBERMAN: I believe that because I was a poor kid and didn’t really have a lot growing up, I needed money for sports equipment. So my alternatives were to steal, which I didn’t want to do or to have a paper route and to deliver the “Long Island Press” so I could have the money to buy the equipment, the set of equipment that I wanted. So that was the first time I realized that I had to do things and be creative with my time and my energy. Then when I was in college and I couldn’t work and I had nothing, I realized, oh my gosh, if there’s no women’s professional league, I’m going to have to do things, so I wanted to be diversified. So I wanted to get into TV. It was Reggie Jackson of the Yankees who really pushed me towards TV at a young age, while I was in the early stages of my career. Then I wanted to do endorsements and you want to do that. I wrote some books, I started writing. I started doing some investments early on in the stock market, when I was 22, 23 years old. I wanted to diversify, so my philosophy was this – if one door closed, another one would be available and I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as the basketball player or the TV commentator or the author or the public speaker for corporations.

HORROW: Lieberman got her first independent business venture off the ground in 1983. It was the Nancy Lieberman basketball camp — a summer program for kids. Starting from a single location in Dallas, it has now expanded to Detroit and Phoenix and more are planned nationwide. Gary Oliver runs the site where the Dallas camp is held. He says Lieberman’s involvement goes far beyond her name.

GARY OLIVER, DIR. OF OPERATIONS, FIELDHOUSEUSA: She does a phenomenal job because she comes out and she’s a hall-of-famer, but yet she comes out and literally goes instruction, one-on-one with each kid. She’s involved with the camp and you just don’t see that with professional athletes today. Nancy is hands on; from writing out the curriculum to bringing in the coaches beforehand, instructing the coaches on all the drills, telling them exactly how she wants it, all the way down from the registration process to when they get here in the mornings to everything on court, Nancy has a hand in all of that.

HORROW: Lieberman also gets praise from a fellow sports camp operator — baseball and football great Deion Sanders.

DEION SANDERS, FORMER NFL & MLB PLAYER: Even with my kids, they’ll be shooting around in the gym and Nancy will grab them and say no baby, get that elbow up — put that wrist and they’ll say, dang, that’s correct and then they’ll emulate what she taught them and they’ll be hitting all around them — all nets. And she walks with that little swagger that she has.

HORROW: Lieberman says for her, running the basketball camp has always been a labor of love, which happens to be a key part of her formula for success.

N. LIEBERMAN: The first thing if anybody knows me — I do things that I love. Because if you’re passionate you’ll work hard, if you work hard, you can grow it. I would be lying to say that I was this business mogul and thought this is what I was going to do. It evolved into it. I don’t consider myself book smart. I consider myself more street smart. Street smart to me is relationships; it’s networking; it’s don’t you want to do business with people that you actually like? There’s enough people on a daily basis that we do business with that we actually don’t like but we have to work with.

HORROW: And Lieberman has used her extensive network of friends and contacts to put together many business deals. For example, in the early 1980s, Lieberman arranged endorsements for Martina Navratilova, after helping the tennis champion to improve her game.

VOICE OF: MARTINA NAVRATILOVA, FORMER TENNIS CHAMPION: Nancy and I started training that summer, really working hard physically and I started winning. Then she became my tennis coach (INAUDIBLE) everything else, working on the motivation and training with me. And the rest is history.

HORROW: Still, even though Lieberman’s business responsibilities keep her busy, she doesn’t let that interfere with her number one priority — being mother to her 16-year-old son, TJ. She makes it a point to make TJ a hot breakfast every day and take him to school.

N. LIEBERMAN: The most important thing in my life is my son TJ. And he deserves to have his mom front and center every single day, not just on the days that I feel good or I’m available. I’m always available to my son. The balance is just making sure that I take care of myself and I’m healthy and I’m not sick. I can do anything if I’m healthy. So when we talk about work-life balance, do you live to work or you work to live? Those are the questions that people have to answer.

HORROW: Do you live to work or work to live?

N. LIEBERMAN: Me — I live to work. I love what I do.

HORROW: Nancy Lieberman begins her latest book, “Playbook for Success,” by asking, how does a poor girl from Far Rockaway, New York defy the odds, become a hall-of-fame basketball player, author, television analyst, entrepreneur and mom? She answers, the skills she learned from competitive sports gave her a better chance to succeed in life and those skills give all athletes an edge.

N. LIEBERMAN: You know, we’re tough, we take instruction, we can get a strategy, we’re not afraid of winning or losing, we understand how to scout an opponent. You can yell at us, you can scream at us, but we’re going to come back because we’re resilient.

HORROW: Lieberman says learning from her own losses and failures is another key.

N. LIEBERMAN: I would say that when you lose, you’re more willing to take a hard look at what happened. But when you lose, you have to be honest and you have to self-evaluate. And I’m not afraid to go down that path.

HORROW: Another of her secrets for success — see other people as information resources. Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. Both Chris Finch and Deion Sanders see that as one of Nancy’s unique traits.

FINCH: I think it’s incredible to see somebody with such a resume really learning and learning on the fly and trying to get every piece of information from all the people that have had success and try to put it into play here. I think a lot of times people that are leaders or people who have had a whole lot of success can’t shed their ego to be able to do that. But she clearly can.

SANDERS: Wonderful listener, wonderful listener. She knows how to delegate authority and knows how to be authoritative. And those qualities are not common in all people because oftentimes, when you’re so great, you don’t want to listen to nobody, while she would listen so profoundly. She’s wonderful at that.

HORROW: And most importantly, Lieberman thinks nothing is impossible.

SANDERS: So many people in this country tell us what we can’t do and Nancy is not one of those types of persons that’s going to sit there and allow you to tell her what she cannot do. So, she thrives on that. If you tell her she can’t, she’s going to tell you, I can! And she was driving the little engine that could that said, I think I can, I think I can. Then she got over the hump and said, I know I can and I did.

HORROW: Friends and associates cite other qualities that make Lieberman a leader in the true sense of the word. Renee Brown of the WNBA —

BROWN: Nancy for us, she exemplifies the love and passion of whatever you’re doing. And she shows that in how she coaches and how she plays.

HORROW: Pat Summitt– legendary coach at the University of Tennessee:

SUMMITT: She just has a mindset of, you know, don’t get in my way. And I think that’s really been a trademark of hers and I just see her as being that way throughout her life. You know, she’s always been willing to roll up her sleeves and go to battle.

HORROW: Brian Darden, Nancy’s personal trainer —

BRIAN DARDEN, NANCY LIEBERMAN’S PERSONAL TRAINER: She really takes the responsibility of women on her shoulders. I mean, you can just see the way she carries herself. Everything she does, she definitely puts women first.

HORROW: As for Lieberman herself, she says for her, being a woman of firsts happens almost naturally.

N. LIEBERMAN: It’s in my DNA. I don’t really think about it as much as everybody asks me. If I think about it, it’s just me doing what I do. There are so many people that are so mired with self-doubt, they’re afraid. So they want success, but they’re so afraid of the next level. Because this is a gray area, this is really comfortable. I know what I can do here. I don’t actually know what’s here, but I’m excited to find out. Now I wouldn’t sky dive and I won’t parasail because I don’t want to fall or bungee jump, but I am not afraid to figure out or to go up here because I know it’s going to be such at a high level that even if I fall short, I’m going to have self-improvement.

HORROW: And it’s also been said of your actions a lot easier for other girls and women to move up the professional sports world in years to come, because you’re a trailblazer, you’re a pioneer. Are you happy with that?

N. LIEBERMAN: I am happy with that if that’s my legacy. If that’s who I’m supposed to be I’m really happy because what a pioneer and a trailblazer is, is someone who’s done something that nobody else has ever done before. So there’s no litmus test. There’s no measuring stick for how you should act, what you should do, what’s going to happen. You’re setting the bar high; you’re setting the standards by which others follow. I really get a kick out of that. I like stretching that any opportunity that I can.

HORROW: When all is said and done, Nancy Lieberman’s career isn’t just another rags-to-riches story. Nor it is a story about a world-class athlete. Rather, it’s the story about how courage, pride, determination and leadership moved mountains and paved the way for equal opportunity for all women in professional sports. I’m Rick Horrow. Thanks for watching.

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