Last week, the Sacramento Kings announced the hiring of Nancy Lieberman as an assistant coach. She is the second female coach in the NBA following Becky Hammon, who joined the Spurs last year and led the squad to a summer league championship this July.
Lieberman earned the nickname "Lady Magic" during her time at Old Dominion University, where she set a school record for assists. She played in the United States Basketball League, a men's league in the 1980s. In 2009, Lieberman became the first female head coach of the NBA Development League, leading the Texas Legends -- an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks -- to the playoffs in her first season. With a desire to spend more time with her son T.J., who is now a forward in his junior season at Richmond, she moved into a front-office role with the Legends and has spent the past three seasons as an NBA analyst for Fox Sports Oklahoma.
We caught up with Lieberman, 57, this week to chat about her new role with the Kings, the conversations she had with David Stern and Pat Riley that led to an NBA coaching gig, and the important friendships she's forged with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Warren Buffett over the years. Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.
First of all, congratulations. Where were you when you found out you would be an assistant coach in the NBA?
Nancy Lieberman: When I got the call on Thursday, my son T.J. and I were in the gym working out together with Del Harris. My son was so excited. He couldn't believe it and told me his friends were blowing up his phone. He looked at me and said, "You are the queen of the house, and now you're a King." Of course, the next thing he asked was for me to get him some swag, some Kings gear. He said, "Oh my god, we're going to be friends with Boogie." I said, "No, no, you're not going to be friends with Boogie. You're going to sit in the stands and enjoy the game."
I imagine there's been a lot of meaningful conversations, text messages and emails since the announcement.
NL: The NBA is a fraternity, from the players, to the coaches, to the general managers. There's a respect among us. Everyone's pulling for one another, and when you're part of it, you feel protected. I've had so many well wishes from people it's just breathtaking. Everyone from Oscar Robertson, to David Stern, to Becky Hammon. Players who I coached with the Texas Legends -- Justin Dentmon and Antonio Daniels to name a few -- reached out to me in the past few days. Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie were one of the first people I called. They have been waiting to hear this news for years. They were ecstatic. Muhammad says he's coming to the first game. And that made me so happy. He taught me so much about being fearless, about accepting challenges and respecting everybody but fearing no one. We've been friends since I was 19.
Tell me about your friendship with Ali came about.
NL: When I was growing up, I would play tackle football, I would play baseball, and people would call me a tomboy and say that I was stupid and dumb and that I would never make anything of myself. Meanwhile, my brother was very smart and on his way to becoming a doctor. I used to get tired of people demeaning me, but I had nothing to back it up. Then I remembered when I was 10, I saw this man on the television who said he was the greatest of all time. I ran into the kitchen, looked at my mom and broke into this Muhammad Ali-type speech, "I'm going to be the greatest of all time. I'm going to knock you out in two rounds." My mother had no idea why I was talking to her like that. I put my hand on my hips and said, "You better get used to it because I'm going to be the greatest basketball player of all time." And I ran to my room.
Flash forward to when I'm 19, I'm playing at Old Dominion and I'm making an appearance at the New York Stock Exchange. I'm back in my hometown, and unbeknownst to me, the other athlete there was Muhammad Ali. I was in the same room as him. I couldn't believe it. So my mother, this little Jewish lady from New York, goes up to Ali, and tells him that her daughter is the greatest of all time. Ali just looks at her and says, "Lady, there's only one greatest of all time and that's me."
Ali calls me over. And I'm scared with my head down. He tells me that my mother said I was the greatest of all time. I look at him, and told him I was the greatest of all time. He looked at me, gave me a hug, and said, "I didn't know there was two of us."
We've been friends ever since.
I've read you are also friends with Warren Buffett.
NL: I met Warren in 1989. I was in Nebraska working on a tennis event and looking for sponsors. This is an embarrassing story. I met a guy named Howard, who worked for the City of Omaha, to make a pitch to him for sponsorship. I told him right away, "Don't feel bad -- if I can't find a sponsor my husband's going to leave me and I won't have anything for Thanksgiving." He tells me, "I've known you for four minutes." To which I replied, "I feel close enough to share that with you."
The next day the phone rings and it's Howard. He didn't have a sponsor for me but invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with his father. I ask who his dad is, and he tells me it's Warren Buffett. And I reply, "Oh I know him, he's the guy who sings Margaritaville!" After I got off the phone the other people in the room where I was taking the call told me who he was. So, I show up to his place for Thanksgiving and I'm expecting something extravagant but it's a normal house. He opens the door and introduces himself. And I say, "There must have been a misunderstanding. I thought you were the singer." He smiled and let me in. Warren was so delightful. He had a million questions for me and wanted to play in the celebrity doubles match at my tennis event because he was a huge Martina Navratilova fan and wanted to play with her.
Sidenote, I flew to Omaha once for a shareholders meeting and Warren introduced me to Bill Gates. I was on my worst behavior that day. There were about 100 people who flew in. Bill introduces himself to me, and I say, "Gates. Gates. Gates. That sounds familiar. Is that Dell computers?" Everyone at the table just gasped. I winked at him and say, "Just kidding." Warren thought it was the funniest thing. I do my best to embarrass people sometimes, I'm not a good human.
Was there an area that you realized needed improvement from your time as head coach of the Texas Legends in the D-League?
NL: I think I improved in making sure all of my coaches had a voice. I didn't want to micromanage. I obviously wanted to come in and set the tone, but as we all got comfortable with each other, I loosened things up a bit. I gave my players more freedom, and we started building trust with one another. I learned who I could communicate with and in what way. All of those things made me better.
Was it a difficult decision to walk away from that head coaching position?
NL: I'm a mom before anything. I had made a promise to my son that I would be there. I was married for thirteen years, and after I got divorced, Tim -- my ex-husband -- was still very active in T.J's life. I was a single mom and I wanted to make sure I was there for him as well. My first year with the Texas Legends, we made the playoffs and I ended up missing all of his basketball games during his junior year in high school. So I made a decision that I was going to be in the stands to support him during his senior year.
I got to watch my son play, and he ended up getting a scholarship to college and is now one of the top players at Richmond. But I knew that it would hurt my chances of coaching in the NBA because it's a very competitive industry.
So, you leave the coaching ranks, you take a front-office role, spend time with your son, end up in broadcasting. What eventually brings you back to pursuing the NBA dream?
NL: I talked to David Stern several years ago and told him that I really wanted to coach again. He said, "People don't know if you quit, if you got fired, or if something happened. People are involved in their own lives. Nobody even knows why you're not coaching anymore. If you want to coach, you have to let those people know you want to coach." He told me there was an NBA coaching symposium that September that was invitation only and encouraged me to attend. That was an important moment. A year and a half ago, I told Pat Riley the same thing about my desires to coach and he had no clue. He said, "You have to tell people what you want. We're not mind readers." He assumed I was happy doing television analyst work. Those were two seminal moments for me because it got me out of my comfort zone. And I started to tell people about my desires to get back to coaching.
And then you coach in summer league with the Kings, and things seemed to come together pretty quickly afterward in terms of a job offer from Sacramento.
NL: George [Karl] and I have known each other for years. He's an open-minded, outside-the-box thinker, and he's very strong in his beliefs. Those are the people you need in your corner. They're not afraid and they're not going to second guess themselves. I can't speak for coach Gregg Popovich but from what I read, when Becky [Hammon] spent time with the Spurs before she was hired while rehabbing from her knee injury, a light went off in Pop's head, and he realized that the players really respected her and that Becky had a high basketball IQ. I was around the Kings during summer league and I hope those were some of the same thoughts that George and Vlade [Divac] had about me.
Do you feel more or less pressure now that you've made it to this level?
NL: I never feel pressure. I like to view it as an opportunity.
Do you think with yourself, Becky Hammon and Jen Welter in the NFL, the path for females who want to coach at the highest professional level is easier now?
NL: It's not easier because you can't say that we've been successful until there's more than one. If Jen is the only one who ends up getting an opportunity in the NFL, then that's great for her. If Beck was the only female coach in the NBA, then it would have been great for her. The real mark of change comes with the people after us. Jackie Robinson broke barriers and people were right behind him to take advantage of the doors that were opened. There's a lot of talented women who need to continue this path, but we also must be qualified. As much as people like Becky and myself as people, if we didn't have the qualifications we wouldn't have gotten these jobs.
What's next between now and when training camp starts?
NL: I'm at NBA coaching camp in Las Vegas this week. After that, I'll go home to see my mother who is 86 years old, spend some time with my son before he goes back to Richmond. At some point, I'll fly out to Sacramento to find a place to live.
I know you've been busy doing a lot of interviews and exchanging messages with people. How does all of this feel now that you've had a few days to let it sink in?
NL: I've had a pretty blessed life in basketball. A lot of the boxes have been checked off. But this is as important as anything that's ever happened to me. This is a game changer. This is about being out there and helping young people achieve their goals. When you're a coach, a teacher, a parent, it's always about someone else besides yourself. This is really important. The window for an NBA player is pretty short. You could get one contract, two, three, maybe four if you're really lucky. We want to help the players achieve that. I love teaching. I love coaching. I love inspiring.