LEWISTON – She walked on to campus Thursday morning fresh off a flight from New York City. On Wednesday night, she was part of the annual gala put on by the Women’s Sports Foundation to celebrate the world’s best female athletes. She had just spent time emailing with Alex Rodriguez and Joe Girardi of her beloved New York Yankees, on the verge of elimination in the American League Championship Series.
It didn’t matter whether she was giving advice to A-Rod, chatting up the next generation of women sports superstars or speaking to a group of students at Niagara University. For Nancy Lieberman, the message is the same, delivered with humor, truth and passion – claim the power you have by being fearlessly yourself.
Lieberman was at Niagara on Thursday afternoon to receive the Lifetime Sport Achievement Award as part of the university’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management convocation.
Lieberman is a basketball pioneer. She was the youngest member, male or female, of a U.S. Olympic basketball team at age 18. She was back-to-back national Player of the Year at Old Dominion, guiding the program to two NCAA championships. She played pro basketball with men. She played pro basketball with women. She coached in the NBA Development League and is the assistant general manager for the Texas Legends. And then there’s her broadcasting work and her motivational speaking.
She’s been a model of success for women in a man’s world. But don’t ask her for stories of overcoming gender discrimination because in her experience, men were her greatest advocates.
“Every important job I’ve had in my life I’ve been championed by men,” Lieberman said. “I get grilled by people asking me, ‘Who did what to you? When you played how did they treat you in the locker room? They had to do something mean to you.’ … The men were so supportive of me ecause I was so supportive of them. There’s this trust and now I’m trying to bring that to women.
“My generation, the pie was so small that Cheryl Miller, Ann Meyers, myself all had such a big piece of the pie that there was a lot of envy or as I call it haterade,” Lieberman said. “Now there’s so much. We think we’ve come a long way. And we have. But we’re still in the baby stage. ”
For Lieberman, her life and basketball are deeply intertwined, but she achieves her life balance by keeping sight of her priorities – faith, family, then basketball. Her son, T.J. Cline, is a freshman at Niagara, so the timing of the award allows her to spend some time with him. She’s made it a point to stay away from coaching him, taking deliberate action to be his mom – albeit a mom who can offer great pointers on shooting form – rather than his basketball guru. In fact, she took last year off as head coach of the Legends so she could be another mom in the stands at her son’s high school games in Texas.
But never does she tire of basketball. For Lieberman, basketball is more than a sport, it’s an entity that has allowed her to create life on her terms and to live her ethic of giving back to other people.
“I have such a different outlook on life,” Lieberman said. “Every day that I wake up, open my eyes and take a breath, I say, ‘Thank you, God. It’s a great day.’ I think how lucky I am. I could have been such a casualty of my environment. I was a poor kid from a one-parent family who grew up with no heat and no electricity. I was one grandparent away from food stamps. From 9 years old, I fell in love with sports. At 54, here I am. Relevant. Isn’t that crazy?
“I want to inspire people and that takes an everyday effort. That takes being positive every day. The only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude and your belief. Money is not going to make my day any happier. I’d rather have it than not. I get my mortality and I can see my legacy. I hope it’s not about what a great basketball player I was. That’s what I did. But what did I do for people? How did I inspire them? Did I bridge a gap? Was I a game changer?”