The living legend on the growth of women’s college hoops, why Dallas proved an unexpected champion of the sport and how she and Magic Johnson fared when they played Roger Staubach in his backyard
By Tony Fay
Every sport has them. The game changer. The transcendent superstar who takes a fledgling game, knocks it on its ear and re-invents it through sheer physical genius into something greater than it was before.
Baseball may be America’s pastime, but its enduring popularity was made possible by the namesake of all Ruthian exploits – the Babe himself.
Golf was the sport of kings before Arnold Palmer ripped his first three iron. Then it was a game for the everyman, and an army followed.
Basketball players were tall and skillful, but it took Wilt Chamberlain to make them larger than life.
For women’s basketball, Nancy Lieberman is Ruth, Arnold, Wilt, Wilma Rudolph and Susan B. Anthony all rolled up into a 5-10 point guard from the blacktop playgrounds of New York. So special were her skills that a reporter from the Virginia Pilot newspaper, after watching Michigan State’s Earvin Johnson play, wrote, that if he was Magic, then Nancy was Lady Magic.
Coming out of Far Rockaway High School in the mid-70s, Lieberman was the first true women’s basketball super-duper-star. Over four decades into her career, and she’s still knocking down barriers as if they were soft screens set on the perimeter. Lieberman’s resume is the history of women’s basketball – three time National Champion at Old Dominion, Olympic Silver Medalist, WNBA trail blazer as a player, coach and a GM, the first woman to serve as Head Coach of an NBDL team and, currently, an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings. Oh, yes, let’s also not forget that whole, Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, thing either. Legendary.
She’s also a proud Dallasite, having relocated here in 1980 when she was drafted by the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s Basketball League.
With the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four mere weeks away from tipping off at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, we caught up with Lady Magic to talk about the sport, where it’s come from and where it’s headed.
Your freshman year at Old Dominion was 1976. A lot has changed in women’s sports over the last four decades. How has basketball transformed?
Well, the NCAA has changed everything. When I played we won two national championships at Old Dominion – the AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) National Championship (1979 and 1980) and one WNIT in 1978. There was no NCAA tournament at that time. It wasn’t until 1982 when the NCAA came into the picture. That was a big deal. They had resources. They had prestige. They had television. They could take the women’s game to the next level.
You arrived in Dallas in 1980, which was an odd time for basketball in the city. The Mavericks were a first year expansion team, and there was strong sentiment that basketball wouldn’t be successful here. Were you surprised by the reception?
I don’t know if I knew what to expect. I was 22 when I arrived in Dallas. I’d never played basketball outside of the New York/New Jersey area prior to the 1974 U.S.A. national team tryouts. The folks in my neighborhood in Queens did a fundraiser to pay for me to go try out. That completely changed my life. When I made the Pan Am games in 1975 as a high school junior, I was just 16. I was three years younger than my next youngest teammate. Then, of course, the Olympics (in 1976 was the first year of women’s basketball in the Olympics) happened and my horizons really broadened. But I didn’t know much about Texas. Everything was a whirlwind.
What were your initial thoughts when you arrived?
That the people were friendly. Really friendly. That this was a very dynamic place to be. The early 80s was a time when lots of people were moving to Dallas from all over the country. The face of the city was changing. The economy was booming. I think that influx brought more basketball fans to the area. And, while the Cowboys were clearly America’s Team, I found lots of people who were overjoyed to have pro basketball in town. The Diamonds played at SMU’s Moody Coliseum, which was a perfect facility for us. And, look, we’d get 6,000 people to a game. So, yeah, I felt welcomed right away. Dallas became home and it has remained so.
One of the great urban legends in Dallas sports history involves the weekly pickup basketball games at Roger Staubach’s house. Everyone from George W. Bush to Michael Jordan to a who’s-who of Dallas business tycoons are said to have played there. It is all true.
It was really incredible. Roger had a full court in his backyard and he’d have these standing games. People would know about them – don’t ask me how — and just show up. But it was pretty exclusive who got in. You’d hear rumors about different people who were going to show up or who had played there the week before. It was like some exclusive nightclub in Los Angeles, where huge name performers just pop in and perform. It had that kind of vibe. I remember being with Magic Johnson and he had heard about it, so we headed over there one afternoon. It was fun, and super, super competitive. People would get knocked down. There’d be blood. But no one seemed to mind. It was just hard-nosed blacktop basketball.
Roger said you were one of the absolute best players to ever step foot on that court.
He’s sweet. I think I was the only woman to play, at least that I ever saw. There might have been others. I’ll tell you this – he wasn’t giving anyone anything in those games. He knew every inch of that court of his. He knew where the dead spots were and there was a big old tree that you could use to kind of set a screen. He wanted to win. The true superstar there was his wife, Marianne, though. Believe me, it was a carnival at those games, and there was no way that would have happened if she didn’t okay it. She even would make sandwiches and bring them out to everyone. I do remember thinking on several occasions, ‘I can’t believe I’m playing basketball at Roger Staubach’s house!’
How did you get involved with the Dallas Women’s Final Four effort?
We’ll when the men’s Final Four was here back in 2014, I had played a part. (Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President) Charlotte Jones Anderson asked me to serve on the Board of Directors of the Local Organizing Committee, and it was really great. I met so many wonderful leaders from across North Texas, all dedicated to putting our best foot forward. I thought we did that. It was a great tournament. My organization, Nancy Lieberman Charities, had the opportunity to help build a Dream Court in Arlington to commemorate the experience. That court is still serving the children in that neighborhood to this day – giving them a safe place to learn about basketball and learn about life. So, overall that experience was wonderful. But I hadn’t really been involved with the preliminary bid for the women’s tournament, even through I had heard it was happening.
Until Rick Carlisle called you, correct?
That’s right. The NCAA was in town for a site visit. It was Dallas’ kind of closing argument on why the city should be selected to host. Rick gave me a call that morning and said he was going to go talk to the NCAA group, and that I needed to be there too. When Coach Carlisle asks, you don’t think twice. I was in. We went to the AAC, and I asked if Anucha Browne was there. Anucha is head of the NCAA basketball committee – and a friend of more than 30 years. We talked and made our pitch. I talked about how this city had embraced me. How it embraces women’s basketball – how excellent the youth basketball model is here. Which it is — one of the best in the entire country, in fact. In the end it all worked out.
You’ve seen so much change in the sport, what’s the one thing you still want to see happen?
The NCAA has done so much for this sport. It’s taken it to a new level. But if there is one thing that still can be done, it’s to better recognize the heritage of the game. The official NCAA record books starts in 1982, when the NCAA took over administration of the sport. They need to be more inclusive of the individual records and stats of players before that, in my opinion. Hall of Famers like Anne Meyers, Carol Blazejowski, Lynette Woodard. Lucy Harris – they were trailblazers, yet their stats aren’t in the record books for today’s players to compete against. That’s something I think needs to change and I think it will. Anucha understands the need for that and I hope the media and fans of the game do too. It will happen someday.