Nancy Lieberman was one of the greatest female basketball players born in the United States. She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. She is also noted for breaking the professional gender barrier in basketball when she debuted in the United States Basketball League in 1986 with the Springfield Flame.
Nancy was born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York on July 1, 1958, and she was raised by her mother after her parents divorced. She was always to be found in the neighborhood playgrounds playing basketball days and nights. At night she played and practiced “radar ball” because you couldn’t see the ball go through the basket, but you could hear it.
Basketball was an outlet for her consuming ambition to be the best in the game and she would always play against the boys’ strongest opposition to improve her skills. She did not give an inch against the boys and would sometimes fight with them. She did not play against the girls until she was on her high school basketball team.
Lieberman attended Old Dominion University where she was the star of the women’s basketball team. She made All-America three times: 1978, 79, and 80, and led the Monarchs to two AIAW Championships (1979 and 1980). She finished her college career with 2,430 points (18.13 ppg), 983 assists, and 1,167 rebounds – in 134 games. She won multiple awards during her college career, including the Broderick Award, and the Wade Trophy (the only person to ever win it twice). Her hawklike intensity made her the outstanding female basketball player in America. Her style of playing and basketball court personality earned her the name of “Lady Magic” as she was compared to Los Angeles Lakers star “Magic” Johnson. She had his crowd-pleasing passing skills and court demeanor.
In 1975, she helped her team win the gold medal at the Pan American Games. The following year, while still a senior in high school, she made the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team, which won the Silver medal, making her the youngest player (at 18) to ever win an Olympic medal in basketball.
In 1979, she led the U.S. team to a gold medal in the 1979 World Championships, but her hope of repeating the feat at the 1980 Olympics was quashed when the United States decided to boycott the games following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1986, she made her debut in the Men’s-only United States Basketball League. She became the first woman to play in a men’s professional league. She was twenty-seven years old when she joined the Springfield Fame. She played for the Fame for two years before the team folded. She then played for the Long Island Knights in 1987.
Lieberman subsequently became a successful businessperson. She arranged book and film deals, owned two sporting goods stores, and owned real estate in Texas and St. Croix. She endorsed many products and there were times that she was wealthier than the owners of the women’s professional teams for whom she played.
In 1997, she returned to the game she loved and played in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury. The following year, she retired and became the coach of the Detroit Shock (1998-2000) and Texas Legends (2009-2011).
In 2015, she became the second female assistant coach in the NBA, after being hired by the Sacramento Kings (2015-2018).
Nancy Lieberman rose to stardom along with other women of the seventies and eighties and continued to contribute as a coach and businessperson in the years afterward. She became a role model for young women who saw it was possible to gain fame and respect as a professional female athlete is you work hard and have talent.
[Last Updated: 4/21 by Aryeh Lev]
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour “Sy” Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
“Nancy Lieberman,” Britannica.com.
“Nancy Lieberman” WNBA.com(last accessed 3/31/2021).