The NBA’s first female head coach spoke this week of how Muhammad Ali inspired her to reach the top.
Nancy Lieberman, 51, the first woman to play pro basketball with men, has been placed in charge of Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Development League.
Speaking exclusively from her home in Plano,Texas, she said she saw the world heavyweight champ on TV when she was nine.
“I was watching Ali saying ‘I’m the greatest of all time’ and said to myself that I want to be like that. He spoke to my heart. He gave me hope, vision and passion that I could be whatever I wanted to be. He’s been my idol my whole life,” she said.
“I went into kitchen, put my hands on my hips and said ‘mum, I’m going to be the greatest basketball player of all time’. It was one of the poignant moments in my career.”
Lieberman started playing basketball at eight. But her newly divorced mother wasn’t keen.
“No-one then had ever seen it as a way of life for women. My neighbours called me a tomboy as I played in park with black kids. But I argued with my mum that I was not drinking, taking drugs or committing a crime. I was passionate about it and it was healthy.”
She joined the national team in 1974, on a scholarship and was part of the inaugural women’s tournament, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
She met her idol at 21 and recalls: “I couldn’t breathe or even talk to him. But from that day forth, we became friends. We are still very good friends today. One day I went to his house, held his hand and thanked him for making me who I am today. It’s because of him that I get fanmail from people who look up to me.
Lieberman believes that there is no reason why women cannot excel in male dominated sports. “They can do anything in any sport in any location they want. It should’ve been harder for me to play against men because it’s a very physical sport.
“My goal was not to be a girl playing in a men’s league. It was to be a player in a basketball league. Now, I don't want to be a woman who is coaching men, I want to be a coach who is coaching in the NBA.
“I believe I can share my experiences with these guys. We have more in common than they might think. I played in a minor league and had to overcome challenges.
“I will say to the fans, don’t judge me on four games. Judge me on my work. We’re going to build their vision, make them better people, change their vision and understand about the next level and how to get there. I am here to help them, not hinder them.”
Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks’ president of basketball operations, said: “She’s got the skins, the experience and she knows what she’s doing."