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Original Issue


Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion rules the world of women's basketball, to which her rough-and-tumble style of play has given a spectacular new dimension

As one of the more basic life processes, growing up has gotten a lot of ink. For those representatives of the fairer sex especially, Growing Up can be a harrowing exercise, unless one is Brooke Shields, who accomplished it in the wink of an eyelash, or Margaret Trudeau, who never did get around to it. More common are females against whom the cards seem to be stacked from the beginning. Consider Nancy Lieberman. She is Jewish. She is the product of a broken home. She is a basketball player. Given that Nancy Lieberman is a woman, isn't that at least four strikes already? A player from a disrupted family?

Playground dude No. 1: "Don't be jivin' with me."

Playground dude No. 2: "I ain't. This chick can dance."

So it was that Nancy Lieberman, a little girl with a little curl right in the middle of her lip, came to be raw and loud and ornery, came to hunger for attention and a way to prove herself and finally came to the basketball court and to dancin' on all those heads that appeared in her line of fire. Boys' heads in particular. Growing Up? Nancy Lieberman made a career out of Growing Up.

Now, at 21, that career is over. From lollipops to lipstick, jeans to jasmine, she has changed. She has turned anger and defensiveness into diplomacy and a fine sense of PR. The insolent, uncontrollable and quintessential New York street urchin has become an articulate spokeswoman for her sport and a favorite role model for the young girls of the Virginia Tidewater. Nancy Lieberman has grown all the way up.

In 1973, as a sophomore at Far Rockaway High School on Long Island, Nancy left the back alleys and the beach courts to the boys and started playing with the girls for the first time. Playing women's basketball. Barely six years later, as she begins her senior season at Norfolk's Old Dominion University, Nancy is women's basketball—the pioneer, the leader, the superstar, the finest all-round player of her game in the land. In an era when any one NBA great seems as rich or as lazy or as legendary as any other NBA great, in a year when fate has supplied the men's college game with the most evenly matched peer group in the last decade, a case can be made for Nancy Lieberman as the most dominant player in basketball. At the women's level there is nobody close. "A comparison?" says Jerry Busone, the assistant coach at Old Dominion. "In our game, Nancy Lieberman is the electric car."

This is not to say that the redheaded 5'10", 146-pound Lieberman is the most valuable player in the distaff ranks, or even the most valued on her own team, the defending AIAW champion Lady Monarchs. In 6'5" Inge Nissen they possess the tall, imposing center necessary for success at any level. Indeed, given a choice in the initial construction of a team, most coaches might choose the willowy Nissen over Lieberman. But in the finals of the AIAW tournament in Greensboro, N.C. last March, as Nissen and Louisiana Tech's 6'5" Elinor Griffin battled each other down low, "the Lieb" grabbed the game—not to mention the championship—by the throat and proved why she is the best.

Rallying ODU from a 32-27 halftime deficit, Lieberman ran and shot. She passed and rebounded. She pressed and stole the ball. Summoning all the faculties with which she had worked so hard, at the precise moment she had dreamed of for so long, Lieberman simply took control of the game. She finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and six steals as ODU won 75-65 to end the season with a 35-1 record and claim the championship everyone had anticipated since Lieberman enrolled three years before.

Long after the AIAWs were over, the picture that remained in everyone's memory was not so much Lieberman's statistical line as her commanding presence. She had always had an exquisite sense of timing and a flair for the dramatic. Now her analytical interpretation of the proceedings and how to cope came to the fore. The Old Dominion defensive press had won the championship, all right. But how?

"The Tech Guard [Mary Nell Kendrick] beat me like a drum in the first half," Nancy told the press. "In studying the way she dribbled, I noticed that she had a tendency to leave the ball behind her hip on her crossover dribble to the left. So I was able to slip behind her for a couple of steals and to force her to turn her head to see where she had left the ball.... I think I intimidated her. She became a bit hesitant, leery...and she lost some of her poise."

If that is not a penetrating basketball mind at work, nothing is. A brand new Red on Roundball was loose in the land.

"You look for a model player and Nancy fits every way," says UCLA Coach Billie Moore, who in 1976 also coached the first U.S. women's Olympic team, which included the 18-year-old Lieberman. "She is quick, very smart on the court, a good shooter, excellent jumper, very, very strong rebounder, aggressive, hard-nosed, very strong on defense. She just doesn't have a weakness. She does everything you can ask a player to do."

Including some things nobody in the women's game used to ask for. On the '76 Olympic team was a point guard and veteran of international play named Julienne Simpson; Lieberman was a nervous fawn, one of the last women picked. Nevertheless, at one of the first practices, Lieberman and Simpson crashed into each other going for the boards and the older woman received a concussion. Simpson had dizzy spells for a week, and Moore didn't know whether to reward her rookie for her aggression or lock her up in a cage.

She decided on the former. At Hamilton, Ontario in a pre-Olympic qualifier against Bulgaria, the U.S. team found itself in trouble when a rather hefty member of the opposition began bombing over the Americans' 1-3-1 zone. Moore called for Lieberman. "Jump at her as hard as you can," Moore counseled, "but jump to the side." Moments later, after they had peeled Lieberman off the Bulgarian and the Bulgarian off the hardwood, Moore was still calling out "to the side, the side!"

Lieberman remembers, "My knees hit that girl so hard in her chest, somebody else had to shoot her free throws. When the U.S. and Bulgaria played again at Montreal, every time the other girl came in, Billie put me in. The girl wised up. All I had to do was get close to her and she got rid of the ball. She wanted no part of me."

For all the giant strides the women's game has taken in recent years, the most accomplished players are still in a quandary about how best to describe themselves.

On the one hand, they abhor being "compared" to men, even those less honored, rightly claiming such a silly exercise is, akin to comparing Tracy Austin to, say, the Gullikson twins on the tennis court. Conversely, however (and unlike women tennis players), they are pleased to hear that they "play like men."

The Immaculata and Delta State teams, which dominated women's basketball and split six championships in the 1970s, did not play like men. Old Dominion's current Lady Monarchs used not to play like men. Annie Meyers—you remember Annie (d'Arc) Meyers of UCLA and the Indiana Pacers broadcast crew, now of the WBL's New Jersey Gems—did not play like a man. (Truth be told, Meyers was fading out of the women's amateur game when she made her ill-fated foray into the NBA. She did not start or play much on last summer's Pan-Am team and would have had a difficult time being chosen for the 1980 Olympic squad. Serious folk in women's basketball regard her effort with the Pacers as sheer folly and "a slap in the face" at their game.)

But Nancy Lieberman? The reason she is a pioneer, the reason she altered the strategy, the style, the face, the very direction of women's basketball, is that Nancy Lieberman plays like a man.

Except for a lack of dynamic jumping ability, there is not much to distinguish Lieberman from the point guard on most of the better varsity male teams. Nancy runs well. She has remarkable peripheral vision. In technical terms, she "sees the floor" better than most men, throwing the blind passes she favors—one-handers, bouncers, whirl-aways and other tricky deliveries—with little fear of interception. On the dribble she is marvelous at changing direction and protecting the ball; she has the true quarterback's instinct of knowing when to keep it, when to give it up. Lieberman is a "head" rebounder, instinctively gaining position, banging people around and controlling the territory around the key. On defense, Nancy is alternately stiletto and hatchet, attempting the steal or muscling and intimidating a hot shooter. Lieberman's game is aggressive and adaptable, showy yet solid in the same piece.

"Nancy's got a lot of David Thompson in her," says Jim Oshust, the director of the Greensboro Coliseum, the arena in which Thompson and Lieberman won their respective college championships five years apart. "She's flashy and spectacular and you remember all that, but at heart she is a total book player. She gives you fundamentals right out of the instruction guide."

When Lieberman came off the streets of Far Rockaway, which is in New York's borough of Queens, she was labeled just another playground rat. But she did the one thing girls always were reluctant to do before her. She went to the basket. Lieberman drove the ball, penetrated, created things and scrapped like a wildcat. Now she has learned finesse and developed more of an outside shot, and during five full summers abroad—and nearly 100 games in 12 foreign countries, beating Jane Fonda's world record—she has thrived. "Lady Magic," everyone calls her. Ironically, Nancy Lieberman can hardly be called a lady basketball player anymore. She is a basketball player, period.

"It's what I've strived for all my life," she says. "It's a great compliment to hear that I do things like a guy. But the degree is the thing. I know I can't play in the NBA. Maybe I couldn't make the ODU men's team. That doesn't matter. Look, we've worked hard to separate the two games. If people are looking for slam dunks and 30-foot jumpers, they'll be disappointed in the women. The men are stronger and faster; they can rely on natural ability. But we use finesse; we run patterns. We depend on the fundamentals. The women's game is incredible in its own right. And exciting. We scored more than 100 points in Madison Square Garden last year and won by 53. You think the fans were sitting on their hands? They were up, screaming. They loved us."

If the AIAW championship won in the Carolina pines was wonderful, the January night in New York when Lieberman discarded her playmaker's role to score 33 points in 28 minutes as ODU beat Queens 106-53 must have been paradise. But could anyone actually be surprised at the way Nancy hustled and fought and scowled and chomped that gum, behaving, as she put it, like "Mr. Tough Guy"? After all, as a Big Apple dumpling, she had been planning this for a while. Like, maybe, since when she was eight. And if the Lieb had learned anything in her short, confused and sometimes unhappy life, it was how to be a tough guy.

Just past the front hallway in Nancy Lieberman's house on Bayswater Avenue in bar Rockaway is an iron railing guarding a stairway to the basement. When Jerome Lieberman, a onetime real-estate broker and builder, designed the house, he and his wife, Renee, agreed to finish off the stairs and the basement so they could have a nice glowing room down there. It would be the center of activity, a den, a playroom, the TV room, the family room. Now the stairs are floored off and a carpet covers the floor. There never has been a den or a glow or a family room. There has not been much of a family either. Just as the Liebermans were about to move from Brooklyn, where they lived when Nancy was a baby, marital difficulties came to a head. Things got very ugly. Things got sad. Renee, with the two small children, Cliff and Nancy, went ahead with the move anyway. Jerome came along temporarily, but it wasn't too much later that he left the house on Bayswater Avenue for good.

Surely the absence of a full-time father has negative effects on any childhood; in Nancy's case, her father's leave-taking seemed shattering. She recalls her father telephoning and telling her he would be over to take her out for the day. She would sit by the window waiting. Occasionally he would fail to appear. She remembers that if she started to cry, her mother would say, "Don't cry over your father." Nancy remembers it was rough.

While Cliff, an asthmatic, immersed himself in music and his studies, Nancy turned to sports. "Maybe it was for attention, my father's attention," she says now. "I don't know. I was terribly bitter for a long time, but after a while I never worried about things like that. The family always said I was so cold anyway. After that, what did they expect? The divorce stopped bothering me. I just went and played ball."

First it was football, about which Renee Lieberman says, "I would look out in the yard and see a pile of helmets and bodies but no Nancy. Then I realized my daughter was under all that. I stopped football real quick." Then came baseball—until Nancy was prohibited from playing her first Public School Athletic League game because she was a girl. And so to basketball. To the Hartman YMHA in Far Rockaway against the boys. Stayin' alive. To Beach 19th Street down by the ocean against more boys. Stayin' alive. To night basketball on the neighborhood playgrounds—"radar ball," she calls it because there was only one faraway streetlight and you couldn't see the ball go in the basket; you had to hear it. Stayin' alive yet again.

Later, as a junior in high school, Lieberman would get on the subway and ride to Harlem to play on an AAU team coached by an enormous, jolly social worker named LaVozier LaMar. LaMar calls himself "a former high school teammate, at Boys High School in Brooklyn, of the great All-American, Sihugo Green of Duquesne University." The team was called the New York Chuckles. The Chuckles called the new white girl "Fire."

"Nancy was the queen of Harlem," says LaMar. "She would roar down the court left, right, turning, spinning, flying in the air. You know, getting it all done. Once the Chuckles scrimmaged some high school guys, and the guys were yelling 'face job, face job' at each other every time she did something. Everybody got to know the Fire right away, so nobody messed with her on the streets. I can't even remember everywhere she played up there. I'd have to look on the trophies."

Back in Far Rockaway, Lieberman would play all day, stay a little longer; play all evening, get a little stronger. She followed the Knicks, learning to shoot lefty by watching Willis Reed and to act cocky and cool at the same time in the manner of Clyde, No. 10 on your program, Walt Frazier.

"Girls ain't——" a playground guy once said to her. Lieberman challenged him to one-on-one. Five minutes later—11-4 Lieberman—the loser had seen enough. "It's a setup," he said. "I'm out of here."

"That was the time of my life," Nancy says. "The guys were always bigger and rougher, so I had to be mean and hard-nosed. I had to learn to maneuver around that pole in the schoolyard. I had to learn to take elbows and give them back. When I got better, I'd get chosen over the boys for five-on-five. When they lipped off about that, I gave them lip right back. I got in a lot of fistfights that way. I had to show them I could play and get respect, so they didn't ease up on me. It took me about two times playing against new guys before they realized I could handle myself. I learned all aspects of the game. When basketball season ended each year, my life ended too."

Nancy's mother was not notably supportive. Renee Lieberman was from a show business family; her parents, Lou and Eva Saks, played vaudeville. Renee grew up with Beverly Sills. She once studied opera herself under Dorothy Edwards. Renee says Dorothy Edwards was the sister of Gus Edwards. Gus Edwards wrote By the Light of the Silvery Moon.

Renee Lieberman says her parents were very special people who helped raise her children. She says they were good-doers. She says they were the kind of people who "if you broke down in Jersey in the rain, they'd fix five sandwiches and come bring the jumper cables."

Of Nancy Lieberman, Renee says, "She was so pretty, gosh. People would call to me, 'Hey, get her out of the tree.' I'd get her dolls, she'd want balls. My kid and sports, you wouldn't believe. I yelled. I screamed, 'I'll murder you. Stop it already. Sports aren't for girls. Why don't you be a secretary? A nurse? Put on a dress?' Nothing worked. She thought it was a challenge having everybody against her. She'd fight the world if she had to."

One day Renee punctured her daughter's basketball with a screwdriver. "She just went out and got more balls," Renee says. Following another one of Renee's harangues, Nancy put her hands on her hips and said, "Someday I'm going to make history."

Nobody was going to bring Nancy Lieberman any jumper cables.

Things became more difficult in the house on Bayswater. Cliff and Nancy had nothing in common; he was off studying a lot. A family acquaintance once said of the atmosphere, "It was All in the Family in drag." Nancy quit piano lessons. Nancy quit Hebrew school; she was never Bas-Mitzvahed. "I was no [Sandy] Koufax," Nancy says. "I'd kill myself before I'd stop playing ball on Saturday."

Nancy practiced jumping indoors and got fingerprints on the ceiling. Nancy brought home stray cats and dogs, which her mother threw back out the door. Nancy got an alligator in the mail. Nancy dribbled to keep her mother awake. Renee punished Nancy. Nancy said, "Don't worry, Ma. You're the one who's crazy."

Brian Sackrowitz, Lieberman's coach at Far Rockaway High, and his wife, Barbara, lived in nearby Lido Beach. Their home became a port in the storm for Lieberman. "We just tried to uncomplicate things," says Barbara Sackrowitz.

As Nancy became more of an athlete, she became less of a student, a feat her classmates had believed impossible. She missed half her classes in her senior year because of her global basketball travels. The principal waived the attendance requirement so she could graduate. "Her average?" says Brian, laughing. "Was there an average?"

"It's safe to say she was a solid C," says Barbara.

In Nancy's sophomore year, the Far Rockaway Seahorses lost the city championship game by one point. In her junior year, the team was disqualified from title consideration because Nancy was discovered playing for the St. Francis DeSalles CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) team at the same time. St. Francis won the CYO championship. In her senior year, Far Rockaway lost Nancy's final high school game in the city quarterfinals. Later that day Nancy went to Madison Square Garden to see Delta State's Lucy Harris play. Following that game LaVozier LaMar met Lieberman outside of the Garden, packed her into a car and drove her to Allentown, Pa., where the New York Chuckles were to play the Allentown Crestettes: game time 8 p.m. LaMar says Nancy "really did a number" that night. The Chuckles won by 11 and LaMar got Nancy back to Far Rockaway before dawn.

"What times they were," says Brian Sackrowitz. "We even lived through Nancy's first romance. Or almost lived through it. The kid's name was Larry Klein. A baseball player. It lasted for a while. Then they played one-on-one in basketball. Nancy beat him by eight."

In 1974 the Sackrowitzes spearheaded a local drive to raise money and send Nancy to Albuquerque where the U.S. "was selecting a team to play the Soviet Union. Brian canvassed the neighborhoods. Somebody called the Eyewitness News team at WABC-TV. Far Rockaway came up with $1,500.

Over the next two basketball seasons, as Lieberman displayed her precocious talents on the U.S. national team, she became the first female phenom to be caught up, tooth, nail and haircurlers, in the college recruiting wars. Flexing their newly developed financial biceps, the colleges with major women's basketball programs cajoled, fought and cheated over Lieberman's services. There were the usual 400,000 offers, many of them illegal, which always are presented to young athletes with the potential to make a college rich. The only difference this time was that the young athlete was a girl.

Lieberman briefly considered the local school, Queens, but Coach Lucille Kyvallos could not come up with any scholarship aid. "I don't think she would have come here anyway," says Kyvallos. "Her brother was at Queens in pre-med at the time. There was tremendous rivalry—he the brains, she the, uh, ballplayer. My impression was they couldn't live together in the same institution."

Home life being what it was, Lieberman knew she must get away. Her Olympic coach, Moore, was at Cal State, Fullerton. But that, Lieberman felt, was too far away, and Moore was about to leave anyway. Another of her favorite coaches, Pat Head, was at Tennessee. But Head was not interested. A terrific offer came out of Las Vegas. "They said they would make my little girl the toast of the Strip," says Renee Lieberman. "I could just see it all. Everybody up in bright lights at Caesars: TOM JONES...NANCY LIEBERMAN...AND MOTHER."

But that was too grotesque even for Nancy. Instead, she elected to spend the next four years of her life at a little-known school in the friendly confines of the Virginia Tidewater. Renee was appalled. She recalls that Lou Saks had played the old Center Theater in Norfolk during the war. But Old Dominion University? "All I could picture," says Renee, "was a sailor town and a broken-down plantation."

Old Dominion University was founded in 1930 as the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary. The school became independent in 1962 and gained university status seven years later. Chockablock with red brick and gray slate buildings, the ODU campus is in the southeast corner of Norfolk, the largest city in Virginia, a place surrounded for the most part by water. To the north is Chesapeake Bay; to the west, Hampton Roads; to the east, the Atlantic. Not long ago Norfolk's downtown dock areas underwent a face-lift. Now high-rise hotels and restored colonial townhouses are to be seen. A street or two are paved with cobblestones. The city's outlying neighborhoods are green and leafy. Touristy Virginia Beach is nearby. So, it seems, are approximately nine-tenths of our nation's Naval forces. The first lady of the Commonwealth recently flew into town to pay some political dues: Elizabeth T. Warner out of the Virginia hunt country by way of Hollywood and Vine.

At ODU blond student beach bums stroll across campus with confederate flags painted on their shirts and surfboards slung across their shoulders. Enrollment is 14,000. It is only a rumor that 12,000 are on basketball scholarships. Nevertheless, the sport has a rich tradition at ODU. In 1965 a coach named Sonny Allen began the move toward big-time basketball. In 10 years Allen's men's teams won 181 games in NCAA Division II, were the national runner-up in 1971 (with Dave Twardzik) and the champion in 1975 (with Wilson Washington).

Allen up and left for SMU after ODU won that title, but the present men's coach, Paul Webb, has carried the torch. In the three seasons since switching to Division I the Monarchs have won 59 games and gone to the NIT twice; this year they have their best team with two potential All-Americas in Ronnie Valentine and Ronnie McAdoo.

About the same time ODU applied for membership in the major college division, Athletic Director Jim Jarrett decided to upgrade the women's basketball program. An avid tennis player, Jarrett had noted with interest the numbers women were attracting to pro tennis. People numbers. Cash numbers. Even before Title IX pressure forced the issue, Jarrett jumped into women's basketball. "People around here laughed, but nobody could tell me the women wouldn't draw," Jarrett says.

ODU was the first school in Virginia to give athletic scholarships to women. In 1974 there were two scholarships in basketball; this year there will be the equivalent of 12. In 1974 the women's basketball budget was $9,000; this year ODU will spend more than $150,000 on the women.

Along with this development came a semimerging of the men's and women's programs, a concept that has fostered compatibility in an area where angels of both sexes had previously feared to tread. Not to mention coaches. At ODU the men's and women's teams share the training room. They share the radio-TV package. They share the preseason kickoff banquet. They live in the same dormitory apartment building. They regularly played in doubleheaders at the Scope, Norfolk's $50-million gem of a complex.

The women's fame has made recruiting easier for the men. Everybody knows who Old Dominion is now. Assistant men's Coach Mike Pollio even speaks of a "combined record," as in "We were 58-8 last year, the best record in the nation...combined."

"This situation may seem unique to most schools," says Webb, "but it shouldn't be. Folks should get along. This is the way things are supposed to be." In the next breath Webb says, "Of course, you must remember that the No. 1 sport at ODU is men's basketball. Without question."

Except one. In Jarrett's memento-swamped office there are two pictures on the wall behind his desk. One is of the ODU mascot, "Big Blue," a kid in a lion suit, and the other is of Jarrett and TV announcer Jayne Kennedy, who as any fool can plainly see is a woman. Where are the men?

Last season 500 people stood on line in the rain waiting for tickets to watch the UCLA and ODU women's teams—the once and future AIWA champions—play in the campus gym. ODU won 90-60. Nancy Lieberman scored 29 points. And the game grossed more than $20,000. This season Jarrett raised the price of women's season tickets 250%—from $10 to $35. The public responded by buying 1,000, 800 more than last year. The Lady Monarchs have become so profitable on their own that ODU fans will no longer be able to see both the men and the women on the same bill; the school was losing money on that deal.

Where does Nancy Lieberman fit into this? "You can't put a dollar value on what Nancy Lieberman has meant to this university," says Jarrett.

In truth, both ODU and Jarrett were hopelessly unprepared when the boom de la femme hit. The athletic director had hired one Pam Parsons to coach and recruit and get the ball rolling. A year later Parsons had astonished Jarrett by attracting to his tiny Tidewater kingdom Lieberman, who was asking, "Will I play in the Garden?" And she was attracting Inge Nissen, from Denmark yet. Suddenly the athletic director found himself with a powerhouse team and a bunch of angry, impatient women scratching at his office door.

Parsons' position was that here were world-class women athletes who deserved to be treated as such. The team's traveling, living and meal accommodations were not top flight, and neither was the scheduling or the scholarship aid. In time, most of the requested improvements would be honored, but not soon enough for Parsons. Indeed, her conscientiousness or ruckus-raising, take your pick, was tolerable as long as she got along with Jarrett. But then Parsons ran aground in her relationship with Lieberman, and that was that.

The coach had won the player by somehow making it seem an exciting challenge for a famous Olympic star to go to unfamous ODU. ("Pam could rent you an apartment for $300 more than it's worth," Lieberman says. "What a recruiter!") But the real challenge was Parsons trying to accommodate a strong-willed, spoiled prima donna who was as stubborn in her demands as the coach was in hers.

Progressing from what was a cute little sorority team full speed ahead to a nationally respected title contender, the Lady Monarchs finished the first Lieberman season with a 23-9 record and a No. 14 national ranking. Lieberman averaged 20.9 points, and in a 93-75 victory over Virginia State, she contributed 30 points and 17 rebounds.

Along the way, however, the clash of egos and styles took an unfortunate turn. The year before Lieberman arrived, a furious Parsons had removed the entire ODU starting team from one game and had made them run laps in the outer hall while the game continued. During Nancy's first season, the coach once benched her volatile star six minutes after the opening jump ball and made her sit for the remainder of the game. Late in the season Jarrett fired Parsons, but the team refused to play until she was reinstated, which she quickly was. That time Lieberman went along with the majority, but at the end of the year she made it quite clear that an ultimatum was at hand: if Parsons stays, Lieberman goes.

Nobody will admit to this scenario now, Parsons (who resigned to become an assistant athletic director and coach at South Carolina) saying only that "there were problems. Resentment, hate—all those words could be used at one time or another." But Lieberman's disclaimer is more interesting. "We were both strong-headed and made mistakes," she says, "but I could never have had that kind of a freshman."