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Mixing it up with the guys

Nancy Lieberman broke basketball's gender barrier with her USBL debut

After Nancy Lieberman made her United States Basketball League debut early last week as the first woman to play in a men's professional league, the game ball was taken off to be displayed in the Boston Museum of Science. They might as well have displayed Lieberman's folding chair. The Springfield Fame's 27-year-old rookie point guard entered the game with 3:40 left in the second quarter and her team ahead of Staten Island, 54-40. In the second half, despite the chants of the 2,187 spectators in Springfield, Mass., she didn't play.

During her historic—if limited—time on the court, Staten Island players tended to buzz by Lieberman like speedboats passing the Statue of Liberty, but she made up for her obvious handicaps with a twitchy, foxy cunning. Beneath a squall of apricot-colored curls, Lieberman got off some of her trademark passes, crisp, hard and at times so deceptive that her teammates couldn't handle them. She didn't miss any shots—but then again, she didn't take any, either.

All the time she spent on the pine didn't sit well with Lieberman. "I accept my role with the team," she said after the Fame's 122-107 victory. "I just wish I'd been in long enough to break a sweat."

"I wanted to break her in gradually," explained Fame coach Henry Bibby, whose perimeter-prowling style during a nine-season NBA career was not so different from Lieberman's. "She showed she could compete against physical play without backing down."

Lieberman's asphalt arrogance and Bird-like intensity had made her a three-time All-America at Old Dominion (1978-80). "She plays like a man," her opponents used to say. Now she's just one of the guys—almost everybody plays like a man in the USBL.

"I want to stick around long enough to stay embedded in people's minds," says the 5'10", 155-pound former Olympian. "You can't force-feed them to remember your accomplishments."

Not that she's above dropping a few hints. Her publicist has assembled a press kit packed with facts, figures and testimonials. Besides book and film deals, she has a personal secretary, three cars, two sporting goods stores, real estate holdings in Texas and St. Croix and promotional contracts for everything from health food to fur coats. What other athlete is wealthier than her team owner?

Lieberman isn't the USBL's first odd attraction. Last year, in the league's inaugural season, the Rhode Island Gulls hired 7'7" Manute Bol and 5'7" Spud Webb. Still, Springfield led the league and won the title when officials canceled the playoffs because half the players abandoned their teams for NBA tryout camps. In a ceremony before the game with Staten Island, the four Famers left over from last year's championship squad were honored with certificates. Second-year starter Michael Adams showed his gratitude by exhorting his teammates: "O.K., guys, let's go out there and get another certificate."

After scraping up enough money last season to pay Bol $25,000, with only press clips to show for it, the USBL put a $10,000 cap on salaries this year. That doesn't leave much room for attracting stars, though Lieberman is getting top scale. "Nancy's bigger than Manute," offers Springfield forward Oliver Lee, "at least publicity-wise. She's gonna save our franchise! She's gonna save our league!"

Lieberman knew what she would be up against in the USBL, having often scrimmaged with NBA veterans in summer pro-am leagues. The Fame could afford to try her out as a project because they have the league's best front line. In Adams, who played in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings last season, Springfield also has the slickest and quickest point guard in the USBL.

"Nancy's a great gimmick," says Al Lewis, who has been scouting basketball players for more than 30 years but is better known for playing Grandpa on The Munsters. "She's always been a pugnacious s.o.b., but she doesn't have the speed or strength to compete with these men. It's genetics." And who knows genetics better than a guy whose son-in-law was assembled in a basement lab?

The Brooklyn-born Lieberman once spoke in an accent that would have lent authority to a subway cop on the BMT Brighton line, but she now favors the drawl of her adopted hometown of Dallas. Before catching on with the USBL, Lieberman played in two women's pro leagues, both of which went broke. The defunct Dallas Diamonds, in fact, will pay her $60,000 this year on a guaranteed contract that expires in 1987. Between Lieberman's forays into pro basketball, she was housemate, conditioning coach and psychic booster to Martina Navratilova. She moved out of Navratilova's house when she joined the Diamonds three years ago. "I was losing my identity," she says. "I don't want to be remembered as Martina's coach. I want to be remembered as a great basketball player."

Her greatest basketball achievement so far has come in the not-yet-released movie Perfect Profile, the story of a woman who accidentally made an NBA team because the owner thought she was a guy. Two weeks after she finished shooting the film, the Fame called. Ironically, her new team took its name from the local Basketball Hall of Fame, which inducted its first women in 1985 only after feminists picketed.

Lieberman's first appearance with the Fame was in Springfield's lone exhibition game, a 135-115 rout of Westchester's rotten Golden Apples, on June 6. Bibby used the occasion to showcase her for nearly 25 minutes. At first Lieberman appeared listless. She was tentative, dribbled into traps, and was stationary on defense. She missed all four shots she took in the first half but swished an open jumper with 9:28 to go in the fourth quarter and finished 4 for 12 with 10 points and 2 assists.

Lieberman blamed her shaky start on nervousness caused by the presence at the game of her father and mother, who hadn't seen each other in 15 years. She said, "I envisioned a New York Post headline that read: WOMAN MAULS EX-HUSBAND IN GYM."

As a kid, Nancy dreamed of playing in the same New York Knick backcourt as her idol, Walt Frazier. She now wears Clyde's number—10—and endorses his brand of sneakers. Maybe someday an NBA team looking for some attention will sign her to a 10-day contract. "Then I'll know there is a God," says Lieberman. But she also says, "The party's just starting, and I'm ready to dance."



Before her historic bow in the season opener, Lieberman put in a lot of pine time.



Lieberman passed a preseason test against the Westchester Apples, scoring 10 points.



Lewis was Munsterous in his assessment of Lieberman's ability to play against men.



Lieberman wants to prove that she's no sitting duck.