The former professional basketball player discusses her epic basketball journey, friendship with Muhammad Ali, and playing at Rucker Park as a kid growing up in New York.
(CBS Local)– Nancy Lieberman is one of the greatest basketball players ever.
The former professional basketball player grew up in Far Rockaway and spent her childhood playing hoops all over New York and Long Island at spots like Rucker Park. Known in basketball circles as “Lady Magic,” Lieberman won two national championships at Old Dominion University, a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics and played in the WNBA two separate times at the ages of 39 and 50.
Coaching is also a big part of Lieberman’s basketball story. She became the first woman to ever coach in a men’s professional league when she was the head coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA Developmental League (now the NBA G League), was an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, and recently won a championship as a head coach in the Big3. Lieberman can link all of her basketball success to the lessons she learned on the courts of New York.
“At nine or 10 years old I started playing basketball. Willis Reed, Dr. J, Walt Frazier, what a great time in New York. The Knicks were good, the Nets were good and then I took the blessed trip to Rucker Park,” said Lieberman in an interview with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith. “I was 11 or 12 years old and took money out of my mom’s wallet and said I’m going to the park. She thought I was going to P.S. 104. I walked into the park and I had a jacket on and I had t-shirts in the jacket, so I’d look bigger. I walk in the park and the brothers ask me if I’m lost. I said no, are you. I asked if his name was Rucker and he said no and I said it ain’t your park and I want to play.”
Lieberman learned a great deal from playing with local New Yorkers at Rucker Park. While basketball has taken Lieberman all over the world, New York City’s basketball culture will always have its own category in her mind.
“It’s a melting pot of respect,” said Lieberman. “If you can play, that’s all that matters. If you’re responsible, loyal and you show up, then there’s this incredible bond that you have and you get to grow together. The guys that didn’t look like me in the park called me Fire because of my red hair and tenacity. They would say ‘Fire you can do this, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this.’ They were such inspirations for me. I grew up tough and I was tough.”
While Lieberman has cultivated relationships with some of the most famous athletes in the world like LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant, her friendship with Muhammad Ali lasted until the last days of his life.
“I met him at 19 right before my senior year and he became my life long friend,” said Lieberman. “There was a day he said ‘there won’t be a day that I’m not in your life.’ He would call me in college and he would try to come to see me play. We had this unbelievable friendship until we buried him four years ago. Any time I needed him, he was always there. He taught me to respect everybody, but fear no one.”
Another unforgettable experience for Lieberman came when she and her son T.J. were invited to the White House to visit President Barack Obama. The 44th President of the United States is famously a big basketball fan and he relished the opportunity to meet and hang out with Lady Magic.
“I’ve had the greatest life. I’m an athlete from the 1980s and I’m still relevant in 2020,” said Lieberman. “When I got hired by Donnie Nelson, President Obama invited me to The White House. I went to The White House and I took my son T.J. He said what you do is normal to you and I’ll paraphrase here but he said I’ve been African-American my whole life and you’ve been a white woman your whole life. You coaching men is normal to you. Me being the President of the United States is normal to me. It’s not normal to the outside world.”
Watch all of DJ Sixsmith’s interviews from “The Sit-Down” series here.