See what Gregg Popovich started? Becky Hammon in San Antonio and now Nancy Lieberman in Sacramento. Once again the Spurs coach known famously as “Pop,” the most respected and influential executive in the NBA, cracks open the door and inspires his colleagues to follow.
On Thursday, Kings vice president Vlade Divac said he plans to offer Lieberman an assistant coaching position when team officials meet next week in Las Vegas. Later in the day, the Hall of Famer – the assistant general manager of the Dallas Mavericks’ NBA Development League affiliate – said she will accept the job and already has begun tossing Kings gear into her luggage.
Hard to believe it has taken this long. Decades after the passage of Title IX. Decades after the NBA expanded to 30 teams. Decades after American women emerged as major players in international soccer and became the dominant force in global basketball.
For years, coaches and executives – Popovich and the Kings’ George Karl among them – have flirted with the idea of hiring women for basketball positions, yet the numbers continued to fit neatly into the palm of one hand. Hammon and Lieberman are the only women on NBA coaching staffs. Amanda Green, a former attorney with a prestigious New York law firm, was named basketball operations coordinator with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.
The flurry of developments these past few days at least hints at a trend, at the potential for movement in the sports job market. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians added Jen Welter to his NFL staff for training camp and preseason, the Memphis Grizzlies promoted video coordinator Nicki Gross to assistant coach with their D-League squad, and the Raiders announced that veteran sports broadcaster Beth Mowins will handle play-by-play duties during the preseason.
“I think it’s too early to know whether this will be sustained,” said University of Minnesota sports sociology professor Mary Jo Kane, an expert on Title IX and women’s athletic issues. “Women have not cracked the old boys clubhouse before this. But I am hopeful that we can look back at the summer of 2015 as the tipping point. The other thing that makes me optimistic is this: the women who are getting hired are not tokens, are not hired for reasons of political correctness. Pro sports is a zero sum game. These women wouldn’t be hired if the teams didn’t believe they could contribute.”
Kane praised Popovich and Arians. Once Lieberman’s hiring is official, Karl and Divac will join a very different – progressive and perhaps evolving – boys club. Karl, who has known and admired Lieberman for years, began considering her for an assistant’s position when he was hired in February. He invited her to work with his staff earlier this month at the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas, which allowed an introduction to Divac. The Kings’ top basketball executive came away impressed.
“Nancy was terrific,” Divac said Thursday. “I knew who she was but had never spent time with her. This will be a great opportunity. She’s got a great basketball mind, like George says, and she brings us a different dimension. Definitely I’m going to offer her a job.”
Lieberman’s qualifications are stitched into the fabric of women’s basketball. Her portfolio reads like a basketball road trip, taking her from A to Z. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was a flamboyant presence and standout at Old Dominion, with U.S. national and Olympic teams and several professional teams in numerous leagues, including the WNBA. The oldest player (39) to sign with the newly formed WNBA in 1997, she went on to coach the Detroit Shock for three seasons before Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson hired her to coach the organization’s D-League affiliate and promoted her to assistant general manager of the Texas Legends in 2010.
Interestingly, women’s sports is a tiny universe. Lieberman coached against Hammon in the WNBA, is friends with Dallas-based Welter and is a former broadcast partner of Mowins’. The confluence of events these past few days surely begs the question: Will they motivate other pro franchises to seriously consider women for non-business-related positions?
Especially when it comes to the progressive NBA, the list of female candidates is extensive. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler recently noted, Stanford coach Tara VanDeveer is an NBA fanatic and among women college coaches who might be enticed to coach men. Several WNBA players – past and present – would entertain offers to work at their sport’s highest level. Former Monarchs coach John Whisenant often cited Ticha Penicheiro and Kara Lawson when chatting about the possibility of women coaching men.
But the pressure is enormous. The scrutiny is intense, unrelenting. And the charismatic Lieberman, who is outspoken and no stranger to controversy, will have to adapt to a lesser role.
“It can’t just be right for me,” she said from her home in Dallas. “It has to be right for George, Vlade, the community. These guys know who I am, but they have never been in a foxhole with me. I’m the one who has all the proving to do, and I’m OK with that. I have to prove I’m worthy, that I can be a positive influence on the players, that I work well with the staff. But I’ve been around the game for 40 years. I have a lot of experience. Just to be part of this amazing group of men makes me real excited. And to help put a thumbprint on the history of the Kings?”
Lieberman believes she made a solid first impression not only on Divac, but also on DeMarcus Cousins. During a chance meeting in a hotel lobby in Las Vegas, the Kings All-Star center gave her a hug and asked if she planned to be around for the regular season.
“I said, ‘I hope so,’ ” Lieberman related, “and he said, ‘Good. I hope so, too.’ ”