The Slatest

How Sacramento’s New Trailblazing Assistant Coach Nancy Lieberman Thinks About Coaching Men in the NBA

Nancy Lieberman spins a ball on her finger backstage at the Billies, presented by the Women’s Sports Foundation, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 11, 2007, in Beverly Hills, California.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Billies

Less than two weeks after Becky Hammon led the San Antonio Spurs to victory as the first ever female head coach in the NBA Summer League and only a few days after Jen Welter became the first woman to hold any coaching position in the NFL, Nancy Lieberman accepted an assistant coaching job with the Sacramento Kings.

On early Friday morning, she tweeted, “Honored to be a Sacramento King” after reports that she was going to be offered the job. A formal announcement is expected next week. Lieberman will become only the second woman to ever coach in the NBA, following Hammon’s appointment to the Spurs staff in 2014.

The pioneering role is not new to Lieberman. Throughout her career she has led the way for women coaching men’s sports. After playing in the Women’s Professional Basketball League and later briefly in the WNBA, Lieberman, nicknamed “Lady Magic,” made history in 2009 when she took on a position with the D-League Texas Legends to become the first professional female head coach of a men’s sport in the United States. She has also coached the Kings in the Summer League and served as an assistant general manager for the Legends.

“We didn’t have a roadmap,” Lieberman said in an interview with Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen earlier this week before her new job was revealed. “Becky has a little bit of a roadmap … she can say, ‘OK, this has been done or somebody has at least been in my shoes.’ ”

While the number of female professional sports coaches is still very low, the NBA has shown a more consistent commitment to gender diversity than other men’s professional sports leagues. Although the NFL made a historic gesture Tuesday when the Arizona Cardinals hired Welter, the league still lags far behind the NBA. Welter’s official position is training camp/preseason intern, whereas Hammon has been the center of recent speculation about whether she could become the NBA’s first female head coach. Last year Slate’s Amanda Hess explained that the differences between the NBA and other sports are in part a result of the focus on the development of women’s basketball compared with football and baseball.

Despite these recent breakthrough appointments, men have even started to dominate coaching staffs in the WNBA while maintaining a stranglehold on jobs in the men’s game. At the collegiate level, as of 2013, women only held 38.7 percent of the coaching jobs in Division 1 for all women’s sports.

“If you are a male coaching college basketball, if you get fired, you can then go to another college team, you can go to women’s college, you can go to women’s high school, and you can go to men’s high school,” she said. “If you are a women’s head coach and you get fired and you don’t get hired in the NCAA, you can go to high school and that’s it.”

While Lieberman praised her male mentors, she emphasized that she wished there were more opportunities for women in the women’s game. She also expressed hopefulness that opportunities in the men’s game were also on the way.

“Everything in life is about opportunity,” she said. “Somebody gave [Spurs] Coach [Gregg] Popovich an opportunity 18, 19, 20 years ago to be able to coach in the NBA as an assistant. … What the Spurs organization did was give this opportunity to [Hammon], and then it was her job to take it to the level of respect and she’s done it like a champ.”

Lieberman says that she and Hammon have played important roles on men’s basketball teams that male coaches haven’t necessarily been able to fill.

“We have mind coaches, we have strength coaches, conditioning coaches, we have everybody on [an NBA staff], and if you can have a Becky Hammon or a Nancy Lieberman, or somebody that they respect, and they reach out to, then that is going to be really important in the mix,” Lieberman said. “They know that we know our stuff because we really work hard at it. We don’t ever take it for granted.”

She added, “I do know that they will come to me and share some things that are on their hearts, that they maybe wouldn’t go to a male coach because maybe they don’t want to show a weakness.”

In an article in Time in 2014 following Hammon’s recruitment to the Spurs coaching staff, Lieberman wrote, “I look forward to getting an opportunity to do what I love, which is teach and coach at the NBA level one day. I will thank Becky Hammon for the door that she has opened with her relationship with the Spurs and Coach Popovich.”