Basketball Legend Nancy Lieberman Isn't Afraid Of Breaking New Ground — Even In ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue
If you read about the history of women in basketball, you're going to read a lot about Nancy Lieberman. And a lot of what you read will involve the word "first": after a childhood in New York City playing pickup basketball, an adolescence spent racking up medals at the Olympics and Pan American Games, and a distinguished college career playing at Old Dominion University, Lieberman became the first woman to play on a men's professional basketball team, United States Basketball League team the Springfield Fame, in 1986. She's the first woman to have her own autographed signature edition basketball from Spaulding. And in 1997, the inaugural year of the WNBA, Lieberman picked up another first — she was not only involved in the WNBA's first season, but at 38, she was its oldest player (in 2008, at 50, Lieberman re-joined the WNBA, playing for the Detroit Shock and again becoming the oldest player in the history of the league). Lieberman then went on to become the first woman to coach a men's professional basketball team in 2009, when she began coaching the Texas Legends, the developmental league affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks.
Today, Lieberman — nicknamed "Lady Magic" because her skills on the court equaled those of NBA legend Magic Johnson — has worked as a commentator, coaches the Big3 league men's basketball team Power and continues to push new ground, through her experience as the second-oldest person to ever appear in ESPN the Magazine's The Body Issue.
But in Lieberman's eyes, it's not about consciously being a pioneer — it's just about being true to herself. "I don't subscribe to what other people think I should be," she tells Bustle. "You don't get to tell me who I am, and that's not arrogant — it's what I believe down in my core. You can tell me that I can't coach in the NBA, or can't play in the WNBA at 39 or 50. You can cut me if you want, but I am in control of my energy and my effort and what I do."
Maybe two or three years ago, I spoke to my agent, and said, "If there's an opportunity to appear in ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, I think I can do this." I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to use my appearance to help people know that everything is possible, that it's important to take care of yourself and to be motivated to do that for your own physical health, mental health and self esteem. If we don't take care of us, who is going to?
I was asked to appear in this year's Body Issue in July 2018. I was at NBA Summer League and my son, T.J., was playing. He met me for dinner and I go, "Hey T.J., I could really use your support." He goes, "Yeah, what can I do, Mom?" I go, "ESPN, they've asked me to be in The Body Issue," and he goes, "What?" He goes, "Mom." I said, "T.J., if I do this, I'm really going to need your support because I want to inspire, and it's going to take a lot of hard work..." He said, "Yes, Mother."
The shoot was one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever done in my life, as I'm pretty private for a public person. I talked to some other athletes who had [appeared in previous Body Issues] and thought, if I'm going to do this for the next six, seven hours, or however long it takes to complete the shoot, then I just had to mentally just get myself to a place. So I decided that I was going to go through hair and makeup naked, instead of wearing the robe.
Then I walked through the door and there's so many people there. I thought, "Oh my gosh, these people are seeing me naked."
Posing wasn't the most comfortable thing. There are gymnasts who can bend their bodies like pretzels, and that's not me. I wasn't like that at 22, I'm not like that now. This is not comfortable for me at 61. But whatever you want me to do, I'll do to the best of my ability.
If you think you can't, you're almost assured you won't. If you think you can, there's a chance that you will.
A woman came out with a Swiffer, she just came out of nowhere, and started dusting on the floor between my legs as I was standing, posed. I was like, "What are you doing?" She's like, "There's dust." "Yours or mine?" I'm like, "Were you on the curling team?"
I have to compliment everybody at ESPN — the producers, the directors, the camera people, the people helping. Everybody is so uber professional, because they know that for some, it's not the most comfortable thing. You know that they're going to do it first-class. You know that it's going to be tasteful and artistic, and I wanted to be a part of something like that, for the said reasons that I shared.
The morning the Body Issue came out, T.J. calls me and says, "Well, how great is it for me to wake up this morning and see my mom naked," because I'm just his mother to him, so it's probably an "ew" situation. And I said, "Well, yup. It's out." He goes, "Well, yep. It's out." And I was like, "Well, better for Mom to send you the pictures than a stranger." He goes, "That's the positive."
When I was at the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, I was sitting with Magic Johnson — he's Magic, I'm Lady Magic — and he goes, "You excited about the WNBA?" And I was like, "Yeah." He goes, "Are you going to play?," and I'm like, "I don't know. I mean, I'm 39 years old." He says, "Nancy Lieberman, I've never heard you say 'I can't.'" I go home and ask T.J., who was two and a half at the time, "T.J., what does your mom do for a living?" "You're my mommy." "OK, go in there and tell your father that your mommy is coming out of retirement to play in the WNBA."
I started training and it gave me something to fight for and to do. I was really proud because so many people were like, "You're 39 years old." Yes, I am. All I need is an opportunity. If I can't make it, I can't make it, but give me an opportunity.
If you think you can't, you're almost assured you won't. If you think you can, there's a chance that you will and failure is noble. It means you tried and I subscribe to trying because I don't ever want to be part of the 'should have, could have, would have' club.
I think the WNBA, in 23 years of existence, is an amazing place. The players are so talented, they just care and they play so hard. The NBA has been around almost 75 years and the WNBA has only been around 23 years...if you look at it that way, we're so far ahead of where they were, 23 years into the NBA's existence. We have to keep pushing for the day all women are earning 100% of every dollar men do, the day women of color are making 100% of the dollar, not 57 to 68% of the dollar. That's not equality. I say all the time, equality and inclusion are different. Equality is you're asking me to go to the party, inclusion is you want to dance with me. And I want you to dance with me. We need to get to that point where women, are making what men are making. Until we can get there, there's work to do.
Know the power you don't know you have. You have the power to be successful, you have the power to try. Do not get deterred by negative people. When people say you can't do anything, it's because they can't and they're projecting, trying to throw their mediocrity on your life. You have to be bold, you have to be strong, you don't have to be rude, but you can be focused on your goals and your aspirations. There's nothing wrong with being a successful woman.
As told to Gabrielle Moss. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.