What's it like to play on an all-male basketball team with a female coach? Says Texas Legends captain Antonio Daniels, "Same thing as if a guy was a coach, you know what I mean? Except you just don't undress in the locker room at the same time. And she's big on love, and she's big on hugs, and all that kind of stuff."
The woman in question is Nancy Lieberman, whom The New Yorker's Ben McGrath calls "the first crossover coach with plausible aspirations to being taken seriously at the highest level." The Legends are minor-league, but Lieberman may have plans to move up in the world, and even if she doesn't, she's challenged some assumptions about women's leadership in sports. McGrath spoke to former NBA point guard Spud Webb, who "marvelled at how much attitudes had changed since his own playing days, when, he said, he and his teammates could never have imagined a female boss." Says Webb,
You see how organized she is. I mean, she's respected. You'll see a guy disagree here and there, and she'll tell him, ‘This is my philosophy. This is the way we want to do it.' And that's what a coach should do.
And indeed, Lieberman's players seem to look up to her in a way that belies the stereotype that men won't listen to a female leader, an idea used to explain — and sometimes explain away — the dearth of women in everything from filmmaking to Congress. That said, her story isn't one of perfect gender equality. She says, "I bet you it's been ninety to ten, men to women, calling to congratulate me. [...] Because women, we still have a little bit of, I think, that jealousy, or the pie's been so small in the past that we're petty in some cases." Given that McGrath can come up with just one other woman who has coached men's basketball, that pie is very small indeed. And then there's this exchange between Lieberman and one of her players, Justin Dentmon:
"Ain't no games today," Dentmon replied. "Just women's games."
"Did you say ‘just'?" she asked. "Did you use the word ‘just' women's games?"
"Yeah, just women's games," he said, cracking a smile.
Dentmon may be kidding, but the attitude is real, and it's a sad truth that a single female coach won't change women's general second-class status in the world of sports. It's also true that women working in men's athletics won't necessarily help raise the profile of women's teams. All that said, Lieberman's fame may convince some men that they can take shooting advice from a lady, which would be a good thing. And maybe her story will convince more women to enter coaching — let's hope she can share her pie.
Queen Of The D-League [New Yorker]