In Detroit, players say they were vexed by DeForge's rapid ascent to the Shock's starting lineup. Unable to hook on to a WNBA team after the ABL, in which she'd played for one season, folded in 1998, DeForge had been out of basketball for a year when she ran into Lieberman, who was in Lincoln, Neb., to broadcast a February 2000 Kansas-Nebraska college game for ESPN. Three months later Lieberman invited DeForge to the Shock's preseason tryout camp, where she alone among more than 100 hopefuls earned an invitation to training camp. Midway through the season, with the Shock plagued by injuries, Lieberman moved De-Forge into the starting point guard spot. At the time, DeForge was averaging 3.0 points and 0.7 assists; she hadn't gotten off the bench in five of the Shock's 16 games.
"How does someone go from the 11th person on the team to a starter?" asks one Detroit veteran. "[DeForge] would have to call other people [for help] when teams pressed her because she couldn't get the ball upcourt." Other players wondered whether the Shock's top draft choice, point guard Tamicha Jackson, was being left on the injured reserve list so that Lieberman could protect DeForge's starting spot. DeForge started 10 games, averaging 6.7 points and 3.0 assists. Says Lieberman, "No one worked harder than Anna. If my star players and my high draft picks had worked that hard, we would have contended for the Eastern Conference title."
Finally, two players voiced concerns to Wilson, who says he asked Lieberman twice about the accusations, and twice she denied them. "It's very rare for a player to go to the team president, unless it is pretty serious in the minds of many of them," Wilson says. "You were getting pretty close to a mutinous state."
The flash point was the meeting in the Shock locker room. When it concluded, DeForge was still crying. After Lieberman left the locker room, two veterans walked over and gave DeForge hugs, attempting to console her. One of them explained to her why her teammates were upset. "I said to Anna, 'You know the accusation is out there, but you are almost as at fault as [Lieberman] is,' " says one player." 'In this type of environment, your teammates matter more than your relationship with the coach.' I was trying to tell her to back off a little bit."
Player-coach affairs become much more complicated if they're same-sex. Even in a league such as the WNBA, in which one team explicitly markets itself to the gay community, the issue is doubly sensitive. "If there's a heterosexual relationship between an athlete and coach, provided it's consensual and nonadulterous, is it a bad idea? Yes," says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "But because of homophobia in and around women's sports, if it's a lesbian relationship, the negative perception is exacerbated—it quietly moves from the arena of poor judgment to the arena of deviance and immorality."
Lieberman's promise that she would outlast every player on the Shock went unfulfilled. On Aug. 28, 2000, shortly after Detroit concluded a 14-18 season, Wilson told Lieberman she would not be offered a new contract. Wilson confirmed to SI that the "tense locker room" was a factor in the firing. "She sort of lost the team," he says. Lieberman acknowledges that the situation became untenable. "Tom did the right thing," she says. "If you lose most of the players, it's a tough place to be. It was time to go."
Both Lieberman and DeForge are out of the WNBA. On March 15, Lieberman filed for divorce from her husband of 13 years, Tim Cline, in Collin County, Texas. According to court documents, she and Cline had "ceased living together as husband and wife." Lieberman works as a commentator for ESPN and lives in Dallas, where in July she, with DeForge by her side, conducted a basketball camp for girls. Asked about documents indicating she and DeForge shared a residence in Dallas, Lieberman said, "I was always there for players," and that she often welcomed players into her home. "My home address," says DeForge, "is in Lincoln, Nebraska."
A year after their tumultuous season, Shock players look back at how quickly the team unraveled. "Once the rumor started, it spread like wildfire," says Holmes-Harris. "Players were upset and frustrated and thinking a lot about it. They saw Nancy and Anna together, and they got fed up.... The team fell apart."
While the risks involved when coaches date athletes who play for them are undeniable, not every romance torpedoes a team's morale and performance. In 1996 Danielle Garrett, who would become a member of the 1999 U.S. Women's World Cup team and the WUSA's Carolina Courage, married George Fotopoulos, her coach on the Tampa Bay club team Town 'N Country Heather. Garrett and Fotopoulos had met and begun dating in the summer of 1995 (she was 19; he was 26) when their team won the under-19 national club tide, and they would lead Town 'N Country to the under-20 championship the next year as husband and wife.
Danielle is one of four members of the celebrated 1999 World Cup champions to have married her former, current or future coach. In '89 midfielder Foudy, then 18, began dating Ian Sawyers, 27, while she was playing for the youth league Soccerettes and he was coaching another girls' team, the Herricanes, at the Mission Viejo ( Calif.) Soccer Club. When Foudy entered Stanford, Sawyers moved to the Bay Area, and he became the Cardinal's assistant women's coach during Foudy's sophomore season. They married in '95. (This season Sawyers coached the WUSA's Bay Area CyberRays, while Foudy played for the San Diego Spirit.) In '90 midfielder Michelle Akers, then 24, married Roby Stahl, 38, who two years later would coach her with the Swedish club Tyreso. They divorced in 1994. In '96 Chastain, then 27, married Jerry Smith, 35, her former coach at Santa Clara.