As one of the more basic life processes, growing up has gotten a lot of ink. For those representatives of the fairer sex especially, Growing Up can be a harrowing exercise, unless one is Brooke Shields, who accomplished it in the wink of an eyelash, or Margaret Trudeau, who never did get around to it. More common are females against whom the cards seem to be stacked from the beginning. Consider Nancy Lieberman. She is Jewish. She is the product of a broken home. She is a basketball player. Given that Nancy Lieberman is a woman, isn't that at least four strikes already? A Jewish...woman...basketball player from a disrupted family?
Playground dude No. 1: "Don't be jivin' with me."
Playground dude No. 2: "I ain't. This chick can dance."
So it was that Nancy Lieberman, a little girl with a little curl right in the middle of her lip, came to be raw and loud and ornery, came to hunger for attention and a way to prove herself and finally came to the basketball court and to dancin' on all those heads that appeared in her line of fire. Boys' heads in particular. Growing Up? Nancy Lieberman made a career out of Growing Up.
Now, at 21, that career is over. From lollipops to lipstick, jeans to jasmine, she has changed. She has turned anger and defensiveness into diplomacy and a fine sense of PR. The insolent, uncontrollable and quintessential New York street urchin has become an articulate spokeswoman for her sport and a favorite role model for the young girls of the Virginia Tidewater. Nancy Lieberman has grown all the way up.
In 1973, as a sophomore at Far Rockaway High School on Long Island, Nancy left the back alleys and the beach courts to the boys and started playing with the girls for the first time. Playing women's basketball. Barely six years later, as she begins her senior season at Norfolk's Old Dominion University, Nancy is women's basketball—the pioneer, the leader, the superstar, the finest all-round player of her game in the land. In an era when any one NBA great seems as rich or as lazy or as legendary as any other NBA great, in a year when fate has supplied the men's college game with the most evenly matched peer group in the last decade, a case can be made for Nancy Lieberman as the most dominant player in basketball. At the women's level there is nobody close. "A comparison?" says Jerry Busone, the assistant coach at Old Dominion. "In our game, Nancy Lieberman is the electric car."
This is not to say that the redheaded 5'10", 146-pound Lieberman is the most valuable player in the distaff ranks, or even the most valued on her own team, the defending AIAW champion Lady Monarchs. In 6'5" Inge Nissen they possess the tall, imposing center necessary for success at any level. Indeed, given a choice in the initial construction of a team, most coaches might choose the willowy Nissen over Lieberman. But in the finals of the AIAW tournament in Greensboro, N.C. last March, as Nissen and Louisiana Tech's 6'5" Elinor Griffin battled each other down low, "the Lieb" grabbed the game—not to mention the championship—by the throat and proved why she is the best.
Rallying ODU from a 32-27 halftime deficit, Lieberman ran and shot. She passed and rebounded. She pressed and stole the ball. Summoning all the faculties with which she had worked so hard, at the precise moment she had dreamed of for so long, Lieberman simply took control of the game. She finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and six steals as ODU won 75-65 to end the season with a 35-1 record and claim the championship everyone had anticipated since Lieberman enrolled three years before.
Long after the AIAWs were over, the picture that remained in everyone's memory was not so much Lieberman's statistical line as her commanding presence. She had always had an exquisite sense of timing and a flair for the dramatic. Now her analytical interpretation of the proceedings and how to cope came to the fore. The Old Dominion defensive press had won the championship, all right. But how?
"The Tech Guard [Mary Nell Kendrick] beat me like a drum in the first half," Nancy told the press. "In studying the way she dribbled, I noticed that she had a tendency to leave the ball behind her hip on her crossover dribble to the left. So I was able to slip behind her for a couple of steals and to force her to turn her head to see where she had left the ball.... I think I intimidated her. She became a bit hesitant, leery...and she lost some of her poise."