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"Nancy's got a lot of David Thompson in her," says Jim Oshust, the director of the Greensboro Coliseum, the arena in which Thompson and Lieberman won their respective college championships five years apart. "She's flashy and spectacular and you remember all that, but at heart she is a total book player. She gives you fundamentals right out of the instruction guide."
When Lieberman came off the streets of Far Rockaway, which is in New York's borough of Queens, she was labeled just another playground rat. But she did the one thing girls always were reluctant to do before her. She went to the basket. Lieberman drove the ball, penetrated, created things and scrapped like a wildcat. Now she has learned finesse and developed more of an outside shot, and during five full summers abroad—and nearly 100 games in 12 foreign countries, beating Jane Fonda's world record—she has thrived. "Lady Magic," everyone calls her. Ironically, Nancy Lieberman can hardly be called a lady basketball player anymore. She is a basketball player, period.
"It's what I've strived for all my life," she says. "It's a great compliment to hear that I do things like a guy. But the degree is the thing. I know I can't play in the NBA. Maybe I couldn't make the ODU men's team. That doesn't matter. Look, we've worked hard to separate the two games. If people are looking for slam dunks and 30-foot jumpers, they'll be disappointed in the women. The men are stronger and faster; they can rely on natural ability. But we use finesse; we run patterns. We depend on the fundamentals. The women's game is incredible in its own right. And exciting. We scored more than 100 points in Madison Square Garden last year and won by 53. You think the fans were sitting on their hands? They were up, screaming. They loved us."
If the AIAW championship won in the Carolina pines was wonderful, the January night in New York when Lieberman discarded her playmaker's role to score 33 points in 28 minutes as ODU beat Queens 106-53 must have been paradise. But could anyone actually be surprised at the way Nancy hustled and fought and scowled and chomped that gum, behaving, as she put it, like "Mr. Tough Guy"? After all, as a Big Apple dumpling, she had been planning this for a while. Like, maybe, since when she was eight. And if the Lieb had learned anything in her short, confused and sometimes unhappy life, it was how to be a tough guy.
Just past the front hallway in Nancy Lieberman's house on Bayswater Avenue in bar Rockaway is an iron railing guarding a stairway to the basement. When Jerome Lieberman, a onetime real-estate broker and builder, designed the house, he and his wife, Renee, agreed to finish off the stairs and the basement so they could have a nice glowing room down there. It would be the center of activity, a den, a playroom, the TV room, the family room. Now the stairs are floored off and a carpet covers the floor. There never has been a den or a glow or a family room. There has not been much of a family either. Just as the Liebermans were about to move from Brooklyn, where they lived when Nancy was a baby, marital difficulties came to a head. Things got very ugly. Things got sad. Renee, with the two small children, Cliff and Nancy, went ahead with the move anyway. Jerome came along temporarily, but it wasn't too much later that he left the house on Bayswater Avenue for good.
Surely the absence of a full-time father has negative effects on any childhood; in Nancy's case, her father's leave-taking seemed shattering. She recalls her father telephoning and telling her he would be over to take her out for the day. She would sit by the window waiting. Occasionally he would fail to appear. She remembers that if she started to cry, her mother would say, "Don't cry over your father." Nancy remembers it was rough.
While Cliff, an asthmatic, immersed himself in music and his studies, Nancy turned to sports. "Maybe it was for attention, my father's attention," she says now. "I don't know. I was terribly bitter for a long time, but after a while I never worried about things like that. The family always said I was so cold anyway. After that, what did they expect? The divorce stopped bothering me. I just went and played ball."
First it was football, about which Renee Lieberman says, "I would look out in the yard and see a pile of helmets and bodies but no Nancy. Then I realized my daughter was under all that. I stopped football real quick." Then came baseball—until Nancy was prohibited from playing her first Public School Athletic League game because she was a girl. And so to basketball. To the Hartman YMHA in Far Rockaway against the boys. Stayin' alive. To Beach 19th Street down by the ocean against more boys. Stayin' alive. To night basketball on the neighborhood playgrounds—"radar ball," she calls it because there was only one faraway streetlight and you couldn't see the ball go in the basket; you had to hear it. Stayin' alive yet again.
Later, as a junior in high school, Lieberman would get on the subway and ride to Harlem to play on an AAU team coached by an enormous, jolly social worker named LaVozier LaMar. LaMar calls himself "a former high school teammate, at Boys High School in Brooklyn, of the great All-American, Sihugo Green of Duquesne University." The team was called the New York Chuckles. The Chuckles called the new white girl "Fire."
"Nancy was the queen of Harlem," says LaMar. "She would roar down the court left, right, turning, spinning, flying in the air. You know, getting it all done. Once the Chuckles scrimmaged some high school guys, and the guys were yelling 'face job, face job' at each other every time she did something. Everybody got to know the Fire right away, so nobody messed with her on the streets. I can't even remember everywhere she played up there. I'd have to look on the trophies."