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Back in Far Rockaway, Lieberman would play all day, stay a little longer; play all evening, get a little stronger. She followed the Knicks, learning to shoot lefty by watching Willis Reed and to act cocky and cool at the same time in the manner of Clyde, No. 10 on your program, Walt Frazier.
"Girls ain't——" a playground guy once said to her. Lieberman challenged him to one-on-one. Five minutes later—11-4 Lieberman—the loser had seen enough. "It's a setup," he said. "I'm out of here."
"That was the time of my life," Nancy says. "The guys were always bigger and rougher, so I had to be mean and hard-nosed. I had to learn to maneuver around that pole in the schoolyard. I had to learn to take elbows and give them back. When I got better, I'd get chosen over the boys for five-on-five. When they lipped off about that, I gave them lip right back. I got in a lot of fistfights that way. I had to show them I could play and get respect, so they didn't ease up on me. It took me about two times playing against new guys before they realized I could handle myself. I learned all aspects of the game. When basketball season ended each year, my life ended too."
Nancy's mother was not notably supportive. Renee Lieberman was from a show business family; her parents, Lou and Eva Saks, played vaudeville. Renee grew up with Beverly Sills. She once studied opera herself under Dorothy Edwards. Renee says Dorothy Edwards was the sister of Gus Edwards. Gus Edwards wrote By the Light of the Silvery Moon.
Renee Lieberman says her parents were very special people who helped raise her children. She says they were good-doers. She says they were the kind of people who "if you broke down in Jersey in the rain, they'd fix five sandwiches and come bring the jumper cables."
Of Nancy Lieberman, Renee says, "She was so pretty, gosh. People would call to me, 'Hey, get her out of the tree.' I'd get her dolls, she'd want balls. My kid and sports, you wouldn't believe. I yelled. I screamed, 'I'll murder you. Stop it already. Sports aren't for girls. Why don't you be a secretary? A nurse? Put on a dress?' Nothing worked. She thought it was a challenge having everybody against her. She'd fight the world if she had to."
One day Renee punctured her daughter's basketball with a screwdriver. "She just went out and got more balls," Renee says. Following another one of Renee's harangues, Nancy put her hands on her hips and said, "Someday I'm going to make history."
Nobody was going to bring Nancy Lieberman any jumper cables.
Things became more difficult in the house on Bayswater. Cliff and Nancy had nothing in common; he was off studying a lot. A family acquaintance once said of the atmosphere, "It was All in the Family in drag." Nancy quit piano lessons. Nancy quit Hebrew school; she was never Bas-Mitzvahed. "I was no [Sandy] Koufax," Nancy says. "I'd kill myself before I'd stop playing ball on Saturday."
Nancy practiced jumping indoors and got fingerprints on the ceiling. Nancy brought home stray cats and dogs, which her mother threw back out the door. Nancy got an alligator in the mail. Nancy dribbled to keep her mother awake. Renee punished Nancy. Nancy said, "Don't worry, Ma. You're the one who's crazy."