Stanley, twice an All-America point guard at Immaculata when the Mighty Macs were winning championships, had worked hard after graduation to make the 1976 Olympic team, but at 5'6" she was beaten out on the squad by a high school girl quicker, stronger and four inches taller. The girl was Nancy Lieberman.
"I knew ODU was a gold mine," says Stanley. "I also knew all the stories about Nancy. I heard she might quit. I heard she might transfer. I heard she was an impossible brat. I came right out and told her the door was open, that I didn't want any unhappy players. But Nancy wasn't a brat. I related to her image. I remember what it was like to be a scrappy kid and be told you can't do this or that. I grew up shoveling snow off the court at home to play this game, and I bet my life she did that, too. Nancy has such competitiveness, desire, confidence, an incredible understanding of the game. You can't teach that."
Actually, from the beginning, Stanley had more problems with Nissen than with Lieberman. Inge, "The Great Dane," a worldly 24-year-old whose chain-smoking and appreciation of a cocktail are not exactly prescribed training techniques ("If I could smoke at timeouts, I'd light up fast," she says), was barely nine months younger than the new coach. Nissen and the other players questioned Stanley's maturity and motivational capabilities.
With the team's internal tensions by no means alleviated, ODU began the second year in the reign of Lady Magic. Because the Lady Monarchs did not have many shooters and because they could not catch Lieberman's passes—the team had averaged more than 25 turnovers the year before—Stanley switched Nancy to forward. This is Lieberman's favorite position anyway, possibly because in addition to everything else, she is the finest rebounder in college. Though Lieberman again averaged 20 points and the team had a 30-4 record, there were two big disappointments. Early in the season the team blew an 18-point lead to Queens in New York and lost 70-67, after which Stanley branded her players "chokers." Then in March, with AIAW tournament advancement on the line, ODU fell to N.C. State in the Region II semifinals, 59-57. Following that defeat, the Lady Monarchs recovered to win the National Women's Invitational Tournament in Amarillo, Texas, which served as a springboard to last year's championship season.
Whether this is sexist-based or not, much of ODU's success has been credited to a man, Assistant Coach Jerry Busone, whom Stanley brought in from a parochial high school in Troy, N.Y. Busone is responsible for working with the centers and for recruiting. In 1978-79 the improvement of Nissen—"Inge was good," says Lieberman. "Now, she's great, the best"—coupled with the addition of the Canadian Connection, Jan Trombly and Chris Critelli, as well as star rookie Rhonda Rompola, lifted Old Dominion to a level far beyond the competition.
Trombly and Rompola were the shooters ODU needed to enable Lieberman to go back to the point. Playmaker Critelli, basketball's vagabond waif who had to sit out last year because the Canadian government was giving her scholarship money (ODU was her third school in four years), toughened up Lieberman in practice. Nissen pumped up her point total to over 2,000. Most significant, the addition of so many good players put Lieberman's talents in perspective, took pressure off her and balanced the team. Stanley left the players pretty much alone—"She doesn't bother us; that's the way we want it," one says—and the Lady Monarchs defeated all comers, except one, by an average margin of 27.1 points. The only loss, a 73-49 embarrassment at South Carolina, came after a two-day bus trip through a snowstorm. Nissen did not play because of an ankle injury. Lieberman was thrown out for fighting with five minutes left in the game. "I never threw a punch," she says. "I think Rhonda got one in, though." The South Carolina coach was Pam Parsons.
This year, with four starters returning (Trombly is out for the season with a knee injury), with Critelli eligible, with three outstanding freshmen including 6'8" Anne Donovan, the most highly recruited prep player since Lieberman, the Lady Monarchs have put together what is possibly the finest women's college team in history.
"We may be," says Busone, who is extraordinarily candid about his sensitive position. "Eventually I want to coach on the men's level. My fantasy is to be the first coach involved with national championship teams of both sexes. But in two years here I've found that the women are mentally tougher than the men. At first I was, bluntly, a bastard with them—screaming and cursing. But there is something about a woman: she doesn't need to be kicked in the rear to get going. Our girls are tough, the toughest." He should know. At the moment ODU won its national championship last March, Busone was stunned to glance around and notice that the only person crying was himself.
The AIAW title seems to have exorcised whatever demons Lieberman and Nissen had forged between them in a three-year rivalry. On a trip to France in 1976 the two had met and played some pickup games together at the Clermont University Club in Clermont-Ferrand, for whom Nissen was the star. The sluggo American jock persuaded Nissen, three years her senior, to come to America and play college ball.
Although they are vastly dissimilar in style, temperament and cultural background, they have never publicly clashed; nevertheless, this odd couple has been on an emotional roller-coaster. Events such as Nissen beating Lieberman to the landmark 1,000 points and Lieberman winning the Wade Trophy (women's basketball's Heisman) by a landslide doubtless stirred up jealousies. "I'm tired of that bitch driving the lane, winking at me, then throwing the ball elsewhere," Inge once told a reporter. When the subject is broached, Lieberman merely points out that neither woman is a dummy, both want to win, and if anybody cared to check, they would find that 90% of Lieberman assists have wound up as Nissen baskets.