Women's Basketball Legends: Nancy 'Lady Magic' Lieberman, Babe Didrikson

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By Mark R. Gould

As we head towards the conclusion of the 2012 college basketball season, we are starting to see more women’s game on television: Connecticut, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Baylor can often be viewed on ESPN. There are many fans of the women’s game today. Connecticut often sells out its 10,000 seat arena. So does the University of Tennessee.

Women's basketball began in the winter of 1892 at Smith College. Inspired by the sport's inventor, James Naismith, Senda Berenson, an instructor at Smith, taught basketball to her students, hoping the activity would improve their physical health. Basketball's early adherents were affiliated with YMCAs and colleges throughout the United States, and the game quickly spread throughout the country.

Rules for the women’s game included a court divided into three areas and nine players per team. Three players were assigned to each area (guard, center, forward) and could not cross the line into another area. The ball was moved from section to section by passing or dribbling. Players were limited to three dribbles and could hold the ball for three seconds. No snatching or batting the ball away from a player was allowed. A center jump was required after each score.

Despite its long and rich history, many fans of today’s women’s game do not know some of the great early practitioners. One of the first was Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson, who was rated the tenth greatest athlete of all-time on ESPN’s top one hundred list. Yep, that list includes Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordon.

Babe ZahariasAccording to ESPN. com., “The first to prove a girl could be a stud athlete, Babe Didrikson (pictured at left) began as a muscular phenom who mastered many sports and ended as a brilliant golfer. An exuberant tomboy whose life was athletics, she was accomplished in just about every sport - basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. When asked if there was anything she didn't play, she said, "Yeah, dolls."

"As a teenager she knew her life's ambition. "My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived," she said."

The Associated Press voted her the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century. The wire service also voted her Female Athlete of the Year six times - once for her track dominance and five times for her golfing prowess. We will tell you more about her in part two of this article.

The modern era of women’s basketball game really picked up steam when Nancy Lieberman appeared on the scene. Lieberman (b. 1958) was nicknamed “Lady Magic” and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

While attending Far Rockaway High School in Queens, New York, she established herself as one of the top women's basketball players in the country by earning one of only 12 slots on the USA's National Team. In 1975, Lieberman was named to the USA Team designated to play in the World Championships and Pan American Games, where she brought home a gold medal.

Lieberman's mother was not supportive of her daughter's passion for hoops. Once, when Lieberman was dribbling indoors because it was cold outside, her mother demanded she stop because of the noise. When she did not, her mother punctured the basketball with a screwdriver. Lieberman found another ball and continued, but her mother punctured that one as well. This continued until five balls were ruined. Nancy then decided she had better go outside before she ran out of basketballs.

Lieberman played on the USA team on the 1976 Olympics in Montreal in the first-ever Women's Olympic Basketball Team competition. Shortly after turning 18, Lieberman became the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to win a medal as the United States captured the silver.

From 1976 to 1980, Lieberman attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She led her team (pictured at left) to two consecutive AIAW National Championships (1979, 1980) and one NWIT (Women's National Invitation Tournament) Championship in 1978. She was the first two-time winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy, a national "player of the year" award in college women's basketball, and was selected as the Broderick Award winner for basketball as the top women's player in America. Lieberman also won three consecutive Kodak All-America awards.

In the 1980s, she dropped out of college to embark on a professional career in basketball. She played for several basketball teams and leagues, including the Dallas Diamonds of the Women's Pro Basketball League (WBL), a men's league called the United States Basketball League (USBL) and also with the Washington Generals, who served as the regular opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Lieberman's WBL career is featured in the book "Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women's Professional Basketball League, 1978–1981," by Karra Porter (University of Nebraska Press).

In the newly-formed WNBA's inaugural year in 1997, Lieberman played for the Phoenix Mercury. At the age of 39, she was the WNBA's oldest player in history.

In November 2009, Nancy Lieberman became the coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA Development League, an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, emerging as the first woman to coach a professional men's basketball team. Lieberman currently lives in Dallas, Texas,  where she coaches the Legends' team and runs a summer basketball camp for boys and girls.

 

Visit you local library for these resources:

Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder of Women’s Basketball
by Ralph Melnick, (2007).

Lady Magic: The Autobiography of Nancy Lieberman-Cline by Nancy Lieberman-Cline, (1992).

Shattering the Glass The Remarkable History of Women's Basketball
by Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford, (2005).

 

Article illustration: Nancy Lieberman playing for the Detroit Shock.

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