Let the history of basketball, no, the history of civilization, record that last Monday night, with 1:06 left in the first half of a New York Pro Summer League game between the Gailyn Packers and Ka-Har-Lyn at Xavier High School in Manhattan, 6'4" Al Skinner, late of the Philadelphia 76ers, fouled 5'10" Nancy Lieberman, formerly of the Old Dominion Lady Monarchs, because she had him beat to the inside. Lieberman went to the line and sank a pair. Two small free throws for woman, two giant free throws for womankind.
Granted the New York Pro Summer League isn't the NBA. But it isn't the 10 a.m. pickup game at the Y either. Notable pros such as Nate Archibald, Ray Williams, Mitch Kupchak, Lloyd Free and Marvin Barnes drop by to mix it up with the likes of old smoothies Harthorne Nathaniel Wingo and Dean Meminger, as well as borderline performers such as Tony Price, late of Penn, and Edgar Jones, formerly of Nevada-Reno. Some of the players are merely staying in shape, some are trying to set themselves up for one last shot at the big time, and others are auditioning for a spot on an overseas team. Their common denominators are that they each receive the standard salary of two cold sodas after every game and they are all male.
So what's a nice girl like Lieberman doing in a league like this? The original scenario had her becoming America's sweetheart at the end of this month as she led the U.S. women's basketball team to an Olympic gold medal. The boycott ruined that. Plan B began to evolve last month when Paul Williamson, a principal in a Manhattan real estate firm and one of the founders of the fledgling league, suggested to Lieberman's agent, Matt Merola (who numbers among his clients Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver), that she join the league to improve her skills and to keep in shape during the off-season.
In her first game, Lieberman played about eight minutes for the Bronx Celtics, who are not to be confused with the Boston ones. "Me and my midgets," is what Coach Floyd Layne calls them. Layne, another of the league's founders and the coach at CCNY, agreed to take Lieberman after a two-hour tryout. She was hesitant to shoot in her first game and didn't score, but she did have two assists and four rebounds. She was a little more comfortable in her second outing, scoring seven points with five assists. She even in-your-faced Geoff Huston, who played with the Knicks last year and is now the property of the expansion Dallas Mavericks. "She's a lot better than some of the guys in the NBA," said Huston, being a bit hyperbolic. Still, Archibald says, "She's not a woman out there, she's a player."
Unfortunately, Lieberman wasn't getting much playing time on a team that already had guards Archibald, Free and Earl Monroe on its roster, so after her second game she was traded—given, actually—to the Gailyn Packers, who needed backcourt help. It was in her first appearance with them last week that she showed she really belonged. She started the game, and within moments she was trying to stop 6'8" Kevin Hemans from driving to the basket. Soon thereafter she was called for an offensive foul, for hooking her left elbow into 6'5" George Johnson's chest. Unlike Ann Meyers, who had an NBA try-out last fall, Lieberman is a physical player, which annoyed Johnson, who played for C.W. Post. "She was hand-checking me the whole game," he says. "I finally had to shove her away, and I didn't like doing that."
After her foul, Lieberman promptly picked up a loose rebound and led a fast break the length of the floor, feeding Kelvin Hicks, a sixth-round draft pick of the Knicks out of New York Tech, for the basket. She also missed three shots, but she made up for her inaccuracy by drawing a non-shooting foul from Johnson and again getting the ball in to Hicks. Lieberman played the entire 10 minutes of the first quarter before Coach Teddy Jones sat her down. With two minutes left in the half, she reentered the game, and that's when she was fouled by Skinner. Her free throws helped the Packers to a 43-40 halftime lead.
Lieberman started the third quarter, and almost immediately beat Skinner on a nice drive that began at half court and ended with a little underhanded layup. The next four points came off a pair of Lieberman-to-Hicks passes, and when she came out to a unisex ovation in the third quarter, Gailyn led 58-52. She didn't come back in again until, with three minutes to play, the Packers were behind 87-86. This time, obviously pressing, she missed three shots as Gailyn lost 98-95. Lieberman finished with four points, five assists and three rebounds.
"She was a pleasure," said teammate George Cooper, who in the winter performs for the minor league Allentown Jets. "She put one move on Skinner, whew!"
"She plays with a lot of confidence," said Skinner. "She's a real nice passer, and she knows the basics. There are a lot of guys in training camps who don't play that well. But you have to remember, we were being a little courteous out there. Still, if she can psych us out like that, hey, that's O.K."
"This is going to help me become better," says Lieberman, who was the No. 1 choice in May's Women's Professional Basketball League draft. "All through junior high and high school I played against guys, and when I got to Old Dominion I was that much better than the other freshmen. But in college I played 80% of the time against women, and the gap between my ability and everyone else's seemed to narrow."
In the meantime, she's a welcome member of the Packers. "She's our best passer," says Jones. "She's thinking pass first, shoot second, and those kind of guys [smile] are hard to find. I'm happy to have her."
Jones won't have her around that often, though. Despite the Olympic boycott, Lieberman has a busy summer planned. She is still living in Virginia, so she commutes to New York, both to play and to help Archibald do the commentary on ESPN telecasts of summer basketball. She's working on an instructional book, and last week she was coaching at a camp near Boston run by, of all people, the NFL Players Association. Lieberman is also a newly signed member of the Spalding—or "Spaldeen," as she says, lapsing into her Queens accent—advisory staff. She'll have her own autographed ball out soon, which is another first for a woman.
Merola is busy hammering out a contract with the Dallas Diamonds, the WBL team that picked Lieberman. He is asking for $100,000 for next season. The Diamonds are saying, sure, deferred over 30 or 40 years. "Somebody asked me if I thought $100,000 wasn't a lot of money," says Lieberman. "I don't want to seem greedy, but every other star in women's sports is making $400,000. I'm not saying I can do what Nancy Lopez or Tracy Austin does, but then Tracy doesn't have to hit backhands with an elbow in her face, either."
So until the WBL season starts, she remains one of the boys, except in one respect. Says her backcourt partner on the Packers, Carl Winfree, "After a good play, I pat her on the back. Usually, you tap a guy on the butt, but with Nancy, I have to remember not to go below the waist."