Lieberman shoots for Olympic spot, tries to fend off younger court talent

April 05, 1992|By Elliott Almond | Elliott Almond,Los Angeles Times

Nancy Lieberman's indoctrination into international basketball went something like this:

During a qualifying tournament in Hamilton, Ontario, before the 1976 Summer Games, a sharpshooting Bulgarian guard was unstoppable, and the U.S. women were on the verge of losing an Olympic berth.

In desperation, coach Billie Moore sent Lieberman into the game with instructions.

"When she gets the ball in the corner, I want you to go after her as hard as you can, distract her, but when you get to her, jump to the side," Moore told Lieberman, at 17, the team's youngest player.

Within minutes, the Bulgarian guard got the ball in the corner and prepared to shoot. Lieberman raced toward her, jumped as high as she could and . . . "My knees hit her in the center of her chest," Lieberman recalled.

The blow left the Bulgarian sprawled behind the gym bleachers, unable to finish the game. Lieberman timidly walked over and looked down at what she had done. On the sideline, Moore was screaming, "I told you, 'To the side!' "

The United States beat Bulgaria by a point and qualified for the Montreal Olympics, where it won a silver medal.

"People ask, 'What did you do in the Olympics?' " Lieberman said. "I tell them, 'Oh, I had a big hand in the U.S. [succeeding].' "

Moore knew what she was doing in using Lieberman in cameo roles in 1976. Lieberman had terrorized U.S. national team practices since she was a 16-year-old from Far Rockaway, N.Y.

Bouncing around the court like an out-of-control pinball, Lieberman was good at knocking down teammates.

The coaches pulled her aside one day, suggesting she back off a little. Suggested assistant Cathy Rush: "Nancy, do you want to make it to your 17th birthday?"

Moore said Lieberman eventually learned to channel her energy and became perhaps the best female player of her era.

"She was a survivor," said Moore, UCLA's veteran coach.

Lieberman survived the playgrounds of Harlem and a tough childhood in becoming one of the world's best-known basketball players.

Along the way, she survived coaching turmoil at Old Dominion University and helped the Norfolk, Va., school win two national championships. She survived criticism for leaving the 1980 Olympic team after the U.S.-led boycott to be the marquee player of women's professional leagues. And she survived a public relationship with Martina Navratilova and rediscovered her love of basketball.

At 33, Lieberman wants to put an exclamation mark on her athletic career with an appearance in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. She will learn today, after the NCAA women's championship at Los Angeles' Sports Arena, whether she is one of 56 women invited to the U.S. Olympic tryouts in May. If she is, and somehow earns one of 12 positions, she will be both the youngest and oldest woman to have made a U.S. Olympic women's basketball team.

Chances of attaining such a distinction are remote.

"But I won't be the one to say she couldn't do it," said Moore, who serves as an adviser for USA Basketball's selection committee.

If Lieberman misses, she will go to Barcelona as a television commentator.

"I want to make this Olympic team badly, but you know what? If I don't, it is OK because nobody can take away from me what I have or what has happened," Lieberman said.

She said one reason for trying is to show young players that women can continue in a sport that has been short on longevity. But really, this is about Lieberman more than anything else.

Did someone say survivor?

After parting ways with Navratilova and the glamour of Grand Slam tennis in 1984, Lieberman returned to the sideshows of sports. She competed in a now-defunct women's professional league, the men's U.S. Basketball League and as a player with the Washington Generals, the luckless foils of the Harlem Globetrotters.

She married one of the Generals, Tim Cline, and after leaving the team, worked in broadcasting.

Then came a realization. After spending time with the 1988 U.S. team in Seoul, South Korea, as a television analyst, she believed she had the talent to continue playing internationally.

"I said, 'Tim, I know that I can make the team,' " Lieberman said. "He just looked at me one day and says, 'Why don't you try? Why talk about it?' "

She returned to their Dallas base, hired a trainer and started preparing -- just in case. As a former professional, she was ineligible to compete in 1988 because of rules on amateurism.

But attitudes on money were rapidly changing, and by April 1989, international basketball officials announced that professionals could play in the Olympics.

Lieberman heard the news on the radio while driving on a Dallas expressway. She stayed on course long enough to make the U.S. team that summer, helping it earn a berth in the 1990 World Championships at a qualifying tournament in Brazil. In 1990, she was cut from the Goodwill Games team during tryouts and did not participate internationally.

"It was hard for me, because I have never, ever been cut before," Lieberman said.

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