March 01, 2021

Importance of Teamwork with Nancy Lieberman

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #25

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Nancy Lieberman. Lieberman is a former professional basketball player and NBA coach who’s widely known as one of the all-time greatest figures in American basketball. 

Nancy Lieberman has made history for breaking records and barriers all over the place:

  • She was named to the USA Basketball team roster when she was only 17 years old.
  • She was named to three All-American teams while winning back-to-back National Championships at Old Dominion University. 
  • She went on to become the first ever woman coach in a professional men’s sports league and the second female assistant coach in NBA history.
  • She was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.

She continues to do great work today as a broadcaster for the Oklahoma City Thunder and as the head coach of Power, the BIG3 team that won the 2018 Championship. On this episode of Bring It In season two, Nancy and Sam discuss mindset and the importance of teamwork.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Nancy Lieberman shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Respect everybody, fear nobody.” 
  • “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid to play against men. I’m not afraid to coach men. I’m not afraid to win.”
  • “It’s important for me to always level up.”


Sam: Can you share a little bit more about what the journey has been like?

Nancy: I think a lot of times people are looking for the horror story. Cause I was a gal from the sixties growing up in New York and  it wasn’t a horror story. Somebody has to be first and somebody has to not be afraid to do things that are different. I look at today’s female athletes or athletes and in my opinion, and I love it, but they haven’t made it in the shade. They have every advantage to being great and there’s leaks for them to play and salaries and people are calling for us as athletes. You talked about CEOs and executives and incorporations. 80% of fortune 500 companies right now are hiring people like me. You can yell at me, you can scream at me. I’m wired to win DNA, teamwork, and strategizing. I understand winning and I understand losing, but the most important thing is how to work together. Nobody who’s ever been great has ever done it by themselves. Whether I’m on boards for equality, diversity and inclusion with companies it’s amazing what happens on the field and how it translates later in life. I’m not a victim of the sixties and seventies, I’m a Victor because it built that bottom of that pyramid of resiliency and eyes to other opportunities. I will say this and you know this as an athlete, but without sports I would have never had the tenacity or the, the boldness to do some of the things that I’ve done. The one thing that I’ve been taught and I’m 62 years old is I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid to play against men. I’m not afraid to coach men. I’m not afraid to win. I’m not afraid to coach or do TV. I’m more of a minimalist, when I was growing up in Queens  Far Rockaway, I was poor and had no father. You were one grant parent away from food stamps. Then the middle part of my life I was earning in becoming a public figure. I still have that dog in me that we all have to have. In the boardroom or on the athletic field or coaching, but  I’m learning, earning, and returning. I’m really a minimalist with the guys or gals that I teach, this is why we’re doing things. You give them the why. We must do this. This is why. And then this will be the results. I think in this age of communicating with emojis, 280 characters, 60 second or so snapchats, you have to learn how to communicate. I feel like I am a victor, not a victim because I’ve had so many people champion me and then I get to champion other people. It’s been a great life for me. 

Sam: What’s the difference between a great coach and everybody else?

Nancy: You can be a great coach, but if you’re a poor communicator, you’re going to fail in life, in love, in business, in sports. If you don’t have a relationship with your players, If you can’t talk to your players, the people that you need to. You know,  coaches, coach, and players decide probability and outcome. I knew when I played that I could very much be responsible for us winning championships at Olympic level, at a collegiate level, at a professional level and winning is hard. I needed somebody to have some empathy, some understanding. They need you to understand that they’re human and they want love and kindness. They’ll run through a wall for you if you demonstrate those qualities. You have to be good at what you do. I have to be a good X’s and O’s coach, or I’m not going to win a Big Three Championship, or I’m not going to win a championship coaching my team. I think there’s a balance, but everything in life to me is about communication and it starts at home and it starts with the person that you’re next to. How do you deal with them? How do you deal with the outside world? That was something that Muhammad Ali taught me when I was 19 years old. He was my hero and he changed my life and he was so interested in who I was as a person, but he knew that I was a little fraudulent, hiding behind the basketball player. Throughout my high school career, college career and Olympic career, I just didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want people to think I was less. Because of my childhood, I had some scars that I was trying to hide and Ali saw through that. He taught me respect everybody, fear nobody just give the best of who you are everyday. Don’t cheat the system. I’ve taken that with me every step of my life, as a player, as a coach. Whether I’m doing TV like tonight, I want to be the best broadcaster. I have one of thirty jobs in the NBA around the world as a studio analyst for the thunder. I want us to win the Emmy. That’s how I think each day, what can I do to help my team win? What do I have to do? Do you make you good or do you make people around you good? that’s a really solid question when you’re checking people’s motives. 

Sam: So many people talk about or complain about millennials and Gen Z, how tough it is to motivate, inspire, and get the most out of young people. Where do you think there’s opportunity today when it comes to coaching and developing young people? 

Nancy: It’s in front of us, it’s there, but it takes time and energy to be involved with your team. When I was coaching in Detroit with the Detroit Shock and the WNBA, I had just come off the court in 97. I retired at 39 and I went right into coaching, just like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. I became the head coach and GM. I had never done that before, but the one thing that I always wanted was I had to find out about me. What was I about? Even when I was in college I would ask Marianne Stanley if she would get a scouting report, not on the other team, but a standing report on me. It starts and stops with you. Then Pat Summit when I got the coaching job, Pat called me and she goes, we have somebody here from a company called performance plus, and it will evaluate. It tells you how you view yourself, how you view others and then the synthesis of who you really are. And she says, I gave it to our team and our front office and  I think you guys should use it. So we did. And then the Pistons used it when Doug Collins was there as an upper management executive. The big boys did not want to do that. I wasn’t happy that you’d find out all my characteristic flaws. I wasn’t really comfortable taking it, but I thought, man, I gotta understand how I view myself on the boxes that you check. It was good information to me about how I was viewed. So that was very humbling. I have always followed that. I would bring people in to evaluate my practices. Did I make the right substitution in games? Can you break down film, stop looking at the players? Look at me, did I do the right thing? Did I make the right calls in a timeout? We have to learn how to be better if. If I’m better and then you’re better, then we can pass it on. Now we raise the bar and people feel a responsibility to play at a higher level. It’s important for me to always level up. This is what I was, can I get to that next level in business or sports or all the entrepreneurial things that I’m involved in? I have to get better because there are people that are clamoring for your job, for my job, they’re like 25 and they think they know it all and it’s like, they don’t think we’ve ever been 18, 19, 20 years old and grinding to get to a place where you’re leaving Miami to go now in Newark or same thing for me. I think it’s really important to check your own motives every day. Kobe and I used to talk about that. We have to talk about our motives. He would call me the mama Mamba because I came back and played at 39 and 50 in the WNBA. The conversations were like being in a think tank, Kobe Bryant should have done the sockies beer commercial. because he was the most curious man in the whole world. I’m lucky I had 20 years of him.

My job is to take you from your rookie contract to your next contract. That’s going to be pretty big now in the league. If you’re pretty good, it’s going to be 150 to $200 million. If we can get you to your third or fourth contract of your career now you have generational wealth. Isn’t that a great story to change somebody trajectories through sports. That’s what I’m trying to do every day, is just take people and help them because so many people have helped me.

Sam: Going from player to coach, so many people today, because of furloughs and the way the workforce is and companies are getting, are promoting people into manager roles maybe sooner than they had thought because other roles are moving or being displaced. When you think back to that shift from player to coach, what would you go back in time and tell yourself that you know now.

Nancy: That’s a player’s tribute story. I would probably just tell myself to be a little bit more flexible, not as rigid, allow people to be who they are and try to work with those people.  We get so this is what I know, and this is how it’s going to be and it’s almost maniacal how we sometimes see things. Maybe people have to make us better and open our eyes to how we disseminate information. You can’t have just one tool in the toolbox and that happens to be a hammer. You can’t do that any longer. You have to be able to work with people and co-exist. Don’t you find it amazing that Sean Watson can turn around to his organization where they have shown him loyalty. How much is this contract? 140, 50, 60 million, maybe more. I mean, he got the bag because he deserves the bag. But then to come back and say, well, we didn’t run this by you. You know, I’m upset because you didn’t run this by me. The old Nancy would say, how can a player say that? Stay in your lane, do your job. That’s why you have an owner. That’s why you have a GM. That’s why you have presidents and people who make those decisions, but it’s different now. We can’t totally discard the fact that these players who are immensely talented, have a lot of say on who they want to play with, who they want to go to war with, who they want. They want to feel respected. I said it on TV this year with the Thunder, the best GM in the NBA this year is LeBron James, look at the team he’s put together. And I know Rob Linka obviously did an amazing job, but LeBron knew who he wanted to play with IQ wise, who can handle those moments where you determine whether you’re going to be a champion or not. He knew. So why not listen to LeBron? He brought Rondo over because you knew Rondo had a high IQ. I just think we have to be open it’s 360 communication.  I’ll tell you what I think in part of communication is me listening to what you think. That means we just have to put our egos down and let’s just chop it up and talk about what you think. I think it’s happening in business right now too.

Sam: I have a four-year-old daughter, and my wife played college soccer. She’s running around the house during COVID, which is why I came back to the office a little bit here and there. What advice do you have? What can I do as a dad? I look at my daughter and I just think the moment we live in and all the opportunities she’s going to have as a person, as an athlete in the future, because of people like you that have forged the way. What advice you have for me as a parent. How do I make sure I do what I need to do to put her in the best position to be successful.

Nancy: You already are. The fact that she’s playing sports, sports is healthy. She’s active. She’ll figure out exactly what sport she wants. I wouldn’t pigeon hole her just because mama played soccer. It’s like with my son, I’m really happy that TJ is a basketball player and playing professionally in Europe, matter of fact, he just signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv about a week ago. Which is pretty cool, but for me what the most important thing is just expose her to basketball, to baseball, to football, she’ll end up telling you what she feels comfortable with. Keep love and kindness in her heart because there’s so many angry people out there today and they filter that to their children and their kids don’t even know why they’re angry.  I wake up when my little shades come up and I take a breath. I just thank  God for another day to just be an influencer or to make people laugh or smile. People want to be around happy people. I’m mildly funny. I’m very sarcastic, but I have a lot of truth. I ball it up into one and that’s how I lead my day. People want to laugh. They want to talk about sports. Warren Buffet has been a friend for over 30 years. He’s busy. No, he’s not, I know he’s playing tennis against somebody in the Ukraine. Who’s managing my one share of Berkshire Hathaway stock? A little humor, sarcasm, but probably some truth. That’s how I am with my players.

Topics discussed: leadership, coaching, future of work

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle