Most basketball fans who think of the year 1986 often conjure up images of NBA superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who at the time were taking the sport to unprecedented levels of popularity. But 1986 marks a part of basketball history that truly transcends the sport of basketball. It was the year that Nancy Lieberman joined the United States Basketball League (USBL) and became the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball league.
This was well after female tennis legend Billie Jean King defeated a well-past-his-prime Bobby Riggs in their heavily hyped “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973, and well before female golf sensation Annika Sorenstam played in a men’s PGA golf tournament in 2003. But Nancy Lieberman’s foray into men’s professional basketball carries more significance than either King’s or Sorenstam’s play against male competition.
In her two seasons playing in the USBL, Nancy was the only woman on a team of all men, playing against teams of all men, in a league of all men, and practicing and playing day in and day out among men. This was no one-day event like King’s or Sorenstam’s, nor was Nancy playing in a sport that lacked person to person contact like golf or tennis.
And Nancy’s reason for jumping into men’s basketball was not even to create a challenge, stir controversy, or necessarily make a point. In fact, it was done out of necessity more than anything else.
After all, in 1986, not one professional women’s basketball league existed in America. Nancy had previously participated in two women’s pro leagues in 1980-81 (WBL) and in 1984 (WABA), only to watch each league fold due to financial concerns in each of Nancy’s first seasons.
So to Nancy, joining a men’s league was actually a very logical step in her basketball career, especially considering that she had already become accustomed to taking on male competition in sports even before she joined the USBL in 1986.
In fact, boys were often the only sports competition Nancy had while growing up in the 60s and 70s in Brooklyn, New York. For Nancy, it was often a choice between playing against boys or playing against nobody at all, the latter being an option she would not dare choose as a sports obsessed youngster.
Despite her love for sports, Nancy had to face the objections of her mother and most other observers, who frequently tried to persuade Nancy to pursue other interests. Nancy grew up at a time when only about 4% of girls played sports, whereas that figure is currently around 35% thanks in part to the careers of prominent and successful female athletes like Nancy. Although it would take time for people to accept Nancy’s athletic pursuits, she remained undeterred from her passion.
Basketball in particular delighted Nancy, and it soon became her sport of choice. Time and time again, she showed that she could hang with the boys on the court. She even soon began playing in intense local playground games that included many high caliber male players.
In fact, it wasn’t until high school that Nancy regularly began playing against female competition, where it quickly became apparent that she was leaps and bounds ahead of her virtually everyone she played against. Her feisty play, strong work ethic, and total dedication caused Team USA to single her out as a future Olympic hopeful at the young age of fifteen. And as she continued to improve ahead of schedule, she became the top female high school basketball player in the nation in her senior season.
In the following summer, Nancy competed on the USA women’s basketball team in the 1976 Olympics—the first Olympics ever where women’s basketball was an event. At the young age of 18, Nancy helped her team take home the silver medal.
She then carried her success into college basketball, and had a legendary four-year career at Old Dominion University, winning the Wade Trophy for player of the year in 1979 and 1980, and leading her team to two AIAW National Championships.
Nancy made more headlines following her senior college season by playing in two NBA affiliated men’s summer leagues that featured many former and hopeful NBA players.
She then made her official pro debut in 1980 in the financially ailing Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), where she had an outstanding rookie season before the league folded due to financial reasons. This was typical of the women’s pro basketball leagues of that era, many of which folded before even completing a first season.
For the next several years, Nancy served as the personal trainer to women’s tennis superstar Martina Navratilova, and helped improve Martina’s conditioning and overall tennis performances immensely.
Then in 1984, she returned to pro basketball and joined the upstart Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA) in its inaugural season. She led her team to the championship and earned league MVP honors, only to watch the WABA fold in its first and only season.
In 1986, with American women’s pro basketball nowhere on the map, and the men’s pro game as robust as ever, the USBL offered Nancy an opportunity to join the league. She eagerly jumped on the offer, and was suddenly was back in the pros, this time receiving tremendous press and attention for her unique situation.
In two seasons paying in the USBL, Nancy played solidly and held her own, remaining undeterred even at various opponents’ direct attempts to intimidate her. In those two seasons, she truly helped pave the road for the progress of all of women’s sports. And after her second USBL season, she continued her basketball career by playing one season for the Washington Generals of the Harlem Globetrotters tour.
Upon completion of that season, Nancy began a broadcasting and business career. Then in July of 1993, she had a memorable one-on-one match up with a prominent men’s basketball player. She lost 10-2—not bad considering that she was playing none other than the greatest all around basketball player of all time, his “Airness” Michael Jordan, at a time when Michael was in the prime of his career and coming off three consecutive championship seasons, whereas Nancy had been retired for years. Not to mention the fact that at 6’6”, Jordan stood 8 inches taller than the 5’10” Nancy.
In 1997, Nancy made history again when she returned to pro basketball as a part of the Phoenix Mercury team of the newly formed Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and at age 38 became the league’s oldest player. The following season, she became the coach and general manager of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, and led them to a successful 17-13 record and playoff appearance, especially impressive considering that the Shock was a newly formed expansion team.
Nancy continues to remain involved in basketball today as an ESPN commentator. She also runs basketball camps for young women, and actively participates in many charities.
Her basketball legacy stands as a strong example for both female and male athletes. She never backed down from a challenge, whether playing in the USBL or even taking on a prime Michael Jordan. Her illustrious career changed the way the world thought about female athletes, and helped set the tone for the tremendous growth of female sports that continues to this day.