photo by Thomas Garza

A woman got hired to coach in an established men’s league. And she instantly became the most qualified head honcho in the circuit.

This past week, the Big3 basketball league announced Nancy Lieberman would coach the team known as Power. She’s served as a head coach in the G-League and the WNBA and an assistant coach in the NBA. That alone gives her more experience than any of her fellow head coaches (all men) in the eight-team league. But she’s got a leg up in this particular hoops discipline as well.

The Big3 league plays 3-on-3 basketball. Each team fields three players on the court at a time, and they share the same hoop. This version of the game is on the rise and will make its Olympic debut in 2020. The Big3 rules, which feature a 4-point shot,  a 14-second shot clock, and a winner declared when one team reaches 50 points with a two-point lead, differ marginally from the Olympic version. Lieberman won two women’s national titles in the Hoop-It-Up (née Hoop-De-Do) competition as a player, back when that was the most high-profile 3×3 show in the country. She had a lot of game herself (she’s in the Naismith Hall of Fame and a bunch of other ones), and she also recruited the likes of fellow Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes to her Hoop-It-Up-winning team.

BL TL FTB (300 x 250 px)

Nancy Lieberman didn’t have to interview for this job. They identified her as a top candidate pretty quickly. By way of confession, Ms. Lieberman is a friend of mine, and we had been working on a PSA for her charity’s basketball camps, so she had called me with some advance notice of this development. And it seems that when Big3 co-founder Ice Cube promoted former Power head coach Clyde Drexler to league commissioner, he considered it a no-brainer to bring Nancy in as a replacement.

Were they thrilled to have her because it creates publicity to employ a woman coaching a men’s team? I’m sure that wasn’t irrelevant. But as you’ve perhaps surmised by the brief overview of her resume I gave you, that shouldn’t matter. She’s qualified to coach, no matter the gender.

What does matter, though, is the value of trailblazers. Lieberman overcame myriad challenges to play in NBA summer leagues for the Lakers and Jazz. She lost scores of games against the Harlem Globetrotters as a member of the Washington Generals. And along the way, she showed, along with other committed women, that a person of her gender could compete as hard, and love the game as much, as any man.

When Hank Greenberg made All-Star teams, it made it easier for powerful men to embrace hiring the next Jewish baseball player. When Jerry LeVias gained 1200 rushing yards in a season, it made it more justifiable for Texas universities to give scholarships to other African-American football players. When the Oakland Raiders put Amy Trask in the role of CEO, it set the stage for a woman to become, well, chairman of the board of the Big3 league – Trask’s current position.

The world needs people who demonstrate that things can be done differently from the way they always have been. That’s especially true when the previous way of doing things bore no relation to whether or not the job got done properly.

And that’s the case here. Ice Cube said he anticipates Coach Lieberman will win. He’s right to expect that of her, given her resume, but my guess is he demands, and should demand, it of any coach he hires.

That’s what trailblazers do: they change expectations. And gradually, women like Lieberman, Kings assistant Jenny Boucek, and Spurs assistant Becky Hammon will make it normal to hire women into roles for which they’re qualified. Heck, this is the third time Lieberman’s been hired to coach men. It’s not quite routine yet, but progress has been made.

The Big3 season begins June 22 in Houston and the tour comes to North Texas August 17. I look forward to seeing who exceeds expectations.

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Rush Olson has spent two decades directing creative efforts for sports teams and broadcasters. When not writing his Sports Rush blog for the Weekly, he creates television programs, ad campaigns, content marketing, and related creative projects for sports entities and more through Rush Olson Creative & Sports, Mint Farm Films, and FourNine Productions.