One of the great things that draws us to athletics, competing or even watching, is the surprise. Every time one watches or plays a game or a match, there is that chance that something will occur...a shot, a move, a matchup...that will give us a wow factor, a thrilling moment, an unexpected instance from which we will mark time. It can happen to anyone, a high schooler taking jump shots in his or her driveway, a senior on the driving range, a fly fisherman casting for the millionth time, it is our eureka moment to create or witness firsthand, and it makes us love the thrill of competition.
That is for everyone. Beyond those boundries are the trailblazers, the people who constantly look to rearrange the furniture, to reset goals and remove barriers that were once there and should be no more. Roger Bannister and Usain Bolt, Eric Heiden and Nadia Comaneci, Cal Ripken and Walter Payton, those who looked at clocks and record books and drove goals and ability to new levels never dream of by the common man. Beyond that is the rarefied air of those who can transcend the playing field and move the mountains for every generations to come. Jackie Robinson, Sweetwater Clifton, Kenny Washington and Willie O'Ree broke the color barriers in the respective sports, while Billie Jean King and others blazed trails for equality and equal opportunity for boys and girls.
Then you have Nancy Lieberman. The now 50 year old New York City (actually Brooklyn born and Far Rockaway raised) native has seemingly conquered every barrier ever presented to her in the world of basketball. She has displayed a competitiveness and level of skill that gave her the opportunity to compete on equal footing with men on the professional level, has brought home Olympic gold, been an uber successful professional coach and general manager, and inspired hundreds of thousands of young people, boys as well as girls, to work hard, play fair and follow the internal dedication that will bring success in whatever field they choose. She has never swayed from controversy, personal or professional, and has stayed true to her beliefs that gender and skin color will not slow the will to succeed. That is why this week Lieberman was honored by another Hall of Famer, NFL star Ronnie Lott and his charity "All Stars Helping Kids," with the "Bill Walsh Champion of Change Award" (of course the first woman to receive the award ) for her work as a trailblazer in athletics and philanthropy. It certainly is an honor well deserved, especially for a leader whose career is still evolving.
Indeed the next evolution for Nancy Lieberman is still about ten months away, when she becomes the first woman to be a head coach of a men's professional basketball team. Lieberman was picked by Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson to head up the NBA D-League expansion team in Frisco, Texas as much for the inspiration she can provide young people as for the basketball acumen she can bring to the aspiring NBA players she will coach. It is a challenge and an opportunity she is not taking lightly in any way. She is approaching the job with the same vigor she has put forth in a Hall of Fame playing career, and will expect nothing less than success in communicating that vision to a new legion of fans and aspirants yet to hear her legendary story. Will this stop in the D-League at the very young age of 50 lead to a coaching opportunity at the ultimate level for hoops, the NBA? Who knows.
After all for Nancy Lieberman, the push has always been not for her personal glory, but to open the doors of opportunity for others to walk through, and by opening this new door, maybe down the road another will be inspired and rewarded with that NBA seat. It is much more journey than destination, and perhaps that is how it always has been for her.
But what about her legacy? At the end of the day, does Nancy Lieberman go down in the history books with other trailblazers who have broken color, gender, or equality barriers in sport? Is her legacy Ripken-like because of its widespread success over a long period of time, as opposed to Robinson, whose singular act of courage and leadership permanently altered history for the better? In many ways the fact that she has challenged and broken so many barriers in coaching, playing and leading may be just as remarkable, if not as singularly historic.
So do we celebrate others more than Lieberman over the long haul? Perhaps. If we do it is our loss, not hers, nor the millions she has touched and inspired throughout her career and will continue to do so as she takes on this next challenge.
So we all continue to look to sport for our own eureka moment, the surprise that marks the time. The ace, the eagle, the frozen rope. Whether we do it or we see it done by others, it is still surprising and inspirational.
Nancy Lieberman's success to us has almost become second nature. We expect her to continue to succeed because that's what she has always done. She lives our eureka moments almost every time she takes on a challenge. That's what greatness does.
As a matter of fact, if she didn't succeed and inspire, then that would be a surprise.