Friday, April 5, 2013
Lieberman to Griner: Go for it
By Marc Stein
Women's basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman went to two NBA summer leagues in the early 1980s in her bid to prove she could play the pro game with and against the foremost athletes in the sport.
Some three decades later, Lieberman is encouraging Baylor star Brittney Griner to seize the opportunity to do the same with the Dallas Mavericks, no matter how overwhelmingly remote Griner's chances of sticking actually are.
"There's nothing but unbelievable, historical upside," Lieberman said by phone Wednesday in the wake of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's proclamation that he is open to drafting Griner if she proved worthy in a pre-draft workout.
"I would do it in a minute," Lieberman said. "There is no downside to her trying."
When reached Wednesday to expound on his comments in Los Angeles, Cuban said Griner has an open invitation to "work out for us" before the June 27 NBA Draft.
The most realistic path to the NBA, if Griner is serious about pursuing it, is actually trying out for a spot on the Mavericks' summer league team after the draft and then playing in the NBA's annual summer tournament in Las Vegas if she can -- as Griner tweeted Tuesday night -- indeed "hold my own."
Wednesday's highly skeptical reaction to the story, filled with naysayers scoffing at the idea that Griner could ever compete physically on an NBA floor in spite of her dominance as a 6-foot-8 center in the women's game, didn't dissuade Cuban at all.
Asked how likely it is the Mavericks will indeed bring her in for a workout, Cuban said: "We will find out."
Lieberman, 54, serves as assistant general manager for the Mavericks' D-League affiliate (Texas Legends). She still hopes to coach in the NBA as an assistant after serving as head coach of the Legends in their inaugural season in 2010-11, which established Lieberman as the first female to coach men under the NBA's umbrella.
As a player, Lieberman got a summer league shot from both the Los Angeles Lakers (then-coached by Pat Riley) and the Utah Jazz (under Frank Layden) in the early 1980s and went on to play two seasons with men in the United States Basketball League.
Yet she acknowledges that Griner, as an interior player, would have it even tougher than Lieberman did in terms of trying to compete with the size, strength and athleticism -- all of Griner's advantages in the women's game -- of NBA players.
"I was extraordinarily average on my best days," Lieberman said. "And I was a point guard, so I could stay away from the physicality of the game and still do some of my job, which was IQ, passing, running the team. I always had somebody chasing me who was quick, but I wasn't getting knocked over or elbowed everywhere."
But Lieberman, even as she soaks in all the reasons that Griner would presumably struggle to cope, still believes that Griner should take Cuban up on the offer.
"I can tell you from experience ... you cannot compensate for the physical difference," Lieberman said. "But (playing with men) made me see the game better, think the game better, understand the game better, be more efficient with the game. There's not one day that I ever thought, 'I shouldn't do this.' "
Griner is widely expected to be selected by the Phoenix Mercury with the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft on April 15, so another potential issue is the fact that she'd have to leave her WNBA team in the middle of the season just to try to earn a spot on Dallas' summer league squad. How willing would the Mercury be, in a four-month season, to let Griner leave for a month to pursue a long-shot NBA fantasy?
Lieberman used to coach the Detroit Shock in the WNBA and was asked to project the Mercury's reaction to such a request.
"I wouldn't be happy, but if it was something so unusually amazing of this magnitude, I'd have to think about the bigger picture of women's athletics and what this could mean to women," Lieberman said.
"There will be women as jealous as hell and they'll gripe and complain. There's going to be people who say Brittney turned her back on women's basketball. But there will be people who see a bigger picture and say: 'You know what? This is extraordinary.'
"If she has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a once-in-a-lifetime guy (Cuban), she owes to herself to at least consider the suggestion. I would say do it. You can always go back to the WNBA. At worst, it makes her a better player and it highlights the history of the game."
Before the Mavericks' loss Tuesday night in Los Angeles to the Lakers, Cuban said: "If she is the best on the board (in the second round of the NBA draft), I will take her. I've thought about it. I've thought about it already. Would I do it? Right now I'd lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it. You never know unless you give somebody a chance. And it's not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it."