Nancy Lieberman calls it "unparalleled" what her longtime friend and peer Becky Hammon has done taking her experience from an assistant for legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to a head coaching position in the WNBA.
Which is why Lieberman took issue with what she called women sniping at each other and "picking at people's money" when the newly named Las Vegas Aces coach's salary hit the headlines. Hammon is the first coach to exceed a $1 million annual salary, a massive deal that team owner Mark Davis insisted on to show there's value in the WNBA and the Aces can push it forward.
It's a landmark milestone, but also one that created tension since it's nearly equivalent to one entire team's salary cap.
"The players can’t say, 'Well I can't believe she’s making that money and we’re not,' " Lieberman told Yahoo Sports. "You’re not playing all year long. You’re overseas making your money. If the WNBA, at some point, is a 50-to-60-game season, I think you’ll see salaries increase exponentially. And you’ll have some equality there."
The issue exploded when free agent Liz Cambage called the WNBA out in a tweet by noting the deal is four times a player's supermax of $228,094 in 2022 and took issue with teams' poor travel arrangements. Her point was to show a major discrepancy, though some took it as Cambage coming at Hammon. The veteran center is reportedly signing with the Los Angeles Sparks after playing two seasons in Vegas.
Lieberman, 63, said she loves Cambage, but "I think you have to kind of slow your roll for a minute."
"[Hammon] is helping you. Because one day when you retire, or somebody else retires, she's going to have set the bar high if you want to get into coaching," said Lieberman, who has coached in the WNBA, G League, NBA and Big 3 for more than two decades. "And sometimes you can’t see it right now because your focus is being a great basketball player, which [Cambage] is."
The 2022 WNBA regular season runs from May through September and each team will play 36 games, a four-game bump. Lieberman views that as growth and believes the work commissioner Cathy Engelbert has done is "unprecedented." But what she said she really loves about the game is that each generation of players, including the stars of today, become pioneers in their own right.
"They are setting the plate for a 5-7-year-old girl right now who has no clue yet that she’s going to be a millionaire in 15 years," Lieberman said. "This is how it works. And you’re always doing great things."
Lieberman Award List candidates
Nancy Lieberman Award candidates "exhibit the floor leadership, playmaking and ball-handling skills" of the two-time Old Dominion AIAW champion and the 23 years of winners are a who's who of WNBA stars.
The final 10 watch list for 2022 consists of Jordan Lewis (Baylor), Nia Clouden (Michigan State), Diamond Johnson (NC State), Veronica Burton (Northwestern), Khayla Pointer (LSU), Caitlin Clark (Iowa), Hailey Van Lith (Louisville), Ashley Owusu (Maryland), Olivia Miles (Notre Dame) and Destanni Henderson (South Carolina). All have had stellar seasons and are set to bring their teams deep into March Madness, but Lieberman doesn't play favorites.
"I try to be a fan and to watch people and to see what they do," Lieberman told Yahoo Sports. "I don’t want anybody to think I'm pulling for somebody. I just want them to have fun and really just to kick ass and play great. You can't go wrong with the 10 that are there."
Clark, a sophomore with five triple-doubles this season, has been the most highlight-shareable guard of any in the new calendar year. She'll hit from the logo on any court and averages Division I bests in scoring (27.2 ppg) and assists (eight).
"She's pulling people out of their seats," Lieberman said. "I wanted to tell her I think I pulled a hamstring just going up and down so much watching her game. It was so much fun."
Lewis, a graduate transfer from Alabama, "doesn't have the gaudy stats" but is a great defender, decision maker, outside shooter and overall leader, Lieberman said.
"This young lady is like the head of a snake [with] what she does to make people around her better," she said. Lewis is second in the Big 12 conference in assists-to-turnovers ratio (2.3).
Overall, this generation of players is performing with a more solidified mindset not seen in Lieberman's days on the court in the 1970s.
"To see Nia Clouden or to see some of these young amazing, competitors, it’s just fun," Lieberman said. "Everybody is not playing it safe. They’re playing with freedom and confidence and I love that."
'The First Bounce' at NBA All-Star weekend
As fans gather this weekend to see their basketball heroes at NBA All-Star weekend, celebrating the league’s 75th year, Yahoo Sports created a unique experience that allows those fans to travel back in time and stand where their heroes stood before they were stars — on some of the most iconic hoops courts in the world.
Called “The First Bounce,” the fully immersive experience teleports fans to these legendary courts, including Rucker Park in the 1970s, where Lieberman got her start. Fans at All-Star weekend can attend the event, and everyone can check out exclusive video footage, photos and interviews and playlists at yahoo.com/firstbounce.
Lieberman said she enjoyed growing up playing at Rucker Park because of the competition and the friendships that still are with her today. Gender, race, age — it didn't matter on the court in Harlem.
"That was the best part," she said, "to be accepted."