Nancy Lieberman Is Tops in a Sport That Is Going Bankrupt, Women's Basketball

updated 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Nancy Lieberman takes no challenge lightly. Consider how the nation's best woman basketball player is prepping for the ABC Superstars competition, a three-day contest in late February with $122,000 in prize money and a field of 10 female athletes. To get in shape for the 10 events, the 5'10" point guard for the Dallas Diamonds has been keeping her weight down (to 146 pounds) by eating one meal a day and building her strength by popping multivitamins and pumping iron at the Southern Methodist University gym. She does 300 sit-ups every morning and spends the rest of her day training for events she'll be competing in—golf, bowling, tennis and the 60-yard dash.

Alas, the show may be Lieberman's last U.S. athletic appearance for some time. Beset by inadequate financing and skimpy attendance, the eight-team Women's Pro Basketball League is moribund. There are no plans to launch a fourth season this month. Nancy is expected to settle her $100,000-a-year contract—the largest by far in a game where the average salary is $15,000—and by 1983 to be playing with a pro team in Italy.

As it is, the 23-year-old athlete earns more than enough at coaching clinics and from endorsements of products like Johnson's Baby Powder to pay for her few indulgences—a red BMW and a three-bedroom Dallas town house. In fact, she laughs, "I'd play for nothing, if everybody else did." She's so hooked on basketball that after she led the Diamonds to the 1980 league finals (where they lost to the Nebraska Wranglers), she played in an L.A. summer league with many of the (male) Lakers of the NBA. "Those guys are big, big, big, and they didn't hold back because I am a woman," Nancy says. "I didn't hold back either." At Dallas, her aggressive play turned the Diamonds from a laughingstock with a 7-28 record in 1980 into a winner that closed out 1981 with a 27-9 record, tied for league best. In the process, attendance tripled to 3,300 a game.

Lieberman likes to teach youngsters. "I want to encourage the girls especially—to let them know they can be anything they want to be," she says. That was her attitude growing up in Far Rockaway, N.Y., a middle-class enclave in Queens. Her home-builder father left the family when she was 4. (Nancy has an older brother who is a dentist.) Though mother Renee urged her daughter to be an opera singer like an old family acquaintance, Beverly Sills, Nancy turned to basketball. Eventually she began accompanying the local guys to Harlem for pickup games. Renee recalls "imagining all sorts of terrible things" while she waited for Nancy's return at night, but there was no need to fret: The ghetto hotshots protected the girl they called "Fire"—for her style of play as well as for her red hair.

In 1976, at the age of 18, Lieberman became the youngest woman tapped for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which took a silver medal in Montreal. Some 80 schools offered scholarships, but Nancy chose the tiny Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where she majored in marketing and led the team to national championships in 1979 and 1980.

Of late, to Nancy's consternation, she has been making news of another sort. Last summer, after Martina Navratilova, 24, moved in with Nancy and SMU basketball star Rhonda Rompola, 20, the New York Post sniped at the women's living arrangement. The tabloid reported that novelist Rita Mae Brown, who once had a lesbian relationship with Martina, was complaining that she had "lost" the tennis ace to Lieberman. Allegations of a romance between her and Navratilova are "ridiculous," says Nancy, insisting that she has only been helping Martina, "a good person" who has had "some problems."

Always a person of strong convictions (Nancy was among the first to support President Carter's 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics), she remains unshaken by the to-do over Martina and the failure of the basketball league. She regards both as no-win situations. The Superstars competition is something else. Vows Lieberman, "I'm going to find out how tough I am."

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