At a recent basketball game in Madison Square Garden, the starting point guard left the contest with seven minutes remaining and the Player's team well ahead. A standing ovation accompanied the guard's exit and dozens of autograph hounds jostled for position behind the team bench.
Earl Monroe or Ray Williams of the Knicks accepting kudos after a New York National Basketball Association victory?
Nope. The crowd was heaping well-earned praise on the finest player in women's college basketball, Nancy Lieberman fo top-ranked Old Domiion University.
In that game Lieberman demonstrated the prowess that has brought her publicity from the national media and earned her berth on the 1976 United States Olympic team as a high school senior.
"She's the most complete player in the nation," said ODU Coach Marianne Stanley, herself a two-time All-America at Immaculata. "Nancy has the best skills of anybody I've ever seen play."
Lieberman had the 4,000-plus crowd howling with wonderment and delight as she capped numerous fast breaks with behind-the-back assists and stutter-stepping drives for finger-roll lay-ups.
A hardened basketball fan, previously skeptical of the women's brand of hoops, was still shaking nhis head in amazement minutes after the unbeaten Lady Monarchs had thumped another opponent.
"She's the best show in basketball -- any level, male or female," He said.
Lieberman, a 5-foot-10 junior, plays the game as few if any, females ever have. Dress her in some type of gender-concealing garb and watch her: you'll see an inner-city playground basketballer with the ballhandling and passing flair of a Maravich, the defensive quickness of a Frazier, the drives of a Baylor and the court sense of a Robertson.
The Far Rockaway, N.Y., native did not reach this level playing in gyms. As a youngster, Lieberman would comb the playgrounds of Harlem, Queens, Long Island, "all over New York," looking for a good pickup game.
'I liked to play against boys -- they were bigger and quicker," said Leiberman. "I had to work twice as hard."
She held her own in New Youk's rugged playground wars.
"At first, when I started coming around they'd see me and say, 'We don't want you to get hurt.'
"I answered that I was willing to take the knocks. Plus, I used to shoot around with boys before the games. They saw I was coordinated, so they let me play. I didn't play against girls until my sophomore year in high school."
Some of the players Lieberman competed with were Brian Winters, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, Mel Utley, formerly of St. John's and former ABAers Levern Tart and Luther Green.
"I used to watch all the guys that I thought were good. If I liked what they did, I'd try and imitate them on my own time.
"I lived in schoolyards, playing up to nine hours a day. When it got too dark to see the basket, we'd play 'radar ball,' where you could only hear whether the ball went through."
Lieberman admitted her family was not especially pleased with her addiction to basketball.
"The more my family tried to hold me back, the more resentful I got. Relationships with my mom and dad were very thin. Getting along with them, being the all-American girl, was just one of the things I realized I had to give up; the others included parties, movies, etc."
But all worked out well for Lieberman on her way to being the All-America player. As a sophomore at Far Rockaway High, she was the only high school player picked for the U.S. national team. But she suffered broken ribs during training camp and had to return home. The next year, she was picked for the U.S. squad in the Pan American Games.
"The minute I made the U.S. team, all those friends who had been calling me tomboy began praising me.Those people no longer exist in my life. They didn't break me or make me. I know fame and glory go with publicity, but I took a lot of stuff from people growing up. I learned I had a lot of acquaintances and very few friends."
Lieberman made few friends of high school opponents, averaging 19 points and 15 rebounds as a 5-8 sophomore center. She upped those marks to 25 and 20 in her junior year and, as a senior, compiled a gaudy 30-point, 26-rebound average.
With stats like those and her exposure on the Pan American team, it was natural that many colleges would come courting.
"During my junior and senior years, it was like a zoo. Every major college with a women's program was in touch. Some schools offered cars, money for scoring points, apartments, incentive things like that.
"I narrowed the list to four schools: UCLA, Cal State-Fullerton, Tennessee and Old Dominion. I chose Old Dominion because they weren't trying to hustle me and I liked the area and people of Norfolk. I was just looking for a scholarship and to go to a program that was building. It's more of a challenge when you're trying to build something from scratch."
At ODU, Lieberman was switched from her familiar center and sometimes-forward positions to guard. She still averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists her freshman year.
Last season, Lieberman avaeraged 20 points and six assists as ODU won the National Women's Invitational Tournament and finished 30-4.
This season Lieberman has had her best performances against the best teams.She mamd nine steals against defending ALAW national champion UCLA to key a 30-point victory; and 33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals in 33 minutes against Queens College.
"I take a lot of pride in being an all-around player," said Lieberman. "I try to pass, score, get some rebounds, play defense. You can't excel as a player unless you're adept at all facets of the game."
Lieberman's mental dedication to basketball is reflected in the little things she does to prepare for competition. She watched films of former Old Dominion guard Dave Twardzik, now with the Portland Trail Blazers -- to pick up hints on running the fast break. Before games, she scouts the other team's guards during their warmups to learn how they dribble, whether they go well to the right or left.
"I think I have a different philosophy than most other women: I believe women's basketball should be exciting. I'm not going to be a hot dog out there, but I do feel we're entertainers. I don't think I'm a showboat, but in a sense, a showman." lieberman, who rarely plays more that 32 to 33 minutes a game, is second on the ODU squad in scoring with an 18.9-point average, leads in assists (7.7), is third in rebounds (7.1) and averages 4.5 steals.
The thing she seems proudest of is the increase in attendance at ODU games from 300 to 400 in her freshman year to sellouts of 5,000-plus this season.
"It's a very good feeling to see all those people. That was part of the challenge when I came here -- to help sell women's basketball. It really hurt me when the gym used to be empty.
"I think I've got a lot to offer and people should see it."