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Nancy Lieberman on what it means to be a basketball trailblazer

(Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

For basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, the future of women’s sports will always be tied to the past.

While the 63-year-old trailblazer is in no way preoccupied with what once was, she appreciates the value of history and giving those who came before their due.

“Legends of the game, players who played the game, they don’t want anything, they just want a little shine, they want a little love, they want a little respect,” Lieberman tells Just Women’s Sports.

If anyone deserves “a little shine,” it’s Lieberman, who led Old Dominion to two consecutive AIAW National Championships in 1979 and 1980, was the first draft pick of the Women’s Pro Basketball League and joined the WNBA for its inaugural 1997 season at 39 years old.

As a coach, Lieberman led the WNBA’s Detroit Shock for three seasons starting in 1998 and became the second female assistant coach in NBA history when she joined the Sacramento Kings’ staff in 2015. She now coaches in the BIG3, a three-on-three basketball league founded by actor and musician Ice Cube.

Lieberman’s message for current athletes is that one day they, too, will be considered pioneers of the game. Before then, she says, they should champion women’s equality and progress and embrace their place in history.

“While you’re going up, just make sure you’re high-fiving, hugging, fist-bumping people that set the plate up for you because you’re going to be that person,” she says. “That’s why we fought for so long on the hill with Title IX, with gender equity. Everything that you see today, the fight has been real for this generation and beyond.”

The New York native wants basketball fans, in particular, to understand the history of the women’s game in order to fully appreciate where the league is today and where it’s headed.

“Do your research because you’re going to miss a lot of the greatness,” Lieberman says. “Women’s basketball did not start in 1997 with the WNBA; it did not start in 1982 with the NCAA. Women’s basketball had a healthy past.”

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Lieberman drives down the court against Queens College during an Old Dominion victory in 1979. (Bettman/Contributor/Getty Images)

Lieberman’s reverence for history and dedication to advancement is what makes her partnership with CollectibleXchange by Brandon Steiner so seamless. The online collectible marketplace, launched in August, connects sellers directly to consumers with a wide-ranging inventory of women’s sports memorabilia.

Lieberman sees the collaboration with longtime friend Steiner as an opportunity to highlight women’s sports. The collectibles, she says, reinforce the athletes’ value and help amplify women whose greatness has long been overlooked.

“A lot of people in the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, were an afterthought,” Lieberman says.

As a decorated former athlete and a friend to many sports legends, Lieberman has quite the assortment of memorabilia herself. Her collection consists of an Olympic torch, her Olympic medals, Tiger Woods autographed golf balls, Diana Taurasi sneakers and Michael Jordan signed jerseys.

“I am still a fan no matter who people think I am throughout the course of my career,” Lieberman says. “I am a fan of greatness.”

No two people stand out more to Lieberman when it comes to greatness than tennis star Martina Navratilova and boxer Muhammad Ali. She calls both athletes her heroes for pushing sport and society forward, accomplishments she believes put them in a category of their own.

“To be a GOAT (greatest of all time), it’s not just statistical … to me, a GOAT is somebody who changed the game, not just played the game,” she says.

Lieberman says close friends Ali and Navratilova put their careers on the line at their peaks for a greater purpose, with Ali fighting for racial justice and Navratilova living her truth as a gay public figure. For those reasons, Lieberman’s collectibles from Ali and Navratilova carry special significance.

“I have Martina’s rackets, her wooden racket that she played early on,” Lieberman says. “I have the rackets that she played with at the US Open and Wimbledon when she won.”

The basketball icon gleefully recalls personally sliding leaded tape into her friends’ rackets to account for Navratilova’s strength. No item, however, holds more value to Lieberman than Ali’s boxing gloves, which she says she cherishes to this day.

In addition to their sentimental value, Lieberman believes that memorabilia can help attract new fans and bolster women’s athletes’ cultural capital across generations.

Lieberman says she already sees a shift happening, especially in women’s basketball.

“We hoped to have a WNBA. Today, kids who are 7, 8, 9 years old, they expect it,” she says. “Young girls expect to get a college scholarship, they expect to play on TV. They expect to then, if they’re good enough, go to the WNBA. I love that.”

Along with scholarships, select collegiate players can also expect to make money thanks to the NCAA’s reformed NIL policy. The deals and partnerships Lieberman has seen emerging in college sports are developments she says “would have been fun to have in our day.”

Lieberman equates Paige Bueckers’s historic contract with Gatorade to Michael Jordan’s advertising partnerships. The NIL deal, she says, could set the UConn star on a path toward generational wealth, something women’s athletes haven’t traditionally been able to rely on.

On the court, the former WNBA coach is equally impressed with the new crop of young talent.

With box scores always up on her phone, Lieberman is paying close attention to the college game, shouting out Maryland’s basketball team, Baylor’s Jordan Lewis, Bueckers and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes.

“I love watching these young people play,” she says, “because now they’re creating their own legacy, they’re putting their thumbprint on the history of the game.”

Professionally, Lieberman applauds the likes of Taurasi and Sue Bird. And while she is impressed with specific institutional changes made by the WNBA, she still sees room for improvements.

The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, reached in 2020, is a sign of promise for Lieberman. The former point guard credits the improvements in conditions and the increases in compensation and benefits. Still, Lieberman would like to see more players stay in the U.S. during the offseason and not feel forced to go overseas to complement their WNBA salaries. Many players, she points out, are going to Europe in the prime of their careers.

“If the WNBA had the wherewithal one day to expand and pay larger guaranteed salaries, some of these women wouldn’t have to go to Europe and they could be in the market,” Lieberman says. “They could be in their city, promoting their team and having a bigger, better, more powerful presence.”

Lieberman also weighed in on the expansion debate heating up in the WNBA, citing Oakland as a market ripe for a women’s team. Former WNBA star Alana Beard made headlines in October when it was announced she would lead the ownership group for an Oakland expansion team. Lieberman hopes the league takes a serious look at the city and Beard’s proposition.

“I think it would be amazing for that city,” she says. “They are incredible sports fans, they understand, they care.”

As the league continues to grow, Lieberman also sees an opportunity to get more women in ownership, management and coaching positions. The player-to-coach pipeline has been a hotly debated topic over the years, with many close to the WNBA advocating for more teams to consider former players for jobs. Lieberman’s career has served as a model in both the WNBA and the NBA, with seven women now serving on NBA coaching staffs and three former players serving as WNBA head coaches.

“If you only have one woman, it’s fantastic, but it’s also a tragedy and a failure,” she says. Coaches don’t get hired based on a resume alone, she says; instead, it all comes down to connections, meaning the next step “is to get more women on the front of the bench, building relationships.” For Lieberman, it’s as simple as general managers and decision-makers giving those in women’s sports a chance.

What’s next for the women’s game? Lieberman is unsure, and while she hopes it includes women’s teams boarding private jets like their male counterparts one day, she also knows that doesn’t come without greater investment and return.

Buy the jerseys of players like Bird, Taurasi and Brittney Griner while you can, she says, because one day they will join her on the Mount Rushmore of basketball, exalted as trailblazers of the game.

(Editor’s note: The Collective Marketplace on Athlete Direct is a sponsor of Just Women’s Sports)

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

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