On the morning that tragedy struck, Nancy Lieberman attended a gathering of wealthy donors at a luxury resort in the California desert.
She only found out what happened after the sound of her ringing phone sent her scrambling from her seat.
“Mom, you need to sit down,” Lieberman recalled her son, T.J. Cline, telling her.
“Why? What is it?” the Hall of Famer and basketball pioneer asked, sensing something was wrong.
“Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed,” Cline responded. “He’s gone, and so is everyone else on board.”
The death of a five-time NBA champion, Oscar-winning filmmaker and best-selling author gutted the global basketball community, but few took the dire news harder than Lieberman. Strangers asked if she needed an ambulance after seeing her burst into tears and hyperventilate so hard that she struggled to breathe.
Lieberman’s anguished cries weren’t merely a result of losing a friend. She had spoken with Bryant as recently as the day before. He had invited her to stay overnight at his mansion the following Wednesday, to fly with him on the helicopter and to put his daughter Gianna’s team through practice.
Spending a day coaching the Mambas alongside Bryant was such a thrilling opportunity that Lieberman immediately called her son and told him all about it. As a result, when Cline learned the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, that Bryant’s helicopter slammed into a Calabasas hillside, he initially feared for his mother’s safety.
“He told me he thought I was on the helicopter,” Lieberman said. “If my phone is on mute and I don’t hear my phone ring, my son would not have talked to me for an hour, hour and a half. He would have had no way of knowing if I was alive.”
Nancy and Kobe’s friendship
The friendship between Nancy Lieberman and Kobe Bryant arose from the women’s basketball trailblazer’s quest to test her limits and the Lakers superstar’s thirst for knowledge.
In 2008, Lieberman became the oldest player to ever appear in a WNBA game when at age 50 she signed a seven-day contract with the Detroit Shock. A few months later, Bryant approached Lieberman after she interviewed Phil Jackson at the Lakers practice facility and asked if she had time to chat.
“Vanessa, my daughter and I watched you play,” Lieberman recalled Bryant telling her. “I have some questions.”
Bryant asked Lieberman why she pushed herself to play once more. What was her motivation? Was it taxing on her body? Was she nervous? Scared?
“I knew he was high IQ, but I didn’t really know that part of him yet,” Lieberman said. “He was gathering information and his mind was like a processing center. I was acutely aware that his questions were no joke. He wanted to know.”
That conversation sparked a friendship that endured more than a decade. Lieberman and Bryant bonded over their mutual passion for basketball, their withering senses of humor and their frustration over the lack of respect for the women’s game.
On Oct. 3, 2015, months after the Sacramento Kings hired her as the NBA’s second female assistant coach, Lieberman encountered an unexpected obstacle. A security guard refused to grant her access to the locker room area prior to a Kings preseason game against the Lakers in Las Vegas.
“Do you have ID?” the security guard asked.
“I’m wearing it!” an exasperated Lieberman responded, gesturing to the Kings gear she had on.
Lieberman was still arguing with the security guard when Bryant arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center. Bryant greeted Lieberman with a warm hug and kiss, listened to what happened and then tore into the security guard.
“Sir, this woman is the assistant coach of that team,” Lieberman recalled Bryant saying. “If a man had that gear on, you wouldn’t have said anything to him. You’d have just said, ‘Yes, sir.’ But because she’s a woman, you naturally assumed she didn’t belong.”
“What he said!” Lieberman added, before she thanked Bryant profusely as they walked toward their locker rooms together.
Later that season, Lieberman dressed in an otherwise empty Lakers locker room before a road game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Pouncing on an opportunity to play a prank on Bryant, she placed her skirt, blouse and stilettos in his locker, texted him the picture and wrote, “You want to talk about this?”
“Do not put that on social media!” Bryant joked.
“That skirt is a good color on you,” Lieberman needled. “I think it will really make your eyes pop!”
While Bryant retired in 2016 and Lieberman left the Kings and returned to the broadcast booth the year after, their paths still crossed from time to time. They chatted and posed for pictures with Bryant’s daughters at the 2017 women’s Final Four. They met up again the following year in New York after both participated in the ceremonial U.S. Open coin toss.
Two nights before Bryant’s doomed helicopter ride, Lieberman overheard two male Fox Sports colleagues discussing a comment the retired Lakers star had made to CNN earlier that week. They disagreed with Bryant’s stance that a few of the WNBA’s best players were skilled enough to “play in the NBA right now.”
Lieberman cleared her throat to signal she was within earshot. Then she reminded her colleagues that she was living proof women can hold their own against men.
In 1980, she suited up for the Lakers’ Summer League team. In 1986, she began a two-year stint with the United States Basketball League’s Springfield Fame. There was no WNBA during Lieberman’s prime, so she stayed sharp playing against men.
“I got my behind kicked so many different ways, but it’s doable if you have a high IQ, you’re not afraid and you can master the things that take no talent,” Lieberman said. “Because physically, these guys are on another level.”
With her colleagues still not convinced, Lieberman texted a friend for backup. Only seconds later, Lieberman’s phone buzzed with Bryant’s memorable reply.
‘I couldn’t agree with you more’
Bryant’s defense of his position that some women would not be overmatched in the NBA was colorful yet passionate, disappointed yet defiant.
“They absolutely could,” Bryant texted. “Reporter was acting like they couldn’t. Doesn’t mean they need to, but the level of respect because they are women. It’s so normal. Dudes think they can just overpower them. It’s bulls*** and frustrating as hell. NBA players would be served up, let alone some normal weekend-warrior-ass Joe Blow.”
Lieberman responded that it was “disrespectful” and “sexism.” Then she asked Bryant, “Remember when I had to play my prime against men?”
“Exactly. I remember that,” Bryant wrote. “No one talks about that anymore, Nancy. I couldn’t agree with you more.”
The conversation eventually turned to Bryant’s open invitation to have Lieberman put Gianna’s team through practice. When Lieberman reiterated she’d love to do it, Bryant responded, “When do you want to come? We practice every night.”
“Of course you do,” Lieberman joked. “I’ll text you next week for details.”
They ended up speaking the following day and settling on Wednesday, Jan. 29. Lieberman said she might have come sooner had she not had her conference in the desert on Jan. 26, and TV commitments on the Jan. 27 and 28.
“If Kobe had said, ‘Can you come to the game on Sunday?’, I would have said yes,” Lieberman said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have gone and done whatever he wanted me to do.”
With the one-year anniversary of Bryant’s death on Tuesday, Lieberman has found herself reflecting more and more about the death of her friend and about her own close call. She wishes that Bryant were still alive to be a husband to Vanessa, a father to his daughters and a staunch supporter of women busting through barriers.
“I’m thankful for my family that I was not on that helicopter,” Lieberman said, “but I’m devastated for the loss of life.”
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