Later this week, when the New Orleans Pelicans officially name Willie Green their eighth head coach in franchise history, the NBA will wrap up a historic offseason of head coaching hires.
Of the league’s seven new head coaches, six are Black. Five of the six are first time hires.
But for all the growth, there’s one slice of history that fell through the cracks: This was supposed to be the summer of the NBA’s first female head coach. Would it be Becky Hammon or Kara Lawson? Teresa Weatherspoon or Dawn Staley? For one reason or another, it’s none of the above.
But while the NBA drags its feet, allowing questions to persist, there’s a men’s professional hoops league answering those questions in real time; a place where female head coaches not only exist, they’re kicking everyone’s ass.
“I’ve got $100 on you missin’!”
Earlier this month in Las Vegas, Charles Oakley sat courtside at the Orleans Arena, exuding every ounce of testosterone and swagger you’d expect from The Oak Man. The self-proclaimed Last Enforcer, Oakley played 19 seasons in the NBA, making an All-Star team, two All-Defensive teams and 13 consecutives trips to the playoffs. On the court, Oakley battled the fiercest of his era. Off the court, he once cold-cocked Charles Barkley and socked John Salley in the stomach. He is one the toughest individuals to ever don an NBA jersey, and no less intimidating at 57 years old.
Oakley’s yelling at Royce White, the former NBA first round pick turned activist and aspiring MMA fighter. Now 30 years old with a bald head, jacked frame and thick beard, he hits the free throw, then winks and snarls in Oakley’s direction. “It’s easy!”
The whistle blows for a time out as Oakley gets out of his seat and approaches the court. White’s looking straight at him, and not backing down. Their shoulders meet with an impact that would send most humans into orbit, but in this case neither man gives an inch, smiling just enough to keep it playful.
Welcome to the Big 3, the professional three-on-three league founded by Ice Cube, where the NBA’s past and future collide. While most new sports ventures don’t last beyond year one, the Big 3 has survived three seasons and a pandemic. Season 4 launched this month with an influx of NBA talent and a boat load of cachet. The Big 3 might not be the Association, but it’s the closest thing to it; a living, breathing tribute to the legendary players and personalities that have grown the game over the past 50 years.
Looking around the gym as Oakley and White have their alpha moment, there’s Julius Erving, cool as ever, wearing loafers with no socks and a multicolored jacket. He coaches Tri State (featuring Nate Robinson and Jason Richardson), set to take on fellow Hall of Famer and all-time trash talker Gary Payton, coach of the Three-Headed Monster (featuring Rashard Lewis, Reggie Evans and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf). Other Hall of Fame coaches in the Big 3 include Rick Barry and George Gervin. Oakley coaches a team, too. The league’s 12 rosters are 90% former NBA players, a mix of All-Stars and champions, role players and rare second chances. The Big 3 is the only place you can still see Greg Oden dunk in traffic while Iso Joe Johnson takes everyone to school as Mario Chalmers argues with the refs. There’s trash-talking and chest-bumping, egos and attitudes, and all you’d expect from throwing so many fierce competitors onto the same court, with bragging rights and money on the line.
But let’s get back to the headline.
For all the tough guys and testosterone, the Big 3 is a men’s hoop league dominated by women.
Ice Cube not only employs two women head coaches, but those women have won the last two league titles.
The first was Nancy Lieberman. A Naismith Hall of Famer, Lieberman not only played at the highest levels, but she’s also coached men in the G League and as an assistant coach for Sacramento Kings. When Ice Cube offered her the job in 2018, Lieberman didn’t mince words. “Why do you want me?” she asked. “Do you need to check a box?” Ice Cube wasn’t expecting the question. He didn’t know how to answer. So, he said the first thing that came to mind: “Because I think you can win.”
That’s all Lieberman needed to hear. That next season, she coached Power (led by Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley, Glen Davis and Chris “Birdman” Andersen) to the title.
“Let’s break all these barriers,” Ice Cube said while presenting Lieberman the trophy. “A woman can do anything in sports.”
A year later, the Big 3 expanded from eight to 12 teams. For one of the four new coaching jobs, Ice Cube turned to another all-time female hooper in Lisa Leslie. In her first year coaching the Triplets (led by Joe Johnson and Al Jefferson) she won the title and Big 3 Coach of the Year.
“The opportunity has to be given to us,” says Lieberman. “It takes strong men to allow strong women to shine. The Big 3 gave two strong women a chance and look what happened.”
What happened is a non-story for the Big 3’s players, but in the best possible way. Most questions about a female head coach are dismissed, even challenged as ignorant. Not because the issue is complicated or controversial, but because the answer is obvious.
“Women can give birth, I’m pretty sure they can coach a men’s basketball team,” says Cuttino Mobley, an 11-year NBA veteran, who won a title with Lieberman in ’18.
“I love Nancy,” says Royce White, in his first season playing for Lieberman. “What’s the problem? You don’t think a woman can be a head coach?”
No, I meant…
“Sports is supposed to be a meritocracy,” White continues. “The social issues are about something else, but sports should be a meritocracy. If you’re good enough to do it, you should be able to do it. Nancy can do it.”
Meritocracy is at the root of what Ice Cube (and co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz) have accomplished since founding the Big 3 in 2017. They didn’t hire Lieberman or Leslie to make headlines or tug heartstrings. They weren’t out to tokenize. “It makes us better,” says Ice Cube. “It makes us smarter. We’re the f****in’ case study.”
On that note, this is a good time to mention the Big 3 is run by a woman. Their chairman of the board is chairwoman Amy Trask, a pioneer for gender equality in sports, who previously ran the Raiders for more than a decade. She’s proud of what the league has put together, but just as proud of the how and the why.
“We did the right things for the right reasons,” Trask said.
And the legends agree.
“Diversity and inclusion are who we are in this country, and I believe the Big 3 is the best example of that in sports,” said Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, the league commissioner.
Meanwhile, Dr. J is too busy figuring out how to beat Lieberman and Leslie to wonder whether they belong.
“I’m not looking across the court and seeing a female coach,” Erving says. “That’s the enemy.”
Count Drexler and Dr. J among the growing core of greats who believe it’s long past time for a female to earn a full time NBA head coaching gig. Even Charles Oakley, an old-school “man’s man,” knows the time has come. If he wasn’t convinced before, two years of losing to Leslie and Lieberman helped hammer it home.
“You can always be taught a new trick,” Oakley says. “That’s what the Big 3 is doing. Teaching new ways to do things. The NBA might be the big boys, but they can still learn a thing or two.”
In this sense, while the Big 3 is a living tribute to so much basketball history, it’s also a glimpse into an NBA future, when female head coaches not only exist, but seamlessly thrive.
“Basketball is genderless,” Leslie says. “I know what I’m talking about. I know Xs and Os. I understand what’s happening in the moment. I understand the pressure. I’ve been there.”
And for all its room to grow, and the struggles any fledgling sports league will endure, the basketball world is lucky to have the Big 3: A bunch of tough guys who aren’t afraid to admit that sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.
The NBA will get there… eventually.
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