Women's Hoops Blog

Inane commentary on a game that deserves far better

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

An uncomfortable history lesson --

last week I posted Lieberman's picks from ESPN.com for end of the year honors. She picked DeForge for Most Improved Player, and I think she's right. A couple folks emailed and said (1) I'm crazy, and (2) Lieberman's pick is tainted because of her relationship with DeForge. The Newark Star-Ledger article today again makes reference to it.

The story is from Sports Illustrated from 2001. I didn't see it at the time, but here it is now for those interested:

Sometimes speculation about a coach-athlete relationship is enough to unhinge a team. A few weeks before the end of the 2000 WNBA season, the Detroit Shock convened for a practice at its training facility behind The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Shock had just returned from a West Coast trip, and as the players warmed up, casually stretching, dribbling and shooting free throws, Nancy Lieberman, a Hall of Famer then in her third season as the Shock's general manager and coach, strode into the gym. "I want everyone in the locker room right now!" she shouted. One Detroit player says she'll never forget the look on Lieberman's face. "She was teary, but she seemed angry," the player recalls. "She looked like a madwoman."

The players waited anxiously in the locker room for nearly 10 minutes before Lieberman joined them. She sat in front of a locker, crossed her legs and spoke in a measured tone. "I know that [some] of you have gone to management and said that Anna and I are having a sexual relationship," several players quote Lieberman as having said. Team members couldn't help but glance toward point guard Anna DeForge, a 25-year-old WNBA rookie. "Anna just put her head down," one Detroit veteran says. "After a while, she started crying."

Questions about Lieberman's relationship with DeForge had been percolating among teammates for months as the Shock slogged through a dismal season. Now even those who had ignored the talk had to confront the issue. "If you had a problem with my personal life, you should have come to me, and I would have told you about it," said Lieberman, who during the meeting reminded players that she was married. After a failed attempt to find out which players had complained to senior management, Lieberman, who was in charge of the Shock's personnel decisions, said, "I will be here longer than any of you. Half of you won't be here next year, so you better start playing ball."

Though Detroit president Tom Wilson says Lieberman told him she was not having a relationship with DeForge when he confronted her shortly before the locker room meeting in August--and though both she and DeForge reiterated that denial to SI--more than a half dozen WNBA sources say they felt the team had to question whether the coach and player were crossing the line. Players say Lieberman, 43, and DeForge spent hour after hour together on the road. One witnessed them exchanging hotel room keys, while another spotted Lieberman's car outside DeForge's apartment late one night, incidents DeForge says never happened. "In Sacramento we went out by the [hotel] pool for a workout, and Nancy and Anna were there, swimming and lying by the pool," says former Detroit player Joy Holmes-Harris. "Everyone was, like, 'Come on, give it a rest.'"

Lieberman calls the notion that she and DeForge were involved romantically "absolutely false" and says such talk was born of players' petty jealousies and internal team politics. "Sometimes players have a hard time separating playing time from accountability," she says. "If you look at the players who said those things, you'll see that most of them are no longer with the franchise because they didn't produce for other reasons. Coaches and players can be close friends. Pat Riley and Magic Johnson had a great friendship. Shaq and Phil Jackson have a great friendship. Anna is a wonderful person, and I hope I am friends with her until the day I die. [But] I would never jeopardize my profession or my character to be with one of my players."

Lieberman and DeForge confirmed that they shared Lieberman's Troy, Mich., residence for 3 1/2 weeks after the 2000 season ended. The reason, both said, was so they could work out together and prepare for an upcoming basketball camp.

In Detroit, players say they were vexed by DeForge's rapid ascent to the Shock's starting lineup. Unable to hook on to a WNBA team after the ABL, in which she'd played for one season, folded in 1998, DeForge had been out of basketball for a year when she ran into Lieberman, who was in Lincoln, Neb., to broadcast a February 2000 Kansas-Nebraska college game for ESPN. Three months later Lieberman invited DeForge to the Shock's preseason tryout camp, where she alone among more than 100 hopefuls earned an invitation to training camp. Midway through the season, with the Shock plagued by injuries, Lieberman moved DeForge into the starting point guard spot. At the time, DeForge was averaging 3.0 points and 0.7 assists; she hadn't gotten off the bench in five of the Shock's 16 games.

"How does someone go from the 11th person on the team to a starter?" asks one Detroit veteran. "[DeForge] would have to call other people [for help] when teams pressed her because she couldn't get the ball upcourt." Other players wondered whether the Shock's top draft choice, point guard Tamicha Jackson, was being left on the injured reserve list so that Lieberman could protect DeForge's starting spot. DeForge started 10 games, averaging 6.7 points and 3.0 assists. Says Lieberman, "No one worked harder than Anna. If my star players and my high draft picks had worked that hard, we would have contended for the Eastern Conference title."

Finally, two players voiced concerns to Wilson, who says he asked Lieberman twice about the accusations, and twice she denied them. "It's very rare for a player to go to the team president, unless it is pretty serious in the minds of many of them," Wilson says. "You were getting pretty close to a mutinous state."

The flash point was the meeting in the Shock locker room. When it concluded, DeForge was still crying. After Lieberman left the locker room, two veterans walked over and gave DeForge hugs, attempting to console her. One of them explained to her why her teammates were upset. "I said to Anna, 'You know the accusation is out there, but you are almost as at fault as [Lieberman] is,'" says one player. "'In this type of environment, your teammates matter more than your relationship with the coach.' I was trying to tell her to back off a little bit."

Player-coach affairs become much more complicated if they're same-sex. Even in a league such as the WNBA, in which one team explicitly markets itself to the gay community, the issue is doubly sensitive. "If there's a heterosexual relationship between an athlete and coach, provided it's consensual and nonadulterous, is it a bad idea? Yes," says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "But because of homophobia in and around women's sports, if it's a lesbian relationship, the negative perception is exacerbated--it quietly moves from the arena of poor judgment to the arena of deviance and immorality."

Lieberman's promise that she would outlast every player on the Shock went unfulfilled. On Aug. 28, 2000, shortly after Detroit concluded a 14-18 season, Wilson told Lieberman she would not be offered a new contract. Wilson confirmed to SI that the "tense locker room" was a factor in the firing. "She sort of lost the team," he says. Lieberman acknowledges that the situation became untenable. "Tom did the right thing," she says. "If you lose most of the players, it's a tough place to be. It was time to go."

Both Lieberman and DeForge are out of the WNBA. On March 15, Lieberman filed for divorce from her husband of 13 years, Tim Cline, in Collin County, Texas. According to court documents, she and Cline had "ceased living together as husband and wife." Lieberman works as a commentator for ESPN and lives in Dallas, where in July she, with DeForge by her side, conducted a basketball camp for girls. Asked about documents indicating she and DeForge shared a residence in Dallas, Lieberman said, "I was always there for players," and that she often welcomed players into her home. "My home address," says DeForge, "is in Lincoln, Nebraska."

A year after their tumultuous season, Shock players look back at how quickly the team unraveled. "Once the rumor started, it spread like wildfire," says Holmes-Harris. "Players were upset and frustrated and thinking a lot about it. They saw Nancy and Anna together, and they got fed up The team fell apart."