Having played men's hoop, I understand Annika's quest

As the first woman to play professionally with men, I can relate to what Annika Sorenstam is going through.

Updated: May 23, 2003, 12:39 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

I can relate to what Annika Sorenstam is going through as a woman playing against men on the PGA Tour. In 1986, I became the first woman to play professionally with men. There are some similarities between Annika's situation and mine, but there are also some key differences.

Nancy Lieberman
At age 38, Nancy Lieberman was the WNBA's oldest player for the inaugural Phoenix Mercury in 1997.
She already has a pro tour, the LPGA, where she's the best in the world and makes millions of dollars. In '86, I didn't have another option. There was no women's professional league. The Women's American Basketball Association had folded in 1984, and the WNBA was more than a decade away. But I wanted to play. There I was, at the height of my career, playing ball at Dallas' downtown Y in front of Maurice the janitor (Maurice and I became pretty good friends). I wanted more.

When a representative from the United States Basketball League (USBL) called and asked if I was interested, naturally I said "yes." Founded in 1985, the USBL -- which plays a spring/summer schedule -- featured guys like Spud Webb, Michael Ray Richardson, John "Hot Rod" Williams and Michael Adams. I had already played for Pat Riley and the Lakers in their summer league in 1980. In fact, I had always played against guys. I grew up playing in Harlem's Rutger Park and competing against guys, and it helped me improve my game.

I played for the USBL's Springfield fame in '86 (coached by current USC coach Henry Bibby) and for the Long Island Knights in '87 (coached by former Knicks great Dean Meminger).

Honestly, with all the hype and all the social issues involved, when you reduce Sorenstam's quest this weekend to its simplest terms, it's all about getting better. When you coach a player or a team, what do you tell them? Stretch yourself, give it all you've got, strive to be the best you can be. Sorenstam is simply doing what coaches tell their athletes to do every single day.

Sorenstam is the best in the world, yet she's not satisfied. So she's willing to lay it on the line to make herself even better.

I've identified the different circumstances between my situation and Sorenstam's, but I love what she's doing. I'm pulling for her. There's nothing negative about it. The only negative is in the viewpoint of the men who aren't comfortable with the idea of being bested by a woman (I'm not sure how well she'll do, but I don't think she'll come in dead last). If these men looked at it differently, though, they could learn from her -- her course management, perhaps, or her putting. Who cares who you learn from if it helps you improve?

In the USBL, I was faced with a size and strength disadvantage, but I was better fundamentally and technically than most guys in the league. So I shared that knowledge with them.

I remember working together with Michael Adams, who became an NBA All-Star and one of the NBA's best 3-point shooters. He was a perennial CBA, USBL, minor-league guy. We'd be in the gym after a two-hour practice, and I'd say, "Come on, Michael, we're staying." He'd say, "What do you mean we're staying?"

Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam has her eye on a lot more than the Colonial in 2003.
"We're staying, Michael. We're going to shoot -- or I'll pass and you can shoot. We're going to get on the track, we're going to lift weights." His response: "Girl, you need to leave me alone."

So I would try to use my sense of humor. "Michael, you've got to get to the NBA." He'd shoot back, "Why do you care so much?" And I'd say, "I need tickets. So you've got to get this done for me, OK?"

When Michael Adams signed his four-year, $4 million contract with the Denver Nuggets in the early '90s, he called me and thanked me. It made my heart swell with satisfaction and pride, that I could help someone achieve his goal while I dealt with the adversity of being the only woman in the USBL. To this day, we're great friends.

The neatest thing about my USBL experience was that I won my teammates over with my hard work, desire and professionalism. If I made a great pass or went behind my back or hit a jumper, the crowds would go wild and my teammates would high-five each other on the bench. Earning their respect was important to me.

I hope Annika Sorenstam is able to do the same this weekend with fans and PGA golfers alike. She's certainly done enough to earn immense respect in her LPGA career.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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