The decade's best Jewish athlete?
Last week the Jewish Chronicle asked us to nominate the most important Jewish person in sports over the last decade. They suggested Israeli footballer Yossi Benayoun, European judo champion Arik Ze’evi, tennis star Andy Ram, and American swimmer Jason Lezak. Tablet magazine picked up on the story, and added Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis to the list. Excuse me, but where are the Jewish women athletes? Have they been invisible for the past ten years? Considering the Associated Press' recent nomination of two horses for "Female Athlete of the Year," maybe so.
I'll admit that I don't really follow sports, but one Jewish woman athlete has been on my radar. Women's basketball star Nancy Lieberman has been breaking gender barriers in sports for years now, and this November she broke down a new one when she became the first woman to coach an NBA D-League affiliate (men's) team. This is the first time in American history that a professional men's basketball team has ever been coached by a woman.
Lieberman's career is legendary. At age 18, she made the U.S. team at the 1976 Montreal games, the first time women's basketball was played at the Olympics. In college, she led her team to national basketball championships in 1979 and 1980, and won the Wade Trophy twice -- a first in basketball history.
In the first half of the '80s, Lieberman was a star player in the flegling Women's Basketball League, precursor to the WNBA. After that folded, she made history in 1986, when she became the first woman to play alongside men in a men's league with the Springfield Flame. She also played alongside men on the Washington Generals, the team that opposes the Harlem Globetrotters. She played on the Phoenix Mercury team when the WNBA launched, and was inducted into the National National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. She became the head coach and general manager of the WNBA Detroit Shock from 1998 to 2000, as well as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. In 1999, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Lieberman has continued to break barriers in the 00s, perhaps not as an athlete, but as a coach, broadcaster, and sports analyst for ESPN. It is difficult to earn respect as a female athlete, but it is even harder to earn it as a coach or analyst. In the American imagination, we still see most authority figures in sports as men, but Lieberman is changing this. She told ESPN, “In 1986, my goal was not to be a girl playing in a men's league, it was to be a player in a men's league. In 2010, I don't want to be a woman who is coaching men; I want to be a coach who is coaching.”
Perhaps she is not the most appropriate pick for "athlete of the decade," but her recent accomplishments deserve recognition and applause. You can learn more about Nancy Lieberman in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia or This Week in History.
What woman would you nominate for Jewish athlete of the decade?