Talk about your upbringing, how did that shape you into the woman you are today?
Growing up in New York shaped me into the person that I am today. Sometimes you have to go to through some trials and tribulations to build resiliency and affirm who you are thorough hard work. I’m proud to be born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens - Far Rockaway and going through some of the battles was hard but like I said it toughened me up a greater appreciation of what I wanted in life even though there was no roadmap somebody like myself back in the 60s or the 70s. I am strong, I’m invincible, I have a belief system and I have trust in what I want to do I can achieve if I’m willing to work hard enough.
You rode the trains up to Rucker Park without a fear in the world, talk about what that was like for you?
I rode trains to Rucker Park without fear because I was just young and dumb. I just wanted to be great and I knew that the best players in the world played at Rucker Park in Harlem. I wanted to play and be around the best. To be great you have to see what great looks like. For me to take A train from Far Rockaway and change trains in Manhattan to go to 155th and Malcolm X Boulevard was impactful for me because I could go into one of the most famous parks in the world or something legends played and try to get as much street credit as possible.
I knew I was going to get my bumps, bruises and get knocked down playing against guys. I just love the vibe, guys in the park with very protective of me. Matter fact, they would ride the train home. I’m fortunate for Ronald, Donald and Gary who protected me.
I didn’t realize I was teaching my mom about racism, about being profiled and about just treating people with love and respect regardless of their color, their religion, their gender. These are just my friends and that was really important to me. It gave me an understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion because I was living that every single day.
Who are your heroes and who did you model your hoop game after?
My hero’s in life were Walt Fraser and Willis Reed for the New York Knicks. I wore number 10 my entire career because Walt Frazier. I wanted to have the tenacity that the Captain of the Knicks, Willis Reed had and the impact he had on his teammates I wanted to put that in my life. Certainly, Dr. J, was just a great athlete. I loved watching him play with the class, grace and everything he brought as a winner in his career.
What was it like for you to meet Muhammad Ali at such a young age and how did that shape your life?
My ultimate hero was Muhammad Ali. I watched him on TV say was greatest of all times. He did the work, he chopped wood, he ran in boots, he took on the greats of the greats and never backed down. He even stood up for what his belief system is by not going to fight Vietnam and having his title stripped from him at the height of his career as the heavy weight champion.
I’ve loved him a since the day I saw him and the fact we became friends in December 1979, in my senior year at Old Dominion. He was so impactful for me because he realized that I was fake, fraud and hiding behind my pain and hiding behind Nancy Lieberman the basketball player. He became a great role model, friend, and mentor and has meant the whole world to me. I love him; I miss him and miss his advice, kindness and humor. I miss everything about Muhammad Ali. There are still days I can’t believe he was my friend. In the latter part of his life to spend so much time with him in Phoenix at his home in just holding his hand and telling him how much I love him appreciated everything that he did for me, those are very very special moments that I’ll never forget. I’m very thankful for Lonnie Ali to give me proximity and access to this man that I absolutely loved and still love.
What happened with Kobe while you were coaching in Sacramento, what were you able to learn from him?
Kobe Bryant another person who impacted my career, later in my career, but he was so good to me, so much respect for women. I think a real turning point was when I played in the WNBA at 50. Kobe Bryant came up to me, I went back to my real job at ESPN and it was a Monday and I was doing a game and Kobe said you “hey if you have a minute to I’d loved talk to you”. So I sit down room with him at the Lakes practice facility. He says you know Vanessa and my daughter, Natalia, we watched do you play.
I felt like I was in the think tank because he wanted to know why I came back, how was I training, what did I eat, was my body sore, what was my mental attitude like. There were 100 questions he was just asking me and this was the MVP of the NBA and NBA champion. He was asking 50-year-old white woman why I did what I did because he wanted to learn. He was always open to information, that was the coolest thing about Kobe Bryant, is that he thought he could take important stuff from everybody and that is something that we should all learn in life. I mean I can learn from the janitor. I can learn from anybody. He was like that and whether it was just picking up the phone to call him, “hey would you be willing to sign a pair of shoes for my charity”, which he sent me when I as coaching in the NBA. Him just being there to be supportive of me, here’s my number if there anything you need just talk to me. We were always like that. Even those two days before the helicopter crashed. For him to be texting with me, saying “hey you know just, when are you going to home out here, when are you going to put Gigi’s team through practice. Let’s do it on Wednesday” and it was so close to when he had passed away from the crash.
It was devastating for me. Actually, I did not know until my son called me when he landed in Italy. He had a game that night. I could tell in his voice something was wrong and he was like, “mom, mother, mother did you hear the news?” and I was like what news? he said “Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash and I thought you were on it.” That just hit my gut, and I just feel so deeply for Vanessa, Natalia and those kiddos to be without this amazing man. I learned a lot from the Mamba Mentality that I use every single day.
You have built an amazing charity that aims to develop healthy lifestyles and educational opportunities for young girls and boys. What has been most rewarding for you with the Dream Courts project?
My charity is obviously deeply important to me because we are a children’s charity and we change young peoples lives. I was that kid that needed direction and needed hope and needed to somebody to have empty for. That’s what we do; we serve over 4.2 million kids per year through all of our programs. We have 108 Dream Courts open around the country; we will open 15 in 2022. We have educational programming for the courts; we want to be out there with the kids. We want to be able to share life experiences from Financial Literacy, STEM, Kids and Cops program, Career Readiness and Civic Engagement. We want a young person to know what taxes are, what the cost of living is in different parts of the country. We want to be able to share that. We are doing it through a healthy alternative - sports and wellness. We are extremely proud. We are building 3 Dream Courts for Vanessa Bryant - May 1 on Gigi’s Birthday in Anaheim, CA to keep their legacy alive.
One piece of advice for the next generation of women (or female hoopers)?
Never stop working, wanting or dreaming. Everything is possible but you have to see it, say it to be it. You have to believe that those things can happen for you if you put the time, effort and work into changing your life and your opportunities.
What’s next for you?
Hard to say what’s next for me. I love what I am doing currently with Nancy Lieberman Charities. I’m very grateful to be coaching my 4th season in the BIG3 and having a boss like Ice Cube who is amazing. Fortunate to be a TV Studio Analyst for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They have been amazing to me and treated me like family and to watch my son’s career flourish. He is currently playing for the Washington Wizards G-League, Capital City Go-Go. I want to make sure I have enough time and energy to be there not only for the things that I do but for my son and the people that we are with me changing the lives of young people.