If not for a scheduled conference, Nancy Lieberman could have been in the tragic helicopter crash that took the life of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.

The Hall of Fame women’s basketball player and coaching pioneer had made plans to fly out to Los Angeles, take his helicopter to the Mamba Sports Academy and work with Gianna the week after they passed away, speaking to Bryant the night before the crash. While she was at that conference, her son, T.J. Cline, called in tears, informing her of the news, thinking before she answered the phone she may have been aboard.

“If [Bryant] had called me Saturday and I’m sitting around Dallas [with no plans], and he goes, ‘Come to Los Angeles, come watch Gianna play,’ I would’ve gone, there’s no doubt,” she said Tuesday night at Chelsea Piers. “I couldn’t breathe [when I heard the news]. I didn’t know if I was going to go to the hospital.

“It’s so sad. I’m just heartbroken and devastated. I don’t know if I’ve cried this much in years, just because of the proximity I had to him.”

Nancy Lieberman
Nancy LiebermanCorey Sipkin

Lieberman and Bryant had become close over the years, bonding over Bryant’s support of women’s basketball. She became the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team in November 2009, when she took over the Texas Legends, then of the NBA Developmental League.

Lieberman later was the second woman to be an NBA assistant coach, working with the Mavericks. Lieberman, who now serves as a television analyst for the Pelicans, sat with Bryant and his daughter at the women’s Final Four last year. They last saw each other at the U.S. Open this summer.

“He was so comfortable in retirement,” she said. “I used to tell him he has the Mamba Mentality on the court, but he had the Mamba Mentality of love, kindness, purpose and passion off the court. I loved both those Kobe Bryants.”

Lieberman was one of the honorees at Tuesday night’s 40th annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner. She couldn’t help but find similarities between Munson and Bryant, great athletes who died too soon. Munson died the age of 32, killed in a plane crash during an off day in the baseball schedule, cutting short his career after two World Series titles and seven All-Star game appearances.

“I know what Kobe was doing was exactly what Thurman was doing. He loved his wife and he loved his kids,” Lieberman said. “[Bryant] was very well aware of Thurman Munson and his legacy. They were cut from the same cloth. They were tough. They could be tough on their teammates. They would push you to a different level. I get it. Greatness is not for the meek.”