Houston 79, Detroit 61
HOUSTON, July 24 (AP) -- Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman showed she still had one nifty pass left in her.
The 50-year-old Lieberman had two assists, including a no-look pass in the closing minutes of the Detroit Shock's 79-61 loss to the Houston Comets on Thursday night.
Lieberman made a one-time only appearance in the Shock's first game since Tuesday night's bench-clearing melee with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Five Shock players were suspended and Cheryl Ford sustained a season-ending injury, prompting coach Bill Laimbeer to offer Lieberman a seven-day contract.
"I had a great time,'' said Lieberman, who missed her only shot, a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter. "It was very historic to be able to do that.''
Lieberman played nine minutes, seven in the fourth quarter, when the game's outcome was decided. The Shock players tried to get her in a position to score every time down the floor at the end, but Lieberman could only get off one shot.
With 1:16 left, she zipped a no-look pass to Olayinka Sanni in the lane and Sanni put it in, prompting some of the loudest applause of the night from the crowd of 7,261.
"I think I'll be able to pass when I'm in a wheelchair,'' she said. "Hopefully, that won't be too soon. But I've always been able to pass and it's fun to make people better.''
The Comets lined up to hug Lieberman after the game and Lieberman posed for pictures and signed autographs for fans for nearly a half an hour. Comets forward Tina Thompson credited Laimbeer for bringing Lieberman back after the fight brought a wave of bad publicity to the WNBA.
"He brought something positive back to the game and changed the focus,'' Thompson said. "I commend him for that.''
Lieberman defended her contract, calling it more a necessity for the Shock than a gimmick to counter the negativity generated by the ugly incident.
"In a crazy way, the timing is good,'' she said. "Bill never looked at this like a circus or an opportunity for a novelty. He looked at it as, 'You know what, I have a roster spot available and I was excited to do it.'
"The other night was really sad and I was very disappointed,'' she said. "But today is a day to celebrate the history of the game and this league and to inspire people.''
Lieberman said she and Laimbeer had been talking about her joining the team for almost two weeks.
Laimbeer said he was impressed watching Lieberman run through a skills test at last year's WNBA All-Star Game. He said he would pursue a seven-day contract with her if the situation ever arose.
Lieberman said Laimbeer sent a text message after the Shock lost to New York on July 12.
"We just kept having dialogue on how to make it work,'' she said. "We needed to get approval and run it through the league and the Pistons hierarchy. And it made sense. I mean, I coached the Shock, we started the franchise. So there's a great relationship there. That's how it was born.''
Laimbeer liked what he saw.
"Better than I expected,'' he said. "Our players were very into having her on our basketball team. They had a good time.''
Part of Lieberman's motivation for Thursday's game was the opportunity to break another barrier.
She was 18 when she played for the U.S. Olympic team in Montreal in 1976 and became the youngest player to earn a medal when the team took silver. A decade later, she became the first woman to play in a men's professional league when she joined the Springfield Fame of the USBL. And now, twice, she's become the oldest player to compete in the WNBA.
"Here I am at 50. How amazing is it?'' she said. "We all have patterns. Mine are risk-reward and I'm willing to do what I have to do for my team. I'm very proud of this shot and this opportunity.''
Lieberman played at Old Dominion from 1976-80 and led the school to two national titles. She averaged 15.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists during her 17-year professional playing career.
She was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame three years later.
The fans had a positive reaction to Lieberman's presence.
"Women's sports struggle so anyway,'' said Maureen Howard, a Comets season ticket holder. "If this helps the league, I think it's great. It's entertaining, and anything that draws attention to the league is a good thing.''
Howard compared Lieberman to swimmer Dara Torres, who qualified for the Beijing Olympics at age 41.
"If a 40-year-old can make our Olympic team, why can't a 50-year-old play basketball?'' Howard said.
Lieberman was the oldest player on either team by 16 years. Detroit's Katie Smith was the next oldest at 34.
Toni Blackwell, 56, another Comets season ticket holder, didn't think Lieberman's appearance damaged the league's credibility.
"It's good they have somebody like her to go to,'' Blackwell said. "Maybe they could do something like this once a year. It's entertaining.''