When Nancy Lieberman decided to come back, at age 50, to play for the WNBA's Detroit Shock, she was struck by how much things had changed since she'd played for the L.A. Lakers summer league team. But there was one connection to her old team: Kobe Bryant approached Lieberman to learn the secret to her longevity.
Lieberman points out that with a simple click onto male athletes' Twitter pages, you can find comments and praise for Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, the UConn women's winning streak, or tennis champion Serena Williams. That means a lot, according to a woman who has played and coached in both the NBA system and the WNBA.
"I guess my point is, in this day and age, you can see the respect women have from men," said Lieberman, who now coaches the NBA Development League's Texas Legends.
But can it translate? Would players in the NBA or another professional men's league accept a woman as a teammate? Over the next six days, espnW will look at the sports landscape in detail -- the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL, tennis and golf -- to see if an exceptional woman could play against, and with, men. And if she would be accepted as a peer.
In the 39 years since Title IX opened playing fields across the country to girls, the number of women playing sports has skyrocketed. Women's professional leagues have come -- some have stayed and others have gone -- and the skill level of female athletes has improved tremendously.
Many of those interviewed for this story, both coaches and athletes, say a woman could be accepted as a professional if she helped her team win. Danica Patrick in auto racing and Kelly Kulick on the Professional Bowlers Association tour have shown that women can compete and win on an individual basis. Others, such as former LPGA champion Annika Sorenstam and Baylor basketball player Brittney Griner, have brought attention to their sports by competing with men, or mastering a skill once thought to belong strictly to the male domain, such as dunking.
There may be places for women in the men's leagues. Former Packers vice president Andrew Brandt said a woman might be able to play as a kicker. Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette said a woman might break into baseball as a knuckleballer.
Others, including some who didn't want to be quoted, think it's unrealistic. In tennis, then-teenagers Venus and Serena Williams, aspiring to play on the ATP Tour, were beaten soundly in an exhibition by Karsten Braasch, ranked No. 203 at the time. Even women who have played with men -- Lieberman, basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw and Division I kicker Katie Hnida -- said men have a size and strength advantage at some positions that will be hard for a woman to challenge.
"There are no women today who are 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and can plow through a dude," Lieberman said bluntly.
Dr. Cindy Chang, chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said studies have shown that men have greater upper-body strength than women, but added that studies that compare physical differences do so by comparing the averages. There are women who may be at the far end of the curve in areas such as leg strength, or have a body type that is beneficial for certain sports.
But Chang said some, such as Patrick, are able to defy their size.
"To drive a race car takes incredible upper-body strength," Chang said, "but you also need to use your strength efficiently."
Boys and girls are often funneled into different sports long before biology gives boys an advantage, for reasons that may be more social than physical. Dr. Earl Smith, the director of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest, thinks that the physical challenges of breaking into the professional ranks would be dwarfed by sociological ones.
He points to the way groundbreakers such as Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King were vilified for their trouble; to how exceptional female athletes are criticized for not being feminine enough; and to the role for women as cheerleaders, which is reinforced during commercials and timeouts.
There is still, he said, a stigma, and few girls are going to be encouraged to truly go against the grain.
"There are women who can kick a football or a soccer ball," Smith said, "but then you have to ask yourself as a parent, would you put your daughter through that just to play a game?"
Any team scouting a woman would have to consider the attendant media circus. Consider the questions already posed to players before the draft. Now imagine if that player were the first woman. She would have to be able to withstand media scrutiny as well as skeptical fans and teammates.
As for the locker room itself, few looked at that as a serious hurdle. Lieberman said she has a set schedule to meet with her players in the locker room, and the issue scarcely comes into play. Even a longtime baseball player said that minor league teams could handle the situation.
"It's not that big a deal if you think about it; you throw on a towel," said Norm Hutchins, who has played for 21 minor league teams in the 16 years since he was drafted by the Angels. "But there's always going to be someone who says something stupid or complains."
Which is why the front office of any team championing a woman would have to commit to weathering the bumps along the way.
Kulick became the first woman to win a PBA tour event with a victory in the Tournament of Champions in 2010. She had transitioned to the men's league when the women's league folded. The fact that bowling's governing body is made up of men and women eased her transition. Her win gives her a two-year exemption, but to remain eligible, she will need to keep performing.
"If I want to be exempt, I need to work harder," Kulick said. "I don't want to be out there if I didn't deserve to be out there."
Beyond the question of whether a woman could do it is the issue of whether female athletes should use a male standard to judge their own excellence, particularly when women's leagues need to showcase the best of the gender to attract fans.
"I think when we were younger, you thought about the hopes and opportunity of playing in the NBA, with the guys," said Lisa Leslie, who played in the inaugural season of the WNBA. "But the beautiful part about it is that we have the WNBA, and there's a reason for us to need to do more. I think that our league is substantial in regards to talent and competitiveness, and the fact that we've continued to grow -- even as individuals -- we have just grown by leaps and bounds."
Samantha Rapoport, senior manager of Flag and Female Football Development for USA Football, points out that women don't have to look at pro roster spots as the only goal because there is ground to break in coaching, officiating and in the front office. As Lieberman breaks that ground in the NBA D-League, she realizes that the players who don't make it to the NBA, the vast majority, will know how to work for a female boss in a future workplace.
For many of the women in this story, the negatives that come with being a pioneer can be mitigated by an experience similar to one Kulick recounted. She said a man came up to her with his newborn daughter and said, "You've given her something to strive for."
For Lieberman, it came in the form of a text message from an NBA coach, just before the game that would ultimately get the Legends to the playoffs.
"It said, 'I just want you to know I'm pulling for you like mad,'" Lieberman said. "It so took my breath away."
And by the way, her Legends won that game. Just another first.