SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — Others in women's basketball may have scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, and dished out more assists, but for pure grit and chutzpa it's hard to beat Nancy Lieberman-Cline.
She is the Billie Jean King of her sport, a passionate pioneer. The Basketball Hall of Fame confirmed her status last week by inducting her and five others into the Springfield, Mass., shrine. The other members of the Class of '96 are all men - David Thompson, George Gervin, Gail Goodrich, George Yardley, and Yugoslav star Kresimir Cosic, whose wife accepted his honor posthumously.
While acknowledging that the Hall of Fame selection was "icing" on her career, Lieberman-Cline said her dream - to play in Madison Square Garden - was realized long ago.
"That was all I ever wanted to do," she said. "I was a city girl, and city girls belonged in Madison Square Garden." A fan of the champion New York Knicks teams of the early '70s, she longed to hear Garden announcer John Condon intone, "Tonight for your New York Knicks, No. 10 Walter Frazier and No. 10A Nancy Lieberman."
At 14, she was so intent on playing against the best that she hopped on the A-train from Queens to Harlem to challenge the men in playground games. Her mother tried to stop her, but Lieberman-Cline says she was too naive and willful to listen.
Her choice of colleges, she says, was sealed when Old Dominion's athletic director promised her that the team would play in the Garden someday. She led ODU to back-to-back national championships in 1979 and '80, played professionally for two now-defunct women's pro leagues, and in 1986 became the first woman to play in a men's pro league, suiting up for the Springfield, Mass., franchise of the minor-league United States Basketball League.
Two years later, Lieberman-Cline toured with the Harlem Globetrotters as a member of the Washington Generals, who provide the opposition. There was too much show and not enough serious basketball for her liking, but she did meet her husband-to-be. She and fellow General Tim Cline married a month after the tour ended.
Today, Lieberman-Cline still plays recreationally, broadcasts basketball (mainly for ESPN), and runs a three-on-three national Hoop It Up tournament. Best of all, she notes, "the sport has afforded me friendships that are unbelievable."