June 20, 1997 in Sports

It’s Not All Child’s Play Lieberman-Cline, 38, In Wnba

Earl Gustkey Los Angeles Times
 

It’s nine men and Nancy Lieberman-Cline on the basketball court.

Here she comes up the court. She glides to the top of the key, pretending to see no one open. But only she sees the cutter on her left, breaking to the basket. She looks right and whips a behind-the-back bounce pass to the cutter, who scores an uncontested layup.

He gives her a grin and a thumbs-up sign as the ball goes the other way.

She is 38 years old. Comeback time.

A generation ago, at Old Dominion University, Nancy Lieberman was perhaps the greatest player in the women’s game.

Now, decades later, women’s professional basketball has finally arrived in the United States and she’s still here. And she wants to play, too.

“They’re going to pay me $40,000 to play, and it’ll cost me about $50,000 to get in shape,” she said while cruising around north Dallas in her raspberry Mercedes.

When the eight-team Women’s National Basketball Association tips off Saturday, she will be one of the main stories.

She will be the oldest player in the WNBA (she will turn 39 July 1) and will play for Phoenix. Her coach: Cheryl Miller.

Lieberman-Cline has arrived at the gym at Collin Community College, about 15 minutes from her north Dallas home.

She is playing fullcourt with junior-college players, ranging from 6 feet to 6-9. Lieberman-Cline, who is 5-10, has a game plan.

Before the game, she is fastening on plastic ankle braces.

“I hate these things. I can’t even stand to play with a Band-Aid,” she mutters.

“But I turned an ankle a couple of months back, and I can’t afford one now at this stage. I’ll have almost no lateral movement today, but the idea against these guys is to distribute the ball, to find the open teammate. I’m not here to rebound or score.”

Lieberman-Cline has been playing with the junior-college players almost daily for a couple of months. A small crowd has gathered, and this is what they see of her, on her team’s first possessions: There is a steal, a breakaway and Lieberman-Cline makes a no-look pass for a score.

Another assist.

She finds a teammate open near the basket, but he is surprised by the pass and muffs it.

She throws a behind-the-back pass out of bounds.

She makes a jump shot from the free-throw line.

Another teammate muffs one of her passes, this one right under the basket.

At the finish of a break, in the paint, the 6-9 guy is all over her, arms high. She fakes a pass, he buys it and she scores with a quick scoop shot under his left arm. Basically, the woman in the red headband is taking nine guys to basketball school.

Among those watching is Jim Sigona, the Collin coach.

“She’s absolutely amazing,” he said.

“She’s so fundamentally sound, she’s such an effective passer. … She’s the only one out there who sees everything and everyone. My guys are quick and athletic, but if you don’t know how the game is supposed to be played, it doesn’t help you much.”

The game drags on for an hour and 25 minutes. There are only short water breaks. Near the finish, there is no transition game. The young men are walking the ball up the court.

Only Lieberman-Cline is still running as she was at the start … running to meet the greatest challenge of her career.

When the game ends, she grins at a reporter and says: “Not bad for an old woman, huh?”

Early morning, north Dallas. She is driving down Preston Road, on her way to the Signature Athletic Club for a 4-hour workout.

“I absolutely have to show up for training camp in great condition,” she said.

“See, if a 22-year-old comes to camp and isn’t in great shape, it’s OK,” she said.

“People will just say: ‘Well, she’s just not in shape yet.’ But if it’s me, they’ll say: ‘See? She’s too old.’

“I’ve got my own basketball trainer, Ron Spivey, and my own strength coach, James Graham. I’m paying them, and because of all this training I’ve turned down a lot of income opportunities the last few months, like speaking engagements.”

Her age hasn’t shown so far. Lieberman-Cline played a solid 37 minutes in two scrimmages against Los Angeles recently, with seven assists and 14 points.

Part of why she’s coming back is her son T.J., 2-1/2.

“If he could have a memory one day of his mother playing basketball … that would mean a lot to me,” she said.

Then there’s her husband, Tim, an exec for a sports marketing firm.

He says he long ago quit trying to understand his wife’s energy level.

“She beats me out of the house every morning on her way to work out,” he said. “Where she gets all this energy, I have no idea.”

She sold him on the comeback.

Lieberman-Cline: “Tim was saying: ‘Look, you’ve worked so hard to keep your name in front of the public all these years and you did it without pro basketball… . What if you try this, and you’re not a good player any more?”’

“But I told him: ‘What if I’m better?”’


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email