Hailed as one of the greats of women’s basketball, Nancy Lieberman set a record as the youngest Olympic medalist in basketball and was inducted into multiple sports halls of fame. Lieberman played from an early age and won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics in her senior year of high school. At Old Dominion University in Virginia, she played with the world champion United States women’s national team. After college, Lieberman played in the Women’s Basketball League, but when the WBL briefly disbanded, she became the first woman to play for a men’s professional team, the Springfield Flame of Massachusetts, and later for the Washington Generals. In 2009, she became the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team, the Texas Legends.
She’s “... a hoops hero and living legend with personality, with patience and humility, with sincerity, sensitivity and courage ... a hoops legend who realizes her greatest gift is not what she did on the court but instead how she can use that fame to touch others. That’s why I called Lieberman-Cline Miss Basketball, because her love of the game extends beyond the court and way after the final horn blows” (Full Court Press, December 1999).
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 1, 1958, Nancy Lieberman soon moved with her parents, Jerome and Renée, and an older brother, Clifford, to Far Rockaway in the borough of Queens. The parents divorced shortly thereafter, and the mother raised both siblings. Despite her mother’s protests Nancy persisted in playing sports with boys and took a special interest in basketball. She played daily on the city playgrounds, honing her skills and displaying an aggressive style of play.
In high school Lieberman led her team to the New York City championship game, losing by one point. She continued to play in summer leagues sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union and Catholic Youth Organization. As a high school junior, she represented the United States at the Pan American Games in 1975. The following year she made the Olympic team, earning a silver medal, the youngest basketball medal winner in the history of the Games.
Heavily recruited, Lieberman chose to attend Old Dominion University in Virginia (1976–1980), where she led the team to two national basketball championships in 1979 and 1980 with a 72–2 record. In both of those years she won the Wade Trophy, symbolic of the top female college basketball player. In 1980 she was also awarded the Broderick Cup, given to the best female athlete in all sports. Lieberman won All-American team honors three times, averaging 18.1 points and 9 rebounds per game, in addition to scoring 2,430 points, 1,167 rebounds, 961 assists, and 561 steals during her college career. In 1979 Lieberman played with the world champion U.S. women’s national team. In 1980 she was again selected for the United States Olympic team, but the federal government proclaimed a boycott of the Moscow Games over political issues. She received the Maccabee Award as the Jewish Athlete of the Year in 1980.
In 1981 the Dallas Diamonds of the upstart professional Women’s Basketball League paid Lieberman $100,000. Lieberman responded by averaging 26.3 points per game and winning the Rookie of the Year award and selection to the All-Pro team. When the league disbanded after its initial season due to financial difficulties, Lieberman became the trainer-manager for tennis star Martina Navratilova. Professional women’s basketball resurrected itself in 1984 and the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s American Basketball Association signed Lieberman to a 3-year contract for $250,000. She then led the team to the league championship.
Once again, the professional women’s basketball league proved short-lived. In 1986 Lieberman became the first woman to play for a men’s professional team as a member of the Springfield Flame, Massachusetts, contingent in the United States Basketball League (USBL), which played during the summer months. During the 1987-1988 season she played with the Harlem Globetrotters. On May 18, 1988, Lieberman married Tim Cline, who played for the New Haven, Connecticut, Skyhawks of the USBL. She also joined the Washington Generals, a male team that toured Europe as opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters that year.
In 1989 Lieberman-Cline played on the U.S. Women’s National Team and for one season (1997–1998) with Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). From 1998 to 2000 she served as the head coach and general manager of the WNBA Detroit Shock team. She returned to play one game for the Shock in 2008 at the age of 50. In 2009-2010 Lieberman coached the Texas Legends, a male professional team in the NBA G (developmental) League. From 2015 to 2017 she ascended to the NBA as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings.
Lieberman’s early athletic fame won her appearances in three films during the 1980s (Joanie Loves Chachi, 1982, The Cosby Show, 1984, and Perfect Profile, 1989). In addition to her stardom and celebrity status as a basketball player, she has been a crusader for women’s basketball, serving as a motivational speaker and a regular television commentator for the sport, covering the Olympic Games, NCAA championships, and WNBA games. She also found success in business as owner of Pro Motion Events, a sports marketing company, and CEO of Nancy Lieberman Enterprises, which runs basketball camps for girl,s among other ventures. Among her other activities, she has written for several print media outlets and authored a number of books.
Nancy Lieberman-Cline was elected to New York Public Schools Athletic League Hall of Fame as early as 1979. She gained entry to the national Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. She also served as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1998 to 2000.
In 2001 she and her husband divorced. They had four children, three boys and a girl. Her son, Timothy “T.J. Kline,” played professionally in the G League and abroad and is a member of the Israeli national team.
Selected Works by Nancy Lieberman-Cline
Lieberman-Cline, Nancy et.al. Basketball for Women: Becoming a Complete Player (1995).
with Debby Jennings. Lady Magic: The Autobiography of Nancy Lieberman-Cline (1991).
with Myrna and Harvey Frommer. Basketball My Way (1982).
Berlage, Gai Ingham. “Lieberman-Kline, Nancy.” https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lieberman-cline-nancy.
Greenberg, Doreen and Michael Greenberg. A Drive to Win: The Story of Nancy Lieberman-Cline (2000).
Robinson, Rosalyn T. “Nancy Lieberman-Cline Adjusts to an imperfect world.” Full Court Press: The Women’s Basketball Journal (December 1999).