(b. 1 July 1958 in Brooklyn, New York), pioneer and trailblazer in women's amateur and professional basketball who was the youngest basketball player, male or female, to win an Olympic medal and the first woman to play in a men's professional basketball league.
Lieberman-Cline was one of two children born to Jerry Lieberman, a building contractor, and Renee Lieberman. Lieberman-Cline's parents separated shortly after she was born and divorced when she was twelve. She rarely saw her father and claims that she never developed a strong relationship with her mother. Lieberman-Cline credits team sports for giving her the values necessary for success.
As a child growing up in Far Rockaway, New York, Lieberman-Cline played sports with the neighborhood boys and was known as a tomboy. At age nine, she tried out for the Police Athletic League (PAL) baseball team and learned about sex discrimination. Although she made the team, she was told girls were not eligible to play. Undaunted, she later joined a boys' YMCA basketball team (for ten-to thirteen-year-olds), and basketball became her sport.
At age thirteen Lieberman-Cline was recruited by Coach Lavoiser Lemar to play for the Harlem Chuckles boys' team, one of the best Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams in New York City. Because of her feisty attitude, she got the nickname "Fire." Playing against boys and later men, Lieberman-Cline developed the physically aggressive style for which she is famous.
As a seventeen-year-old student at Far Rockaway High School, Lieberman-Cline tried out and was selected as a forward for the U.S. national teams that won a gold medal at the 1975 Pan American Games and placed eighth in the 1975 World Championships. In 1976 she became the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team that won the gold medal.
Lieberman-Cline graduated from high school in 1976. Heavily recruited by college coaches, she decided to play basketball at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Virginia. During 1979 and 1980, her junior and senior years, Lieberman-Cline led the Lady Monarchs to two Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championships and to a 72–2 record. In both years she was awarded the Wade Trophy as the best women's collegiate basketball player and the Broderick Cup for top female college athlete. In her sophomore, junior, and senior years Lieberman-Cline was a Kodak All-American. Over her four years as a guard, she scored 2,430 points, made 961 assists, and grabbed 1,167 rebounds. During that time, attendance at ODU's women's basketball games increased from around 350 to 10,000 spectators per game.
While at ODU, Lieberman-Cline was selected for U.S. national teams that won a silver medal at the 1979 Pan American Games and a gold medal at the 1979 World Championships. She was also selected for the 1980 Olympic team that never played because the United States boycotted the Olympics to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
After graduating from ODU in 1980, Lieberman-Cline spent the summer playing for the Gailyn Packers of the New York Pro Summer League, a men's semiprofessional league. That same year she signed a three-year contract for $100,000 with the Dallas Diamonds, a team in the recently formed Women's Basketball League (WBL). Lieberman-Cline led the Diamonds to the championship finals, and was named All-Pro and Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, the WBL declared bankruptcy in 1981, and Lieberman-Cline became tennis star Martina Navratilova's trainer, personal manager, and confidante. In 1983 Lieberman-Cline and sports promoter Steve Corey organized a Ladies Over America All-Star Basketball tour featuring WBL players (including Lieberman-Cline). The Women's American Basketball Association (WABA) was formed in 1984, and Lieberman-Cline signed a three-year $250,000 contract to play for the new Dallas Diamonds. She was named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game and led the Diamonds to the WABA championship. Unfortunately, the WABA also folded after the championship playoffs in December 1984, and Lieberman-Cline again found herself out of a job.
Called "Lady Magic" (after Earvin "Magic" Johnson) for her ball-handling skills and great passes, Lieberman-Cline became the first woman to play in a men's professional basketball league in 1986, when she played for the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League (USBL). During the 1987–1988 season, she passed another milestone when she became the first white woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters Organization. She played for the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters on their world tour, and married Tim Cline, a player for the Generals, on 18 May 1988. The couple has one son.
In 1997 the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) was formed, and Lieberman-Cline at age thirty-eight signed with the Phoenix Mercury. She played for one season before retiring and becoming head coach and general manager of the WNBA's Detroit Shock, a position she held until 2000. Lieberman-Cline earned a degree in interdisciplinary studies at Old Dominion University on May 6, 2000.
Lieberman-Cline is one of the first women basketball players to play an active role in sports media. Her broadcasting career with ESPN, the American Broadcasting System (ABC), ESPN2, Fox Sports Network, and the National Broadcasting System (NBC) covers two decades, including stints as an NBC color commentator for women's basketball at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She continues to be a broadcaster/commentator/analyst for ESPN for the Women's NCAA Championships and for WNBA games. Lieberman-Cline is a contributing editor to the Dallas Morning News, USA Today, and New York Times, and has written several books, including BasketballMy Way (1982), with Myrna and Harvey Frommer, and Basketball for Women: Becoming a Complete Player (paperback, 1992), with ESPN/ABC Sports anchor Robin Roberts. Lieberman-Cline and her husband live in Dallas.
Lieberman-Cline's many honors include being the first woman to be inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. She was also inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. A longtime member of the Women's Sport Foundation, she served as president in 1999–2000. Lieberman-Cline continues to be active in the promotion of women's sports.
In an era when there were few opportunities for women to play amateur and professional basketball, Lieberman-Cline was a trailblazer. She successfully carved out a career in women's amateur and professional basketball, sports broadcasting, and sports marketing. She is the CEO of Nancy Lieberman Enterprises, a company that oversees her girls' basketball camps and her other marketing and business interests. Lieberman-Cline helped create many of the opportunities that women basketball players have today.
Lieberman-Cline's autobiography, written with Debby Jennings, is Lady Magic: The Autobiography of Nancy Lieberman-Cline (1992). A biography is Doreen and Nancy Greenberg, A Drive to Win: The Story of Nancy Lieberman-Cline (2000). A profile of Lieberman-Cline is "Nancy Lieberman-Cline," The Women ' s Basketball Hall of Fame, Inaugural Weekend Celebration, Program and Yearbook (1999). Another profile is in Richard Deitsch, "100 Greatest Women Athletes, 44. Nancy Lieberman-Cline, Basketball," Sports Illustrated for Women (winter 1999–2000).
Gai Ingham Berlage