Is She Better Than Ever? : Two Weeks from Turning 39, Nancy Lieberman-Cline Hopes to Turn Back Clock in WNBA


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

Here she comes, gliding 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.


She wants to play? How about she’s driven to play? “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 Assn. tips off Saturday, she’ll be one of the main stories.

She’ll be the oldest player in the WNBA (she turns 39 on 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’s playing full-court 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, 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 directly under the basket.

* At the finish of a break, 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 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 four-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.”

Without pro basketball, Lieberman-Cline has done a remarkable job of marketing herself. She broadcasts up to 40 basketball games a year and has deals with Nike, Dr Pepper, Stein Mart clothing and JCPenney.

At 7:30 a.m., she arrives at the club and reports to Graham, a former Colorado basketball player.

“I’ve worked with her for five months, and she had a good base when we started,” he said. “She’s really strong.

“The main focus now is maintaining, and injury prevention. And we do a lot of stuff that improves her balance.”


After a warmup, she starts with 10 repetitions at 65 pounds on the bench press and moves up gradually to 125.

She moves from station to station with clipboard and pencil, checking off.

The most punishing drill is incline sit-ups with a medicine ball.

As she comes up on the board on each sit-up, she passes the 12-pound ball with an overhead pass to Graham, who stands at her feet.

Then she goes to the therapy room for a neck massage--to alleviate a two-day-old kink left over from an airplane nap--and to do some rehab work on her two-month-old ankle sprain.

Then it’s upstairs to the gym, where Spivey waits. He’s a 6-7, 34-year-old Continental Basketball Assn. veteran who also played at Louisiana Tech.

“I tell Nancy she’s a luxury car with 100,000 miles on it,” he said.

“She’s the best, she’s high-performance, but she’s got to be tuned up, all the time, a lot of maintenance.”

He warms her up with some stretching, then rapid-fire, top-of-the-key jump shots, gliding right and left and shooting with both hands. She makes about 90% of the shots.


Then it’s the dreaded “Knick drill.” Starting at the baseline, she backpedals rapidly to the free-throw line, glides right, then backpedals to the midcourt line, where Spivey yells “Steal!”

He tosses her the ball and she dribbles hard to the hoop for a layup. She does them in sets of four, at full speed and with no break. After every set, she must shoot 10 free throws, while exhausted. Once she makes all 10; five times she makes nine.

While she takes a stretching break, Spivey said he almost needs a leash.

“She’s a warrior, this one,” he said.

“I have to hold her back. If she was by herself, she’d overtrain. She’d get here early and do six miles on an exer-bike before doing this work.”

She does a full-court dribbling drill, with frequent stops and pivots, and finishes with layups and free throws. On her last free throw set, Spivey stands next to her, yelling in her ear and loudly bouncing a basketball, trying to distract her.

She makes all 10.


It began more than a year ago, when word was out that the NBA was going to start a women’s league and that NBA attorney Val Ackerman would run it.

“I called Val and we talked,” she said.

“It came down to the fact she wanted to see me play before she’d commit to bringing me in, and I said fine.”


Lieberman-Cline is seated at a North Dallas sushi bar, munching on California rolls and drinking tea.

“I’ve never really quit playing basketball, I’ve been playing pickup ball for 20 years. But game shape is something else. I decided to go on a major training program, then play with Athletes in Action.”

Last fall, she reported to the AIA training camp, near Cincinnati. AIA was about to play 18 games in 21 days, against such women’s college teams as Penn State, West Virginia and Rutgers.

“When she called, I was skeptical,” said the AIA coach, Paula Edney.

“Part of me wanted to say: ‘Nancy, honey, it’s past your time.’

“But when she showed up for camp, she was amazing. No one was in better shape than she was. I was running 2 1/2-hour and three-hour practices, and then having the players run two miles right after. She finished with everyone else.

She started 16 of the 18 games and averaged 33 minutes, 16 points, two steals and five assists. No torn muscles or ligaments. No bad back. No pulled hamstrings. Only a turned ankle, which caused her to miss two games.

“Ackerman came to see me play at Rutgers and left without saying anything to me, but I guess she liked what she saw,” Lieberman-Cline said, referring to the fact the WNBA soon after assigned her to the Phoenix Mercury.


Edney is a convert.

“I think she’s better than she ever was,” she said, “because she’s a smarter player. She knows how to make her teammates play better.”

Said Rhonda Blades, 24, an AIA teammate and former Vanderbilt star: “I think of myself as pretty fast, but she beat me the first day in training camp in wind sprints.

“After a while, I didn’t think of her as being old. I just thought of her as a great player. I’d never seen her play, so I didn’t know what to expect. Her WNBA teammates will love her because she knows so much about physical conditioning.”

One of the AIA stops was at Penn State, where Coach Rene Portland was astonished at the level of Lieberman-Cline’s game.

“She was incredible,” Portland said.

“She came in here and schooled our kids. I was most impressed with her intensity, the fact that at 38 she still wanted the ball and still wanted to make or start the big plays.

“I went up to her afterward and told her I thought she was playing as well right now as she ever did.


“You assume there are younger players out there somewhere playing better basketball than she is now, but I’m not really sure who they are.”


How much of this is ego driven?

“Oh, sure, that’s part of it,” Lieberman-Cline said.

“I imagine myself making a play on some younger player and having her think: ‘Wow, she’s really good!’ Or: ‘Wow, she’s really strong!’

“And there’s a little fear too. My worst nightmare is playing horribly, and having people think: ‘She shouldn’t have tried this. . . . She’s too old.’ ”

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.

“What can you say? To work as hard as she’s worked, to get in game shape at this stage in her life . . . is phenomenal,” said her coach, Miller. “She’s done a great job for us.”

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 executive 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.”

He had to be sold, both agree, 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?’ ”


WNBA at a Glance

A quick look at the teams and some of the premier players in the Women’s NBA, which begins play Saturday.


* Los Angeles Sparks--Lisa Leslie, 1996 Olympic gold medalist.

* Phoenix Mercury--Nancy Lieberman-Cline, 1976 Olympic silver medalist; 1979, 1980 AIAW champion, Old Dominion.

* Sacramento Monarchs--Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, 1996 Olympic gold medalist.

* Utah Starzz--Dena Head, 1991 NCAA champion, Tennessee.


* Charlotte Sting--Vicky Bullett, 1988 Olympic gold medalist.

* Cleveland Rockers--Lynette Woodard, 1984 Olympic gold medalist.

* Houston Comets--Sheryl Swoopes, 1996 Olympic gold medalist; 1993 NCAA champion, Texas Tech (on maternity leave).

* New York Liberty--Rebecca Lobo, 1996 Olympic gold medalist; 1995 NCAA champion, Connecticut.