She looked like any other mom waiting in the gym as fans filed out after another Niagara win, chatting with other friends and family members, checking messages on her phone and generally killing time waiting for her son to emerge from the locker room.
Only most moms don’t demonstrate proper form for a jump shot to one of the assistant coaches. Most moms don’t get interviewed by local television stations at halftime. Most moms aren’t in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Some days, it’s great to have Nancy Lieberman as your mom. Other days, T.J. Cline would rather just blend in to the crowd.
The beautifully complex relationship between mother and son doesn’t change when your mom is a sports legend. But the complex part takes on a different meaning.
That’s where Lieberman uses her humor and the truth to help diffuse the situations.
“I got asked to speak at high school. I got asked to speak at junior high. I was a keynote speaker at his elementary school to an assembly,” Lieberman said. “It’s normal for me to speak but now it’s my boy and he just wants to be normal and blend in. ‘Mom, do you have to be the speaker? This is the third year.’ I’m like, T.J. they asked me to come back. ‘Mom, no other mom does this.’ ”
But no other mom is so well known that when the NBA All-Star Game comes to her hometown that she not only is able to get tickets for the game, but land incredible seats — as was the case when the Dallas-area hosted the game in 2010.
“He goes, ‘Hey can you get us tickets for the All-Star game?’ I’m like, ‘But T.J., I’m just a mom. I don’t have access,’ ” Lieberman said. “He goes, ‘You are Nancy Lieberman. It’s in Dallas and you and David Stern are friends. I know it.’ So while we’re sitting courtside next to Jay-Z, I go to him, ‘They asked me to speak at your banquet. Oh I’m sorry, am I Nancy Lieberman or am I your mother?’ ... We’re like the funny family. A lot of humor. A lot of sarcasm. A lot of truth. I’m a minimalist.”
To watch Cline, in his freshman year at Niagara, interact with his teammates, you’d never know he comes from a royal basketball lineage.
His father, Tim Cline, played for the Washington Generals. That’s where he met T.J.’s mother, Lieberman, one of the biggest athletes and basketball minds of her generation. Lieberman broke gender barriers in the sport as a player and continued to do so as a coach and general manager.
This season, Lieberman is working on the Oklahoma City Thunder broadcasts. With the Thunder playing in Toronto on Jan. 6, it allowed her the chance to take in her third Niagara game the day before.
“I’m just here supporting the team and T.J.,” she said.
Even when Lieberman’s not in attendance at games, she’s lending support via Twitter, routinely giving encouraging messages to the program and occasionally sending out photos of her and T.J. in mother-son bonding moments.
Cline will talk about his mom and has the same gift of conversation, but everyone on Monteagle Ridge is sensitive to the fact that he wants to be his own person, not just the son of Nancy Lieberman. And so discussions of his famous mom are kept to a minimum. But the forward learned the game from watching his mom, who most recently was the head coach of the Texas Legends, the affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Developmental League.
“She’s always been one to share knowledge with me but not so much in front of people,” Cline said. “She’ll maybe take me aside or call me one night. ... It’s more a private kind of thing for me and her. I really like that because she understands when to be a mom and when to be a coach. When to be a teacher about it. I really appreciate her. Last year she came to all my games so that really helped me figure out what I needed to do to get to the next level.”
Lieberman was always happy to be a teacher for her son, but drew the line at being too involved with his basketball development.
“I refused to coach him because I wanted to be his mother,” Lieberman said. “There’s a line in the sand. If I’m coaching you, I’m making you do things you’re uncomfortable with to get you to another level. But a seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th grader can’t differentiate. I’ve just ran you, pushed you, prodded you, irritated you. And now I ask you, ‘Hey so what do you want for dinner?’ That line is so blurred.
“So I would rather have people coaching him and he comes home and says, Mom, practice was so dang hard last night. ... Now I can give you the coach side of it. I can help create solutions but I can also be the mom and go ‘Baby, it’s OK.’ There was enough pressure on T.J. Everybody expected him to be great.”
When Niagara coach Joe Mihalich first saw Cline play, he saw a player with great offensive skills. But more than that, he saw a young player who knew his way around the court.
“He has a great feel for the game,” Mihalich said. “When I first saw him, as well as he shoots, I thought he was a better passer than anything else. He’s a big guy who can shoot it and he’s kinda like the way Larry Bird was basketball quick. He’s like that. He’s not going to win any footraces. At the NFL combine he would probably score very low if they measured him for jumping or running or that stuff. But his instincts offensively are terrific. He’s got a great feel for the game and he’s got guts.”
During Cline’s junior year of high school in suburban Dallas, Lieberman was busy with work coaching the Legends. She missed most of Cline’s games that year, so she made a deliberate decision to give up coaching last year to be, as she calls it, T.J.’s mom.
“I had the greatest year of my life [coaching the Legends],” Lieberman said. “Loved it ... but nobody will ever remember if I coached or didn’t coach. I’ve got to be with my kid. He deserves to see his mother in the stands.”
She sat in the stands and helped her son through the teenage right of passage — college selection. They had thought about prep school for a year. Even though Cline is listed at a healthy 6-foot-8, 220 pounds, he’s still growing and his body is still gaining strength.
At the same time, Mihalich at Niagara was assessing his team’s needs. A few players had left the program. He needed a skilled offensive forward and he remembered a blast email that Cline had sent to coaches the previous year.
“It was the end of the year and he was one of those still-available guys,” Mihalich said. “We’re looking at lists and our needs. It was hard because we never saw him in person. We went off of tape. There are always some people that you’re going to call, some references and so forth. And I talked to Nancy. ... So then one thing led to another. It’s been good so far.”
“I came here on my second official visit,” Cline said. “I really loved it here. The coaching staff was great. They treated me like family. The players treated me like family. I thought I could make an impact if I came here. I played in some other tournaments after I committed, just to stay loose and keep playing. I got a few more offers but ultimately decided nothing’s better than coming here.”
Cline has come off the bench in all 17 games for Niagara this season, averaging nearly 22 minutes a game with 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds as the Purple Eagles are 9-8 overall and 5-1 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
He enters Thursday’s home game against Siena coming off a 12-point effort on 5-of-6 shooting in a win at Fairfield.
“I think our team chemistry is really good,” Cline said. “I think we have a really good team that no one really knows about. We have a chance to do really big things this year. I really enjoy playing with the guys. Everyone’s on the same page as far as what cuts to make, what plays we’re running, how we’re going to execute it.”
While he focuses on his team at Niagara and makes the transition to life as a college student-athlete, the ups and downs of being Nancy Lieberman’s son continue. In October, Niagara’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management (home of the school’s sports management program) hosted its annual convocation and awards, presenting Lieberman with the Lifetime Sport Achievement Award.
“T.J. said to me, ‘What have you ever done at Niagara? How is that you’re getting an award? You haven’t done anything there,’ ” Lieberman said. “I was like T.J., it’s lifetime. It’s lifetime achievement. I’m like don’t worry, I’ll be in and out before you know it.”
As promised, she was in just for the weekend. Of course when she visited to watch Niagara get a key conference win over Fairfield, she took him the next day to Toronto where she was working the Oklahoma City-Toronto NBA game.
There are times when being Nancy Lieberman’s son has its perks.