Nancy Lieberman was working for ESPN during the National Basketball Association playoffs when she brought her son T.J. Cline to a game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks. Before she went to the green room to prepare for the television coverage, she left T.J. sitting on the sideline with the specific instruction to “just stay here” while she went to work. Minutes later, Lieberman looked over the shoulder of fellow Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Charles Barkley to see little T.J. doing the exact opposite of staying put. Cline had joined the lay-up lines with the San Antonio Spurs.
“T.J., who told you that you could do that?” Lieberman asked.
“Mr. Ginobili,” T.J. replied, stuttering through the pronunciation of the Argentinian shooting guard’s last name.
Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry then walked over and told Lieberman, “Your son has been helping me with my shooting,” after T.J. advised him to “keep his elbow in and follow through high.”
More than 10 years later, Cline has focused that basketball knowledge on his own game as he prepares for his first eligible season with the University of Richmond Spiders. The experience and knowledge he’s picked up from being submerged in basketball by his parents, and through his playing career, will help the redshirt-sophomore succeed in the coming season, in which he’ll be expected to play a big role in the Spiders’ rotation. His pursuit of success with the Spiders could be a huge step in Cline’s life as he looks to walk the line between learning from his family background and being defined by it.
Cline doesn’t know exactly when he started playing basketball.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I can remember,” Cline said after one of his practices. “I was probably playing on some Nerf hoop before I was even two.”
Lieberman -- basketball hall of famer, historic women’s basketball figure and Cline's mother -- remembers him first being around the game when she brought him along to her basketball training camps in 1995-96. From that point on, Cline was heavily involved wherever Lieberman was. During her three-year stint as general manager and head coach of the Detroit Shock, a WNBA team, Lieberman remembered Cline already hard at work on his game and in love with the sport.
“I think he was about three, three-and-a-half when I got to Detroit,” Lieberman said. “This kid was hoisting up shots all the time. I couldn’t believe this little kid was getting his shots up to the rim.”
It must’ve been in his DNA. Not only did Cline have his mother’s historic basketball background influencing him, but his father Tim was no slouch himself, having played for the Washington Generals, the longtime archenemy of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Both parents, Cline said, were vastly influential on his basketball career.
“From when I was little, my mom had individual workouts and was always taking time out of her day to work with me. She never pushed me to anything. She waited for me to come to her and say, ‘I want to get better,’” Cline said. “My dad was always in the gym with me on Saturdays and Sundays, and was just always on the sidelines and always getting in work with me.”
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That desire to work hard was another trait of Cline’s that Lieberman said was obvious early, using stories of Cline drawing plays for her team while she was in coaching meetings as proof of his drive. Cline once got so emotionally invested in a practice as a child that his reaction became the focus of one of the photographers attending the workout.
“I said to my team, ‘Can’t we run the offense right just once and then we’re done?’" Lieberman said. "This happened like four or five or six times and they just kept messing it up and messing it up. T.J. comes running over to me and starts crying and has his hand on my shoulder, and I turn around and am like, ‘T.J., what’s wrong?’ and he says, ‘Can’t they run the offense right one time?’ The reporter got a picture of him with his head on my shoulder looking like the world had ended.”
Even now, that competitiveness and drive to improve is clear. During a scrimmage at the end of a Spiders’ practice, Cline motioned to set a pick for sophomore guard ShawnDre Jones, but couldn’t keep his 6’9” frame set and got called for a moving screen violation. As Cline’s team, garbed in white practice jerseys, backpedaled to set up its defense, head coach Chris Mooney’s voice rang out over the sound of the players’ shoes meeting the hardwood floor. “What kind of player does that T.J.?” Mooney called out to his center.
Cline shook his head clear and got back to play defense, biting on the top of his jersey in frustration. When asked if he wanted to sub out of the play, Cline denied the offer heartedly, focusing on working through the frustration and responding to it. Less than a minute of game time later, Cline was rewarded for his mental toughness as he slammed home a pass from Terry Allen with authority.
Cline’s play that practice showed a glimpse of the focus and talent that has Mooney looking forward to the addition of Cline to this year’s team.
“I think T.J. is a really good player. He has a lot of things that are going to help our team,” Mooney said. “He’s a really good shooter. He’s an excellent passer, a good rebounder, I think he’s tough. He’s a really good player that can do a lot of really good things for us with his versatility.”
That resume of talents will be instrumental in helping Cline define his career with the Richmond Spiders, and further define who he is through his own play, not his family’s.
“I think he appreciates all the people he’s been able to meet and things like that,” Mooney said. “But, at the same time, I think he just wants to make a name for himself and be a great basketball player too.”
Cline’s eligibility this year is a welcome addition to a team entering the 2014 season with high hopes. Last season ended on a blowout loss to rival Virginia Commonwealth University in the Atlantic-10 conference tournament. But the Spiders gained a wealth of experience for some of their younger players after losing both Cedrick Lindsay (knee injury) and Derrick Williams (personal reasons), the team’s only seniors, halfway through the season. With all of last year’s late-season rotation back and in place, Cline is the big addition to the team after having to sit out last season because of his transfer from Niagara University, where he averaged 7.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a freshman. After hitting 40 shots from behind the three-point arc his freshman season, Cline’s outside shooting and passing game should play perfect in Mooney’s Princeton offensive system.
“He makes things really difficult for the other team to defend as a big player that is so comfortable on the perimeter,” Mooney said.
Cline’s excitement for the coming season and for his new team was obvious while sitting courtside. His voice sped up and he spoke of the team’s future with a smile on his face, saying, “We have so many talented players. It’s great to play with them. They make it so easy. My job is to just bust my butt and work as hard as I can. If there’s a loose ball, let me go get it.”
Lieberman said Cline’s excitement was clear when she spoke with her son as well.
“He’s loyal, he digs his teammates and he works hard,” Lieberman said. “He just loves being a Richmond Spider. He’s just really proud to be in the program, and he wants to help get them back to the highest level. He worked really hard this summer.”
Lieberman will get to see her son's hard work paying off in person when Cline, sporting his mother’s number 10 on his jersey, and the Spiders head to Old Dominion University, where Lieberman set multiple school records and saw her jersey retired Nov. 14. But for Cline, all the past experiences and ties to his mother’s history is icing on a cake that he intends to bake himself. He’s focused on the season and, being the good teammate that he is, his team’s success.
As Cline so eloquently put: “This year there’s only one thing on everybody’s mind, and that’s the NCAA tournament. We’re not going to stop until we get there.”
Contact reporter Jeremy Day at firstname.lastname@example.org
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