In these basketball families, it's mom who knows best
He loves her. Honest. It’s just that she also has this remarkable, almost superhuman ability to embarrass the living snot out of him, to make him want to crawl into a hole that’d put the Mariana Trench to shame.
“We’ll be at dinner — one of her best friends was a mascot at Old Dominion, so she learned a bunch of weird stuff from him,” T.J. Cline sighed. “When it’s really quiet at a restaurant, she’ll just make a noise, and whomever can do it the loudest wins. You embarrass yourself. She knows it embarrasses me. She would do it just to get a reaction. I think it’s funny, but (there’s a) time and place.”
OK, yeah, Mom’s a legend.
But she can be an annoying legend. Sometimes.
“I talk to her every day,” the Richmond forward said. “And we’re closer than ever.”
In a basketball sense, that time is right here, right now. Funny noises and all, Mom is also Nancy Lieberman — a Basketball Hall of Famer, “Lady Magic,” an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, and one of the hoops pioneers of her generation.
“It’s around your house 24/7, so you’d have to be (nuts) not to pick it up, you know what I mean?” said Cline, a 6-8 savant whose skill set has him leading the Spiders in assists per game (4.1) while sitting second in scoring (16.1 points per game). “Since I was young, I watched basketball. I was watching SportsCenter before I could talk. But I was never forced into it. Which was cool.”
Mom tried to be cool, too, in spite of all the travel, the schedules, the attention, and the general Looney Tunes. So many fine lines, just waiting to be crossed.
[caption id="attachment_7176" align="alignright" width="105"] Tyler Summitt[/caption]
“There is definitely an added pressure when you have a famous parent,” noted Louisiana Tech women’s basketball coach Tyler Summitt, who — as the son of another women’s basketball legend in iconic coach Pat Summitt — knows that pressure firsthand. “But I think T.J. and I will agree that the pros outweigh the cons. We were able to meet people and experience events that we otherwise would not have had.”
Including, as it turns out, meeting one another.
It’s a small world, the coaching circuit, and an even smaller inner circle. Cline and Summitt are of similar ages — the former is 21, the latter just 25 — and became friendly (and familiar) faces during big basketball events such as the Final Four, usually while tailing their famous mothers.
“When your mom is the greatest female basketball coach of all time,” Cline said of Tyler, whose Lady Techsters visit Southern Miss Sunday on ASN, “you’ve got to have just knowledge and knowledge and knowledge.”
More than a little empathy, too.
“It was a good time when our families interacted because we were usually at a women's basketball event that we were blessed to be at,” Summitt said. “Not to mention our moms were treated like royalty, and so we were grateful to be by their sides.”
They’re not super close, by any stretch. But there’s a shared understanding there, a kinship of shared experiences. Didn’t everybody’s mom meet their dad while they were both getting schooled by the Harlem Globetrotters? Doesn’t everybody’s mom sign autographs at halftime? Doesn’t everybody’s mom shake hands coming out of the grocery store? Doesn’t everybody’s mom know Bob Knight and David Stern?
Tyler’s mother was the first basketball coach ever to reach 1,000 career victories; T.J.’s mother was the first woman ever to coach a professional men’s basketball team (the NBA Developmental League’s Texas Legends, 2009) before moving to a front-office position and, last summer, to an NBA bench.
“She’s loving it,” Cline said. “She’s used to being in charge, not used to having to take a back seat, kind of feeling her way. You don’t want to step on anybody’s toes but you don’t want to seem silent. So she’s fine with that. And they (use) all this technology. She’s not super tech-savvy, she had to go to tutorials for four straight weeks at 7 a.m. She’s just one of those that when she puts her mind to it, it’s going to happen.”
Lieberman offered just enough rope to let T.J. set his own basketball climb, at whatever pace, whatever level of commitment, felt the most comfortable. He grew up in Texas thinking like a guard, only to have a high-school growth spurt — Cline shot up to 6-4 by the end of his junior year and to 6-8 during his senior campaign — steer him toward the post.
“My mom never made me go to workouts,” T.J. said. “Even when I was getting cut from the varsity as a junior, she was just really, really supportive. She kind of backed off and let me come to her when I was ready. The summer before my junior year, I said, ‘I’m not going to fight her.’”
Cline’s parents met while playing for the Washington Generals — yep, those Washington Generals — and divorced when he was young. But his father, Tim Cline, has always been a rock as T.J. followed his basketball muse from Niagara University to Richmond.
“He’s just as much an influence as my mom in my game,” T.J. said. “He’s always been really supportive, taking me everywhere I needed to go … apparently, he was just a freak athlete. I guess I got my craftiness from my mom and my athleticism from my dad.”
It takes a village. The larger the shadow, the harder it can be to step into the light.
“T.J. and I could definitely relate to each other because of our unique upbringing,” Summitt said. “With famous moms, we were both in the spotlight growing up and sometimes had to be more mature than our peers.”
And, every once in a while, more mature than their parents.
Above: T.J. Cline, son of Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, leads Richmond in assists per game while sitting second in scoring. (Courtesy Richmond Athletics)