Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Take 'A' Train to Hall of Fame

NEW YORK -- The way Nancy Lieberman-Cline, now a stylish executive, tells it, her route to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, which she was voted into this week, was on the A Train to Harlem. She was white, red-headed, short for the game and female, which made for some difficulties.


Her mother, Rene, would tell her it was dangerous to ride there from home in her working-class neighborhood in Queens. And Nancy would tell her, "If you let me go, I won't hurt anyone."


So she stuffed T-shirts into the shoulders of her sweatshirts and the A Train took her where she wanted to go. If somebody looked hard at her, she glared back: "You got a problem?"


"If you could win, you could play," she said. "I never felt somebody didn't like me because I was white."


By the time she was 12 she was riding with Danny or Scott or Larry to tough neighborhoods to hustle. "I'd go into the park and act spastic," she said, "shoot the ball over the backboard and all, and one of the locals would say, 'Let's play two-on-two,' and 'I got the girl.'"


All of a sudden the girl was dribbling behind her back and whipping the ball around until the ice cream truck came by. "Then we'd say, 'We want two dollars, and we don't want it in change.'"


On Monday, Lieberman-Cline, 37, wife and mother of an 18-month-old, broadcaster and sports-marketing executive, was announced as the eighth female player selected to the Hall of Fame. Of the 101 males in the Hall, each had someone to emulate.


Lieberman didn't, which makes her induction and that of the previous seven women significant. "Some little girl will read your column," she said. "You have no idea of the impact. They'll say it's O.K. to play basketball. It's ladylike. It's what they should do."


At 18 she was the youngest player in Olympic history to win a medal.


She was the first woman to play in a men's professional league, with Springfield of the United States Basketball League. She was paid $100,000 as first pick in the Women's Basketball League for the Dallas Diamonds in 1980.


"I bought my mother a Cadillac and sent it to New York because that's what the guys did," she said.


There was the time she reported to play in the Los Angeles Lakers' 1980 summer program. As she recalled it, Jack Curran, the trainer, handed her an equipment bag and pointed her toward the men's locker room. "He says, 'You change in there.'


"So I find this corner of the room," she said, "and everybody is staring at me. I open the bag and pull out Laker socks and Laker shorts and a Laker shirt. And a jock strap. And I yell, 'Yo, Jack, this is too small for me.' All the guys laugh and it broke the tension."


She now argues for the profound influence the University of Connecticut women's program has had. She argues that there's more ballhandling and movement in the women's game. "Kind of like the Knicks of the '60s and '70s," she said. "That was beauty. When was the last time we saw that?"


She sees no conflict between beauty and the basketball. This is not sexist; it does have something to do with gender. The women's game is different. "Those baggy uniforms," she said with scorn born in a lifetime of gym suits. "They're not functional; they're not attractive. The women have good bodies. Uniforms don't have to be skin tight -- but why do we have to look like the guys?"