has a great pedigree, but he had to pay his dues for three years before he finally made the varsity basketball team at Plano West (Texas)
as a senior.
The son of Tim Cline and Hall of Fame legend Nancy Lieberman, T.J. nearly was cut as a freshman. Around 160 freshmen try out each year at Plano West, which has two feeder schools housing grades 9-10 and one housing grades 11-12. For grades 9-12, West has approximately 4,600 students.
Varsity coach Anthony Morgan was watching freshman tryouts one day and the 5-foot-9 Cline caught his eye.
Morgan told MaxPreps, "He was a small young man (at a school that constantly turns out tall players). He was one of those young men who was going to be cut. I was watching him, not knowing who he was (who his parents were). I just liked how he was moving and how he handled the ball. He had a decent shot. He understood the game."
So began a three-year odyssey, working his way from the lowest team, the freshman B team, then to the all-sophomore team and as a junior the the varsity JV squad. He took advantage by leading the sophomore and JV teams in scoring. The JV team was one of Plano West's best with a 32-2 record.
Most importantly, he grew. He was 6-2 by the end of his sophomore year, 6-4 by the end of his junior year and today stands 6-8 and weighs 215 pounds.
T.J. broke into the starting lineup as a senior forward and in his first game produced 16 points and 20 rebounds. He since has had a 27-point game and currently leads the Wolves in scoring (16 points per game) and rebounding (7.8).
"It feels great, just knowing that hard work pays off," T.J. said.
Today, Morgan says, "He is able to shoot the ball so well. He's able to shoot the 3 and he can score down low on the block. He has such a quick release. He can catch, turn and shoot like nobody I've ever seen. And he can pass. He's pretty physical when he needs to be. For a big guy, he handles the ball decently. His basketball IQ is pretty good."
T.J.'s parents met while both were playing for the Washington Generals, who toured each year with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. They were married in 1988 and divorced in 2001.
Tim is 6-8 and Nancy is 5-10, so it stood to reason that T.J. would be tall. However, both parents graduated at age 17 and T.J. won't be 18 until July 22, so he's obviously a late bloomer. He's following in his father's footsteps and still is growing.
When T.J. was around age 4, he used to accompany Tim to recreation league pickup games every Saturday. When the teams took water breaks, it was his turn to shoot on the big court.
He obviously grew up around the game, but said he wasn't pushed into it.
"I've always loved the game and it's always been a part of my life," T.J. said. "I've watched the pros and the college games. As a little kid I would keep statistics of all the players. My mom used to test me. She would hold up a basketball card and ask me who it was. I was 3 years old and couldn't read the name, but I could recognize the face. We have this on video."
He played organized basketball at every level beginning at age 5. He only missed playing in eighth grade because he failed Spanish and was ruled ineligible.
With Nancy playing and coaching in the WNBA and doing television work, T.J. was exposed to many professional athletes, meeting and having his picture taken with the likes of Michael Jordan and Karl Malone. During the NBA playoffs when T.J. was about 11 years old, she left him near courtside while she was preparing for a telecast. Suddenly she looked at the monitor in the interview room and was shocked to see T.J. taking part in the warmup layup line with the San Antonio Spurs.
Fearing she might lose her job, she hurried back and quickly pulled him off the court.
His reply: "But, mom, they said I could."
Robert Horry then approached Nancy and told her, "Your son was showing me what I was doing wrong with my shot."
Looking back, T.J. says, "That was one of the coolest moments I've ever had. A few guys kidded around, but it was mainly serious. I thought I knew it all back then."
Since age 6 through eighth grade, T.J. and his famous mom, who has achieved fame at every level, occasionally played one-on-one. Nancy recalls beating her son on one occasion when he was around 13 years old.
He said with some frustration in his voice, "You know this isn't fair - you're a Hall of Famer."
She quickly replied, "No, I'm not. I'm your mom."
"I beat her once or twice," he recalled. "I remember the first win, going crazy. She never wants to play me (now). I think I got too big."
Nancy and T.J. have a tremendous bond. She asked him to wear her old uniform number (10), so he abandoned his favorite, No. 6, which was worn by Julius Erving. Being a guard number, it was too small for him, so it had to be altered.
He noted, "She gives me a lot of inspiration to want to be as good as her in her prime. She taught me (shooting) form. She teaches me court vision and angles. My greatest tool is watching film and her showing me what I need to do to get better."
Nancy points out, "T.J. had every opportunity to be successful, but he had to put his heart and soul into it. He has a great work ethic and is only going to get better."
T.J. credits his dad for teaching him how to be a good free throw shooter (he placed fourth in the Elks National Hoop Shoot as a fifth grader) and post play. They still play one-on-one occasionally (T.J. has one win), but Tim has to take it easy because he broke his back several years ago when he fell after a railing gave out.
T.J. adds ruefully, "I didn't get my parents' jumping genes."
Though he has three more children, ages 8, 7 and 5 from his second marriage, Tim still is very involved in T.J.'s life.
Tim says, "He's a lot better player coming out of high school than I was. He always had skills. He has a knack for the game, being around his mom when she was playing and coaching in the WNBA. He has an understanding of the game better than most kids I've seen. I'm proud of him. He really worked hard last year, even though he was disappointed (that he had to play JV as a junior)."
Closing out his senior year, T.J. finally has reached the radar of several college basketball programs. He has a 3.06 GPA and wants to study either sports marketing or broadcasting. Though no offer is solid at this time, he likely can wind up at a mid-major Division I school.
Because he's young, still growing and has a great upside, some professional basketball even could be in his long-term future.
Nancy is going to have mixed emotions when her only child picks up his diploma in the spring.
"I will miss him when he goes to college," she said. "I'm so proud of this young man. He is just the love of my life."