The Cleveland Rockers were one of the original eight WNBA teams when the league debuted in 1997. Their nickname and branding paid homage to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, but the end result looked like the Hard Rock Cafe had a basketball team.
Ohio’s woman’s high school and collegiate basketball scene was the main reason Cleveland was awarded a franchise. They were run by the Cleveland Cavaliers and owned by former Cavs owner Gordon Gund.
The Rockers played in the WNBA for seven seasons up until 2003. They made the playoffs four times in those seven seasons but never made it to the WNBA Finals.
The inaugural 1997 Rockers roster featured Lynette Woodard, the first woman to be a Harlem Globetrotter (in 1985). The 37-year old Woodard was one of the oldest players in the league (with Nancy Lieberman) and surely missed out on having a long WNBA career had the league been around sooner.
Along with Woodard, the ’97 Rockers had 31-year old Michelle Edwards, 35-year old Janice Braxton, 25-year old Isabelle Fijalkowski, and 24-year old Eva Nemcova. The team was coached by former Temple University and University of Minnesota head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald.
The early Rockers were a pretty decent team. They went 15-13 in 1997 (missing out on the playoffs) but in 1998 finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 20-10 record. Fijalkowski led the 98′ Rockers averaging 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds. However, Cleveland lost in the Semifinals to the Phoenix Mercury.
Assistant coach Lisa Boyer joined the Rockers in 1998 and eventually became a volunteer assistant coach in the NBA for the Cavaliers in 2001-2002.
After two winning seasons to begin Cleveland’s WNBA career, the ’99 Rockers were the worst team in the league with a record of 7-25. For their poor play, Cleveland replaced coach Hill-MacDonald with Dan Hughes after the season.
In 2000, the Dan Hughes led Rockers regained their composure to finish 17-15 and earned the 2nd seed in the East. Led by Eva Nemcova, Chasity Melvin, and Merlakia Jones, the Rockers made it to the playoffs and beat the Orlando Miracle in the first round. However, the New York Liberty knocked the Rockers out of the playoffs in the Conference Finals.
The 2001 Rockers responded by having the best season in franchise history. Cleveland finished 22-10 and earned the 1st seed in the East. The Rockers would have had the best record in the WNBA but the Los Angeles Sparks went 28-4.
The 2001 Rockers were the best defensive team in the WNBA as they led the league in defensive rating and gave up the least amount of opponent points per game.
Merlakia Jones led the team averaging 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds while Chasity Melvin averaged 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds. 20-year old Ann Wauters averaged 9.8 rebounds and 4.8 rebounds and Rushia Brown averaged 8.3 and 4.4 rebounds.
However, the Rockers’ successful 2001 season ended in the first round, as Cleveland lost to the Ann Donovan coached Charlotte Sting. The Sparks went on to beat the Sting in the 2001 WNBA Finals.
After being atop the Eastern Conference in 2001, the Rockers finished at the bottom of the standings in 2002 with a record of 10-22. Their defense plummeted even with the same core from the year before.
The only positive from the 2002 season was the emergence of draft pick Penny Taylor, who made the All-Star team in her second season. Taylor, famously married to GOAT Diana Taurasi, averaged 13 points and 5.3 rebounds while making 1.3 three-pointers per game.
By 2002, the only remaining Rockers from the inaugural 1997 team was Rushia Brown and Merlakia Jones. Brown and Jones are the only two players who played for the Rockers for the entirety of their exsistence from 1997 to 2003.
Trouble was brewing for the Rockers in October 2002 when the NBA board of governors voted to restructure the WNBA which allowed owner Gordon Gund to get control of the team from the league.
The 2003 Rockers finished a respectable 17-17 and made the WNBA playoffs, however losing in the first round to the eventual Finals Champs Detroit Shock. By making the playoffs in their last year of existence, the Rockers are the only team in WNBA history to make the playoffs and fold.
Following the 2003 season, the Cavaliers discontinued operating the Rockers. Gund would no longer control the Rockers and the team went up for sale, however, it was not purchased. Low attendance numbers and financial losses killed the Cleveland Rockers. The members of the Rockers roster went into the 2004 dispersal draft.
After seven seasons in the WNBA, the Rockers finished with a career 108-112 record. Given their four playoff appearances in seven seasons, the Cleveland Rockers ran a successful franchise from a basketball standpoint. The 1999 and 2002 Rockers were so bad that it ruined the franchise’s career win-loss record, overshadowing fairly consistent quality performance.
The Cleveland Rockers, with their goofy ugly teal colors and rock and roll theme, deserved more time to develop their franchise and fan base. For such a young league, seven years is not enough time to build up an organization. Sports teams and leagues need more time to develop their community-outreach infrastructure, basketball operations, and media infrastructure. The Rockers achieved a lot of success in such a short amount of time.
The world never got the chance to see the Cleveland Rockers in the WNBA Finals. For that, the world will never be just.
The Rockers defining legacy is that they made the playoffs 58% of their time in the WNBA, however, they were never the best team in the league.
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