Monday, July 6, 2009

1997 Cleveland Rockers

Lynette Woodard during her days as a Globetrotter.

W/L: 15-13, fourth (and last) in the Eastern Conference
Pythagorean W/L: 16-12
Points Scored Per Game: 70.2
Points Allowed Per Game: 68.4


PG: Tina Nicholson/Michelle Edwards (*)
SG: Lynette Woodard
SF: Eva Nemcova (**)
PF: Janice Braxton
C: Isabelle Fijalkowski

(*) Edwards was primarily a shooting guard.
(**) Nemcova was more a forward-center

Last of the 1997 Rockers to leave: Merlakia Jones played for Cleveland in all seven seasons that the Rockers existed in the WNBA.

Last survivor: Merlakia Jones's final WNBA season was with the Detroit Shock in 2004. However, if you want to count coaches, Jenny Boucek played for the Rockers in her only WNBA season as a player in 1997. Boucek now coaches the Sacramento Monarchs.

With their first round picks in the 1997 WNBA Elite Draft in February, the Rockers picked for both youth and talent. They chose Isabelle Fijalkowski who had been a star for the French national team, and then Lynette Woodard, a player who was actually the first female Harlem Globetrotter in 1985. Woodard, at 37, would be a virtual graybeard. Eva Nemcova and Merlakia Jones would come to the Rockers the regular draft.

The picks, however, were were most likely made by general manager Wayne Embry, who was the GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers as well. The Rockers didn't have a coach until May 1997 - Linda Hill-McDonald, the former coach at the University of Minnesota.

The move caused a lot of murmuring among women's basketball fans - during Hill-McDonald's final two years at Minnesota, the Gophers finished 8-47. It would be Hill-McDonald's job to make the most out of what she was given. Hill-McDonald was left to try to pick up some extra woman-power at an open tryout in late May that brought 175 WNBA wanna-bees out of the woodwork.

In their inaugural game on July 21, 1997, the Rockers ran into a buzzsaw as the visiting Houston Comets torched the Rockers 76-56, with Cynthia Cooper scoring 25 points in a game with the Rockers still in a defensive torpor. Announced attendance was 11,445 - a sell-out crowd for the Rockers.

The Rockers were at least winning where it counted - not on the floor, but in corporate sponsorship. The Rockers picked up $500,000 in corporate sponsorship even before the first tip-off, more than double that of their initial goal of $200,000 and ahead of all seven of the other WNBA teams.

Unfortunately, the crowds dwindled off in Cleveland. Cleveland found the early part of the season rough going, starting off 3-8 to end up dead last in the Eastern Conference, losing four straight in early July and ending up 6 1/2 games behind the Liberty. Michelle Edwards, obtained through the initial player allocations, was converted from shooting guard to point guard, and then hyperextended her knee and ended up on the injured list. Jenny Boucek injured her back. With all of the injuries, it took a while for Cleveland to right itself from its horrible 1-5 start and Cleveland managed to extend its record to 9-8 after a six-game winning streak.

by the end of July, the Rockers extended their win streak to seven games, with Eva Nemcova and Janice Braxton scoring 17 and 15 respectively as the Mercury fell to the Rockers 79-69. The Rockers were now 10-8 with just 10 games left in the season. The crowds began to inch from the 5,000 range to the 7,000 range. By August, Michelle Edwards was back and the Rockers won a record eighth straight game by crushing the Monarchs 72-51 at Gund Arena. With an 11-8 record, things were looking up.

Then, the bubble popped. The Houston Comets beat the Rockers in Cleveland 76-66. The Rockers would lose the WNBA's first double-overtime game to the Sparks. The Rockers knew that they could end up fighting the Charlotte Sting for the final playoff spot, since the winner of the Western Conference regular season was guaranteed one of the four playoff berths.

On August 23, 1997, Michelle Edwarda's running 3-pointer as time expired gave the Rockers an amazing 72-71 home victory over the visiting New York Liberty. It was the second last-second win in a row for Cleveland, the Rockers having beaten Houston the game before on a Janice Braxton free throw that gave them a 76-75 win on the road. The Rockers (14-12), Sting (14-13) and Sparks (13-13) were all vying for the final playoff spot. However, Cleveland would have to play the Liberty again in the final game of the season.

Going down to the final game, the Rockers were 15-12 and the Sting were 14-13. The Sparks had fallen on the final day of their season to the Phoenix Mercury, who had won their conference title and knocked the Sparks out of playoff contention. In order for the Sting to claim the final playoff spot, the Rockers would have to lose against New York and the Sting would have to beat the Starzz. The Sting's chances against the Starzz were extremely good - Utah was the worst team in the WNBA and they were playing in Charlotte, where the Sting's 11-2 home record led the league in home game victories.

The Rockers had to go to Madison Square Garden. The Liberty had already clinched the third spot in the playoffs. When the Rockers got to New York, they faced the Liberty and their 18,000 fans at Madison Square Garden who set a game attendance record. However, the Rockers knew at least that their fate was in their own hands.

After leading the Rockers by 18 points in the first half, the Liberty fought for their lives as the Rockers battled back. They managed to tie the game with one minute left. Rebecca Lobo let a pass go off her hands with 23 seconds to go...but the Rockers Janice Braxon missed a 3-point shot with 2.9 seconds to go and the game went into overtime, 69-69.

Unfortunately, the overtime was all Liberty. With New York leading 75-72, Lobo's turnaround jumper with 1:01 to go was a puncture wound in the heart of the Rockers. Cleveland lost 79-72 and no longer controlled its fate.

This put the Rockers fate in the Sting's hands. The Sting learned this minutes before tipoff, and that all they needed to do to go to the post-season was to win against Utah. A confident Charlotte team started the game with a 20-4 run. The Rockers seasons ended as Charlotte easily won 70-52 to go to the WNBA Playoffs. For the Rockers, there was nothing to do but wait till next year.


Rebecca said...

Starzz. Beat the Starzz. The Jazz are guys. I miss the Rockers.

pt said...

Fixed (hopefully).

I always get Starzz and Jazz confused - namely because the Jazz are still around while the Starzz have absconded to San Antonio. Were that it were not the case.