Reading the Rockers' faces, one would know immediately that they are still reeling from a dispiriting loss. You wouldn't know it, however, reading the local paper. Though the Indians are on the road and the Cavs and Browns are out of season, an account of the Rockers-Sparks game doesn't appear in the The Plain Dealer sports section until page eight—seven pages after an article on the Metropolitan Bank Triathlon. As with any fledgling league, coverage is vital, and it's a pet concern of Ackerman's. The issue presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Media outlets (this magazine included) would be more inclined to bolster coverage if there were stronger indications of the WNBA's popularity. The league counters that ratings, attendance and buzz would increase if the media took it more seriously.
An offshoot of this: The players are still not perceived as celebrities. As the Rockers slog through the Continental terminal this morning en route to New York for a game against the Liberty, they are approached by a middle-aged woman. "Are you athletes?" she asks. "Yes," says Melvin. "We're basketball players." The interaction ends there. " NBA players get recognized; we get questions," Melvin explains. "It's something we talk about all the time."
Even by WNBA standards, the Rockers are exceptionally close. The players are black and white, American and foreign, relatively young (21) and relatively old (30). There is a clear sense that they embrace their differences and have forged a real community. "What we have, the way we care about each other, it's like a college team," says Henderson. "Even though we're not winning as much as we'd like, the season has been fun because we like each other so much." How have they been able to stave off the frustration of losing, the bitterness over minutes, the hubris that so often frays the fabric of teams? "Maybe," says Henderson, "it's a woman thing."
Nevertheless, a sense of isolation and loneliness can set in. After games the players reflexively whip out their cellphones, seeking contact—and, often, solace—from a familiar voice. Feelings of detachment are heightened for Henderson, 27, the lone mother on the active roster. In May 2000 she gave birth to a daughter, Journee, and sat out the season. She planned to return in 2001 but suffered a knee injury.
It proved a blessing in disguise. The week of the 1999 NFL Pro Bowl, Henderson's fianc�, Robert Edwards, then a running back for the New England Patriots, suffered a memorably grotesque knee injury playing flag football on the beach. Together at their home outside Atlanta, they rehabbed their injuries and pushed each other to make it back. In addition to growing as a couple, they were with Journee full time.
Both made it back to full health, and when Edwards accepted a contract with the Miami Dolphins this spring, Henderson had to decide whether to rejoin the Rockers or stay with Journee. She chose the former and leaves Journee with relatives in Atlanta during the season. As soon as the Rockers land in New York, she is on her cell, checking in with Journee, one of four, five, sometimes six calls she'll make in a day. "There was no WNBA when I was growing up," Henderson says. "I decided, as long as it's here, I want to be a part of it. We all miss our loved ones—that's one of the prices you pay, I guess. But as a mother, it's extra tough sometimes."
MONDAY, July 22
The entire Cleveland team and coaching staff files into the Madison Square Garden freight elevator that delivers them to court level. As the Rockers head through the tunnel for their game-day shootaround, they pass the Liberty as the home team vacates the court. The players exchange hugs and small talk. The Rockers say mat's the norm. They compete fiercely on court, but there is sense of collective purpose and sisterhood among the league's 192 players.
As the Rockers step on the floor, they stare silently, like awed tourists beholding the pyramids of Egypt. It might be in dire need of cosmetic upgrades, but it's still the Garden. As Melvin puts it, "If you had told me as a little girl that I would be playing in a women's basketball league in Madison Square Garden, I'd be like, 'Get serious.' "
Sensing his minions' fatigue, Hughes puts them through a light practice, and they're back at their Times Square hotel shortly after noon. In the lobby Joe D'Orazio, his sons, Bobby, 13, and Joe, 10, and his daughter, Julianne, 7, bump into the Rockers. The D'Orazios, on vacation from suburban Philadelphia, have never been to a WNBA game, but the kids play hoops and figure that a consortium of women that tall and athletic-looking must be part of a basketball team. The family chats up the Rockers and asks for autographs.