Rebuilding the Rockers

The road back to respectability begins against the best.

Cleveland Rockers vs. the Los Angeles Sparks Gund Arena, 100 Gateway Plaza Tuesday, May 27. $8 to $30; call 216-263-7625.

Cleveland Rockers coach Dan Hughes is sitting outside the bustling practice court at Gund Arena, his stern face betraying no illusions about the challenges his team faces in the 2003 WNBA season. "We've got to put a new personality back on the floor," he says. "What we have to do now is reestablish what we're all about."

A few minutes earlier, Hughes was on the court with his team, which is regrouping from a 10-22 record last season. It was a stark contrast to the 2001 season, when the Rockers topped the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs, and Hughes was named WNBA Coach of the Year. "We had a season of regression last year," he says with a shrug, citing the team's injuries and poor defensive play.

Two seasons ago, the stingy Rockers defense held opponents to a league-record 55.9 points per game. One of that team's defensive leaders was guard Helen Darling, who missed last season after giving birth to triplets, but is set to return this year.

"I want, defensively, for us to become more tough-minded, more aggressive," Hughes says. "We've got to get back to a defensive tone that allows us to play offense out of our defense."

The Rockers appear poised to step up on offense this year. They used their first-round draft pick on LaToya Thomas, an All-American power forward who is the all-time leading scorer at Mississippi State. They bolstered their perimeter shooting with the acquisition of guard Betty Lennox from Miami, and they welcome back All-Star forward Penny Taylor and 6-foot-4 center Ann Wauters, who is coming off a career-best season in points and rebounds.

The Rockers will need plenty of both from the moment the 2003 season tips off: Their first two games are against the Los Angeles Sparks and the New York Liberty, the two teams who battled for the WNBA championship last season. "Philosophically, everything we do now is geared toward playing the best of teams," says Hughes.

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