The CLEVELAND ROCKERS were Cleveland's first professional women's basketball franchise. On October 31, 1996, the Women's National Basketball Association announced that Cleveland and seven other cities would be awarded franchises to open the inaugural 28-game summer season in 1997. The Cleveland Cavaliers organization was designated to run Cleveland's new Eastern Conference WNBA team. The depth of girls' high school and collegiate basketball in Greater Cleveland and Ohio played a significant role in securing a WNBA franchise in Cleveland.
In February 1997, the Cleveland Cavaliers unveiled the name and logo for the Cleveland Rockers - using the team colors of the men's team with the addition of silver. The first two players named to the team were Iowa's Michelle Edwards and Louisiana Tech's Janice Lawrence Braxton, both of whom were playing professionally in Italy at the time. Lynette Woodard, a basketball legend who was the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, came out of retirement to join the Rockers. The Rockers won the second pick in the first WNBA draft and selected Eva Nemcova, a player from the Czech Republic who was voted the best European player in 1996. In May, Linda Hill-McDonald, the head coach at University of Minnesota and former president of the Women's Basketball Coaches of America, became the first head coach for the Rockers.
The team opened the inaugural season with a disappointing 3-8 start, but turned things around to finish with a 15-13 record. The Rockers lost to the New York Liberty in overtime in a season finale that put an end to their playoff hopes. In their second year in 1998, the Rockers finished the season with the second best record in the WNBA at 19-11. That year, they beat the New York Liberty in their final game to claim the Eastern Conference title but would lose to the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA semi-finals. The Rockers' second round pick that year, Suzie McConnell Serio, was named Newcomer of the Year, received the WNBA's Sportsmanship Award, and was a member of the all-WNBA first team. Eva Nemcova led the league in three-point shooting and helped the Rockers achieve a WNBA-best 46.8 shooting percentage.
Following a rocky third season in 1999 (holding the worst record in the WNBA at 7-25), Hill-McDonald was fired by General Manager Wayne Embry. That same year, the Rockers lost their leading scorer and center, Isabelle Fijalkowski, due to a contractual dispute. Dan Hughes, the assistant and interim coach of the Charlotte Sting, took over as head coach in October 1999. With Hughes' direction and the leadership of Merlakia Jones, the team's lone All-Star, the Rockers returned to the semi-finals in the 2000 season before losing to New York. The team reached the playoffs again in 2001, losing to Charlotte in the first round. But disappointment returned in 2002, as the Rockers finished with a 10-22 record, the second worst in the league for that year. In October 2002, the Board of Governors of the National Basketball Association voted to restructure the WNBA, meaning that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund now controlled the Rockers, rather than the national organization.
In 2003, the Rockers finished with a 17-17 record, losing to the Detroit Shock in the first round of the playoffs. On September 19 of that year, the Cleveland Cavaliers decided to discontinue operation of the Rockers, in part because of declining home game attendance (averaging 7,400 per game in 2003, down from a high of 10,350 in 1998) and financial losses. Despite efforts by local fans to recruit new investors to take over ownership of the team, the Rockers disbanded, with players sent to other teams in a dispersal draft held in January 2004.