The Cleveland Rockers were reeling from something more disheartening than a gut-wrenching loss, or elimination from the playoffs. They had just been informed that they no longer existed.
One minute Chasity Melvin's place was with the 11 other women she called her Rockers teammates. The next minute management was telling them to clean out their lockers. The franchise had gone bust.
_____No. 2 Sun vs. No. 3 Mystics_____
Records: Connecticut 18-16, Washington 17-17.
Schedule: Game 1, today at MCI Center, noon; Game 2, Monday at Connecticut, 7 p.m.; Game 3*, Wednesday at Connecticut, TBA.
TV: Today, Oxygen; Mon., NBA TV; Wed. TBA.
Coaches: Mystics: Michael Adams (17-17, .500); Sun: Mike Thibault (36-32, .529).
Regular Season: Sun won three of four: 72-63 on June 4, 75-65 on June 20, 78-69 on June 30; Mystics won, 69-68, on July 30.
What to Look For: Both teams will try to establish themselves in the low post. The Sun goes to two powerful front-line players in Taj McWilliams-Franklin (12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds) and Wendy Palmer (9 points and 5.5 rebounds); the Mystics have their own inside muscle in center Nakia Sanford (5.5 points and 5 rebounds) and former Cleveland Rockers forward Chasity Melvin (8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds). Both teams will turn to creative players for offense -- the Sun to Nykesha Sales (15.2 ppg) and the Mystics to Alana Beard (13.1 ppg; 22.5 ppg in the team's final six games).
Starting Lineups: Connecticut: G Katie Douglas, G Lindsay Whalen, F Wendy Palmer, F Nykesha Sales, C Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Washington: G Alana Beard, G Stacey Dales-Schuman, F Murriel Page, F Chasity Melvin, C Nakia Sanford.
Keys for Mystics: Washington must clamp down on Douglas, the Sun's leading three-point shooter, and limit Connecticut's second-shot attempts. On offense, the Mystics have to get Melvin shots near the basket and get her into the game early.
Keys for Sun: Connecticut has to prevent Beard from getting open looks at the basket and from penetrating inside. The Sun can wear Beard down if their shooters are making shots and forcing the Mystics' rookie to expend herself on both ends of the court.
Series Turns On: The Mystics rejuvenated bench, especially Coco Miller and Tamicha Jackson.
-- Greg Sandoval
* If necessary
"It felt like the last five or six years of my life were just a waste of time," said Melvin, now a forward with the Washington Mystics, as she recalled last December's announcement that the Rockers had folded. "It felt really bad. You work so hard at your game to get better. Then they closed the team down like it was nothing."
A basketball refugee for just a few weeks until the Mystics chose her in January's dispersal draft, the 6-foot-3 forward has helped stabilize Washington's inside game since all-star forward Chamique Holdsclaw left the team with an undisclosed medical condition. Melvin's performance is a big reason why the Mystics (17-17) are in the playoffs and opening their best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinals today against Connecticut (18-16) at MCI Center.
Spending much of the season as a reserve, Melvin, a former all-star, is back in the starting lineup, demanding the ball more now and itching to pick up where she left off with Cleveland.
Melvin has averaged 8.6 points and 3.9 rebounds this season after finishing 2003 with 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Melvin says the dip in her production can be traced to her struggle to fit into the system of Coach Michael Adams. Spending five seasons in Cleveland had lulled the 28-year-old Melvin into a comfort zone. Complicating matters, she landed with a club that was breaking in a new coach and coaching staff and two other key players -- guards Alana Beard and Tamicha Jackson.
"She was coming from an established and successful team where she was one of the main players," said Washington assistant coach Linda Hargrove. "It was a tough transition. It was tough on everybody."
Adams benched Melvin after the fourth game of the season. In that game, a 73-62 loss to Minnesota, Melvin was held without a point or rebound in three minutes of play.
"I was playing different players in her position because she wasn't earning the minutes," Adams said.
Said Melvin, "It kind of frustrated me."
The frustration was nothing new for Melvin. In fact, being on a team that went bust wasn't new, either. Before the Rockers went belly up, the pro team Melvin signed with coming from North Carolina State in 1998 was the Philadelphia Rage of the American Basketball League. At the end of her rookie season the ABL shut down operations.
She had seen so many women lose the game and now, someone in Washington was threatening to yank the game away from her.
Melvin said she decided to keep working, listening and biding her time. "I knew what I could do," she said.
Her points, rebounds and minutes began to rise. Teammates began finding her near the basket, where she swiveled and pivoted her way to points in the paint.
Then Holdsclaw sat out a game a July 24 game against Charlotte. Melvin was back in the starting lineup. The turning point really came when the Mystics blew out the Phoenix Mercury by 20 points on Aug. 1. Melvin finished with 17 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.
Averaging 7.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game through Washington's 12-16 start, Melvin scored 12.2 points per game and grabbed 5.8 rebounds per game during the team's final six games of the season, five of which the Mystics won.
"She probably realized that I need her just like she needs me," Adams said. "I dictate her minutes. If she plays well, you know, obviously she stays on the floor. I focused more on getting the ball inside to her and we started winning more basketball games."
During the club's five-game winning streak, which lifted the club into playoff position, Melvin's frustration had melted away to smiles. Her younger sister, Danielle, knows how fortunate Melvin feels just to still have a team.
"She's played longer than so many of her friends," Danielle Melvin said. "She smiles when she scores because she's just happy to be there."