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Shock Guard Korie Hlede.
As is often the case with expansion teams, the Detroit Shock were a motley crew made up of players other teams didn’t want and most fans hadn’t heard of. But the face of the franchise was already on board with Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman-Cline inked as the team’s first general manager and head coach.
The first pieces to the Shock player puzzle were put in place on January 27, 1998 when the WNBA allocated Cindy Brown and Razija Mujanovic to the Motor City. In the early days of the W, up through the 1999 season, the league allocated two players to each team ahead of the draft, often times with the regional appeal of those players taken into consideration. This is how Rebecca Lobo (UConn) ended up in The Big Apple, Lisa Leslie (USC) wound up in Tinsletown, and Andrea Stinson (NC State) found herself in the Queen City of Charlotte.
So naturally, Brown – who attended Long Beach State (1,984 miles away) and Mujanovic – a native of Yugoslavia (4,759 miles away) – were assigned to Detroit. Hey, we said they often times took regional appeal into consideration, not every time.
Brown averaged 17.5 points and 8.3 rebounds for the ABL’s Seattle Reign during the 1997-98 season and played in the ABL All-Star Game that year, while Mujanovic brought a physical presence to Detroit’s post game honed by a number of seasons of overseas and international competition.
The Shock were a team of two for 22 days, at which time the WNBA held an Expansion Draft on February 18. The eight charter franchises were permitted to protect six players, leaving the rest for Detroit and the Washington Mystics to choose from. The Shock selected Rhonda Blades of the New York Liberty with the first pick, and added Tajama Abraham from Sacramento (third pick), Tara Williams from Phoenix (fifth) and Lynette Woodard from Cleveland (seventh).
Next came the 1998 WNBA Draft on April 29, where Detroit had the fourth pick in each of the four rounds. The Shock came away from the table with a decidedly international flavor selecting Korie Hlede (Croatia) with their first-round pick, Rachael Sporn (Australia) in the second round, Gergana Branzova (Bulgaria) in the third round, and Sandy Brondello (Australia) with their final pick, although both Hlede (Duquesne) and Branzova (Florida International) attended college in the United States.
Six additional players were added to the Shock roster by the WNBA on May 2 – Lisa Ostrom, Shenika Walker, Mfon Udoka, DeAngela Minter, Aneta Kausaite and Betsy Harris – and on May 29, Carla Porter joined the team.
The initial on-court unveiling of the Shock took place at the Charlotte Coliseum in the team’s first preseason game of the year. The Charlotte Sting, a playoff participant in 1997, defeated the Shock 68-54 in the exhibition opener for both teams. Unfortunately for the Shock, the game was not as close as the final score might have indicated as Detroit trailed 67-36 with seven minutes to play.
The lackluster performance caused Lieberman-Cline to say after the game that “some of these players have to realize that this is the professional level. There’s a different mentality.” She added, “I was disappointed in the effort. Some of the players looked petrified.”
Part of Detroit’s problem was that not everybody was in training camp. The Australian contingent had yet to make it to the States, as they were competing with the Australian National team in the 1998 FIBA World Championship, and would not be available until the start of the regular season.
Detroit’s regular season began against a familiar opponent in the Sting, whom they faced on two occasions during the preseason. Nearly 16,000 fans packed The Palace of Auburn Hills on June 13, 1998 only to watch the Shock fall to Charlotte 78-69. Razija Mujanovic led the way for Detroit with the first double-double in team history scoring a game-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and grabbing 13 rebounds. The rest of the team, however, managed to make just 32.2 percent of their shots sending the Shock to its first loss in franchise history.
The Shock dropped its next three games for an 0-4 start to the season, although after nine and 11 point losses in their first two games, they followed with four- and two-point losses respectively to Charlotte and Cleveland, all of which set the stage for . . .
June 21, 1998 at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. when Lieberman-Cline and company finally broke into the win column with a 70-57 decision over their expansion sisters. Korie Hlede’s 20 points led four Detroiters in double-figures as the team led from wire to wire.
Sparked by their inaugural win, the Shock ran off six straight victories, including five wins against Eastern Conference competition. The roller-coaster ride continued throughout much of the season as Detroit followed up that winning streak with another four-game skid before winning four in a row in late July. After the season-opening four-game losing streak, Detroit never fell more than two games below .500 or climbed more than two games above .500 through early August.
In the meantime, Hlede was making waves as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate, Brondello was staking claim to the title of the best fourth-round draft pick in league history, and Brown was dominating the glass. Hlede and Brondello both wound up averaging more than 14 points per game on the year, while Brown became the first WNBA player to grab more than 300 rebounds in a season. Hlede finished second in rookie of the year balloting to Charlotte’s Tracy Reid.
|1998 Playoff Standings|
|*Through August 18 (top four teams make the playoffs)|
The Sting beat the Washington Mystics early in the night, which meant that a Shock win over New York in front of 16,246 fans at The Palace, coupled with a Phoenix win over Sacramento later in the night, would knock the Liberty out of the playoffs. In addition, a Shock victory would send Charlotte off to a first-round match-up with the Houston Comets and Phoenix into a best two out of three meeting with the Cleveland Rockers.
New York opened up a 14-point lead with 11:13 to go in the first period, but the Shock battled back with a 17-3 run of its own, and taking a two-point lead into the locker room. Tied at 62 with 4:29 to go in the second, Detroit ended the game by scoring 20 of the last 26 points, for an 82-68 victory, depriving the Liberty of a second trip to the postseason.
Despite the lack of a playoff berth, the Shock did manage to post a 17-13 mark on the year and surprise almost all league observers by staying in the playoff picture as long as they did. The team was also a success in the stands as they averaged 10,229 fans on the season, and boasted four crowds of 14,000 or more.
“I am excited for this franchise, and I’m excited for my players and the city of Detroit,” said Lieberman-Cline. “Can you imagine if we made it to the playoffs what it would be like? We are setting standards that all expansion teams will be measured by. We have incredible competitors, and I could not be prouder of this team than I am right now.”