Inaugural game program for the short-lived Memphis Rockers franchise (1990-1991) of the defunct World Basketball League (1988-1992). The WBL was an oddball minor league basketball loop that played during the summer time and banned players above 6′ 5″ in height. Franchises stretched across Canada and the U.S. from Saskatchewan to Boca Raton and each season also included games against imported touring teams from Europe and the Soviet Union.
WBL franchises were owned 60% by the league itself, with the other 40% sold off to local investors (when the WBL could find such people, which was hit and miss). In the case of the Rockers, cotton baron Billy Dunavant partnered with a group of five prominent black businessmen to buy the local stake in the fall of 1989. The expansion franchise was valued at $1 million, with Dunavant putting up $200,000 for a 20% stake and the group of Calvin Anderson, Pat Carter, Claude English, George Jones and Harold Shaw Sr. putting up $200,000 for their 20%. The money was chicken feed for Dunavant, at least, who previously owned the popular Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League from 1984 to 1986 and was actively courting an NFL expansion franchise for Memphis at the time the Rockers were formed.
On the basketball operations side, the Rockers organization was led by Head Coach & General Manager Tom Nissalke, a journeyman ABA and NBA Head Coach, who served in that role with seven organizations from 1971 to 1984. Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 1977 while with the Houston Rockets.
During the Rockers’ first season in 1990, the team signed two local favorites from Memphis State in guard Andre Turner and forward Vincent Askew. The pair helped lead the MSU Tigers to the NCAA Final Four in 1985. Other notables included the former Notre Dame star, Sports Illustrated cover boy, and Los Angeles Lakers 1st round pick David Rivers (1991) and the immortal House Guest (1991), a member of the All-Name Team who led an otherwise brief and undistinguished minor league career.
Though the Rockers would last just two seasons at Memphis’ Mid-South Coliseum before folding in late 1991, the low-budget club ($150,000 annual salary cap, according to Black Enterprise) developed two overlooked players who went on to success in the NBA. One was Askew, who leveraged his time in the WBL and his status as a two-time MVP in the winter-time Continental Basketball Association into a journeyman NBA career during the 1990′s. Most notable was John Starks, a 6′ 3″ guard out of Oklahoma State who played for the Rockers in 1990. Starks latched on with the New York Knicks later that year and starred in the NBA for more than a decade, earning an All-Star nod with the Knickerbockers in 1994.
Starks was arguably the biggest star to emerge during the short, wacky life World Basketball League. The league itself lasted less than a year after the Rockers gave up the ghost in late 1991. The WBL fell apart during its fifth season, after league founder and Youngstown Pride owner Mickey Monus was caught embezzling money – upwards of $10 million – from his Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain to prop up his money losing basketball hobby. The league folded in August 1992 without completing the season.