Why the 2024 Final Four matters for Cleveland State and its city


Cleveland is hosting the 2024 Final Four, and that’s a pretty big deal.

Just ask the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, which projects 50,000 visitors in town during the first week of April 2024. That’s double the 25,000 who showed up in 2007 when the city benefited from $10.7 million of economic impact while watching Tennessee win its seventh national title.

It’s big enough deal for the City Club of Cleveland to assemble an impressive collection of women’s basketball notables for a panel discussion nearly a year in advance, as it did on Wednesday afternoon.

One of those invited was former WNBA coach Dan Hughes, who coached the Cleveland Rockers as the NCAA considered the 2007 bid. He was with the San Antonio Silver Stars by the time the event happened thanks to the Rockers folding but, at the time, the WNBA held its draft in conjunction with the Final Four, so Hughes ended up back in the city and the arena where he paced the sidelines from 2000 through 2003. His favorite memory from his return visit wasn’t legendary coach Pat Summitt hoisting her penultimate trophy though. It was that he used the opportunity to close a transaction that resonates in the basketball world to this day: he traded for Becky Hammon.

Hammon, already well-established as a top talent of the game thanks to her time at Colorado State and with the New York Liberty, went on to play in San Antonio for eight seasons. Towards the end of her Hall of Fame career, a blessing in disguise of an ACL tear led her to frequent practices of the NBA’s Spurs, an interaction that ended with her making history on Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff before she moved back to the WNBA as the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces (coincidentally, the by-then-relocated Silver Stars, and technically Hughes’ former job) in 2022.

“It absolutely changed the arc of my team in San Antonio, and changed my life,” Hughes said. “She was the first women’s assistant coach in the NBA. All of that kind of went down [in Cleveland] as part of the Final Four.”

Cleveland State head coach Chris Kielsmeier has his own story to tell about that Final Four, and it also has very little to do with anything that happened on the court. A self-proclaimed country boy, born and raised in smaller-than-small-town Iowa, Kielsmeier was then coaching at Howard Payne University, a Division III school in Brownwood, Texas, well over 100 miles removed from the larger centers of Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth. He had never been to Cleveland until 2007, and he definitely didn’t envision spending a significant part of his life in a large city, but was impressed enough by what he saw – particularly, the way the urban core seamlessly gives way to his more familiar surroundings – to answer the phone when CSU called a decade later.

“When Cleveland State wanted to interview me and bring me here as their potential next women’s basketball coach, 2007 was the only time I’d ever been to Cleveland,” he said. “So a lot of those experiences that I’d had in that one moment when I was here really impacted my decision, first to come on the interview, let’s give it a chance because of those experiences. They really impacted me in a way of saying, it’s all encompassed in the city, you can go experience how many things without having to leave the city.”

Hughes and Kielsmeier were just two of those 25,000 visitors, and both left the city with their lives and the sport of basketball changed in some tangible way, even if the full weight of what transpired wasn’t measured until years later. It’s impossible not to wonder what other history may have been altered by the rest.

At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the idea that if the 2024 Final Four blows through town in a frantic week and leaves only a scattered trail of coincidences and chain reactions, the event will have failed in some substantial way.

The Final Four is a big deal. But the idea of something sustainable for women’s basketball and women’s sports in Cleveland is a bigger deal.

Anyone even a little bit familiar with Horizon League women’s basketball is aware of Green Bay’s long history of conference championships, impressively assembled mostly by players from a tightly-defined radius in Northeast Wisconsin with occasional forays down into Milwaukee or neighboring states. The Phoenix are truly a brand name in the sport, even ahead of their better-funded flagship campus’ Badgers; Green Bay has dominated the series against Wisconsin during the 21st century. Understandably, plenty of local pride followed that sort of success, playing for Kevin Borseth’s program became aspirational for girls across the region, and the cycle now perpetuates itself.

Cleveland State, meanwhile, has never been any of that, as a women’s basketball program or as a university. During the school’s recent rebranding efforts, a marketing firm’s study found that area residents described CSU with words like “ordinary” and “forgettable.” For many students, it’s always been convenient and affordable, but never a place for those with a ton of other options. Athletics, often called the front door of the university by administrators, can sandpaper an otherwise-rough situation. But the Vikings basketball teams have mostly offered mediocrity (or worse) over the years, punctuated by an occasional Kailey Klein or Norris Cole or Mouse McFadden capable of elevating things, though only temporarily. CSU’s presence in Cleveland’s sports consciousness is somewhere above the city’s non-existent NHL team, but below high school football.

It’s obvious that Kielsmeier is offering every shred of energy in his control to redirecting a significant part of that history, with his program as a centerpiece. He shows up wherever he’s invited, sometimes where he’s not, and repeatedly implores anyone within earshot to give women’s basketball a chance by attending one game. He’ll then take it one step further, essentially daring them to stop showing up after that first game with the confidence of a Frito Lay ad executive. Throw in his ever-present Iowa folksiness and an uncanny ability to win just about any room, even ones stuffed with other big personalities, and it’s awfully hard to doubt that he can pull it all off.

Thanks largely to the 2024 Final Four, and the collaboration it can nurture, it’s starting to look like his vision has the needed local support. It’s telling that Wednesday’s roundtable included Kielsmeier, representing the highest level of the sport available locally and Hughes, an advocate for the city with access to the national scene, but also others needed to realize the broader vision of Cleveland as a women’s basketball hub including Jessica Davis, who works at the grassroots level as the Senior Manager of Youth Basketball Operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Monica Gustin, a Greater Cleveland Sports Commission executive with the ability to tie everything together. The panel was moderated by The Athletic’s Kelsey Russo, one member of a media that finally and collectively began paying a bit of attention to CSU women’s basketball during the 2023 Horizon League championship run.

“I think the conversation just needs to continue from this positive momentum that’s going on,” Davis said. “Promoting young girls participating and how important that is from a young age, and how you learn life lessons through playing the game.”

“Once they’re in the gym, we have to keep them there,” she continued, while citing research showing that girls are 50 percent more likely to drop out of sports than boys. “If they’re interested, we have to empower them, build their confidence, give them the equipment with the skills to get them better, and most importantly, make sure they’re having fun.”

The importance of the youth element is something Kielsmeier understands intuitively.

It’s worth pointing out that Destiny Leo was also present for the event. Leo, as Cleveland State’s best-known student-athlete and the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year, is present for a lot of events, to be sure. But on Wednesday, her stats didn’t come up; the fact that she went to Eastlake North High School – “she’s a Cleveland girl, MGK ‘Till I Die,’” as Kielsmeier put it – did. So did the idea that, while her number 2 may hang next to Klein’s 23 at the Wolstein Center someday, she has a chance to contribute much more than a couple of here-and-gone NCAA Tournament bids.

As if on cue, Isabella Dorsey-Urban, a basketball-playing soon-to-be freshman at Trinity High School, stepped up to the microphone during the question-and-answer stage of the forum and asked about becoming more involved in the sport. Kielsmeier instinctively invited her to spend some time with his program over the summer, and he and Leo spoke with the ambitious girl afterwards as well.

Dorsey-Urban, in all likelihood, won’t be playing at CSU four years from now. But as a kid with hoop dreams both on and off the court, she may very well become a piece of building a local culture. She could be the next Leo, or she could be one of Hughes’ numerous former Rockers players who has gone on to make their marks in the sports and business worlds. Any of those outcomes, directly or indirectly, can still benefit the school or its city or both and be a part of a machine not unlike the one that’s fed Green Bay for a couple decades.

Sure, there will be 50,000 visitors to Cleveland next April, and they’ll undoubtedly be transformed in some way, just as Hughes and Kielsmeier were 16 years ago. But that number is dwarfed by the number of people already there who can play some part, whether large or small, in the evolution of a major women’s sports hub. The Final Four’s true legacy will be the connections that can accelerate that process.

“This is what it means for our community to have this opportunity, to have this platform,” Gustin said. “There’s work being done all across our community to create these opportunities, to learn leadership skills, life skills, to then go and take what you learned between April 5th and 7th that has some type of impact on you to keep going. That’s why we do these large-scale events.”

“It’s really a partnership between everyone up here and around this room. This is the platform that we have. How are we going to maximize it together?”

Leave a Reply