Tuesday, May 21, 2002 Updated: May 22, 11:53 PM ET
Fever 'rookie' ready for WNBA debut
By Dan Gelston Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tamika Catchings has waited 17 months for
her baskets to count and to swap a practice jersey for a uniform
with her name on the back.
After sitting out 2001, some experts think Tamika Catchings will contend for Rookie of the Year honors.
She has cried, prayed and been operated on twice, enduring
countless hours of rehabilitation for a knee that always seemed to
Now Catchings is able to run effortlessly and without pain for
the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in
January 2001, while an All-American at Tennessee.
The only signs that Catchings was ever injured are two small
scars on her right knee, serving as reminders of what cost her half
of her senior season with the Lady Vols and all of what should have been her rookie season
with the Indiana Fever in the WNBA.
The focus is no longer on mending but on once again becoming one
of the elite players in women's basketball.
"I'm not really nervous about my knee, just making my WNBA
debut,'' Catchings said.
Catchings gets her first regular-season action on June 1 against
Detroit, more than a year after she was drafted by the Fever with
the third overall pick. Catchings is ready to prove
she was worth the wait.
"I have a brand new knee and I'm ready to play,'' she said.
Catchings first injured the knee when she crashed to the floor
17 games into her senior season with the Lady Vols. Catchings finished
her career as only the second Lady Vols player -- after Chamique
Holdsclaw -- to reach 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.
The Fever picked her anyway in the April draft, and both parties
were looking toward a late-season WNBA debut.
"I thought we could play her for a few games at the end of last
season,'' Indiana coach Nell Fortner said. "It we did, great. If
we didn't, it was OK.''
The return date kept getting pushed back as Catchings' knee
failed to heal as quickly as hoped.
"Before I left Tennessee, they said I'd be back by June,'' she
said. "That's what I was aiming for. As I got closer and closer to
June, and I realized I wasn't playing, they pushed the date up to
July. When I got hurt in July, that was just devastating.''
The 6-foot-1 forward reinjured her knee during a Fever practice
in Houston on July 5. Catchings was running sprints when she heard
a pop in her right knee.
Team trainers told her it was scar tissue that was breaking but
when she couldn't straighten her leg or walk without pain she went
for an MRI. She had torn cartilage. Surgery and months of difficult
rehabilitation -- six hours a day, seven days a week -- followed.
The emotional toll was damaging, especially since Catchings
lacked the close-knit support she felt with the Lady Vols.
"I had never played with any of these people here,'' she said.
"It's not like I could give my input in and really feel like I was
making a difference because I was sitting on the sidelines. That
was really hard for me.''
Catchings embarked on a strenuous but monotonous routine of
rehabilitation, watching practice and more rehab. She wanted to
flee Indy and head back to Knoxville, but team officials wanted
Catchings to familiarize herself with the playbook and her
"I always came here smiling, I was always happy to see
everybody. That's the kind of person I am,'' she said. "But
inside, at times, it was like I don't want to be here. I wanted to
do my rehab somewhere else. I was sick of coming here and sitting
on the sidelines watching everybody else do something I want to
Fortner said she was happy with how Catchings dealt with her
"I think every athlete struggles when they have to go through
such an intense rehab,'' she said. "You're so far from your
eventual goal of being healthy. She always maintained a good
attitude. She just had to push herself through the rehab.''
Catchings said it was difficult to put the thought of another
injury out of her head.
"Getting over the mental hurdle is harder than getting over it
physically,'' she said.
The Fever went 10-22 a year ago, one game better than their
inaugural season in 2000. Catchings said she didn't feel the
pressure of turning Indiana into a playoff contender.
"I know it takes time,'' she said. "I get frustrated with
myself quite a bit because I try to do things that I used to do. I
sit back and think, 'You're finally here. Take your time. Do what
you can do to help your team and go from there.' "