- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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When Indiana forward Tamika Catchings took a call from the WNBA on Tuesday, it didn't immediately occur to her what it could be about. Then president Laurel J. Richie congratulated her on being the 2011 league MVP.
"And I went, 'Cool!'" Catchings said, laughing. "It's definitely exciting for me and my family and the fans. The support that I've gotten has just been tremendous.
"It is neat for me to know the impact that it's going to have. The fans have written me on Facebook and Twitter this season; they say they are so appreciative of my game. When the news comes out, my phone might be so overwhelmed it goes out of service."
Catchings had to keep the secret for two days before it was officially announced on ESPN on Thursday before her Fever face Atlanta in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
In a WNBA season in which there were a lot of worthy candidates for the award -- and much debate by fans -- it went by a large margin to the 6-foot-1 Catchings. She got 21 of 40 first-place votes from a media voting panel that ranked its top five choices for the award. Catchings garnered 292 points overall.
Connecticut center Tina Charles, who was rookie of the year last season, finished second with 209 points and six first-place votes. Chicago center Sylvia Fowles also had six first-place votes and was third (148 points).
Storm guard Sue Bird, who revealed to Seattle reporters Wednesday that she played this season despite a tear in her left labrum (hip) -- and might also have a tear in the right labrum -- was fourth (106 points, two firsts). Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen got four first-place votes and 104 points, finishing fifth.
"It's awesome to be categorized in that group," Catchings said of those vying for MVP. "We all had good years. I say for the young players, keep doing what you're doing. One of the main things that you want to do is just keep pushing and striving to get better."
Catchings, who turned 32 in July, has been a perennial contender for MVP since she entered the WNBA in 2002. She won rookie of the year then, her pro career having been delayed for a year after she finished college. She spent the summer of 2001 rehabbing a knee injury that had cut short her senior season at Tennessee.
Asked which city's fans -- those in Indy or Knoxville, Tenn. -- might be most excited for her getting this honor, Catchings said, "It's going to be both."
Indeed, Catchings is the most successful WNBA player from the Tennessee program. She has won the league's defensive player of the year award four times; helped lead Indiana to the playoffs in eight of her 10 seasons; and made it to within one victory of a league title in 2009. Catching also won gold medals in the 2004 and '08 Olympics.
But MVP had been an elusive honor for her. She was a strong contender for MVP her rookie season, averaging 18.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. But then-Houston Comets player Sheryl Swoopes won the award. In 2003, Catchings averaged 19.7 points and 8.0 rebounds. But the MVP went to Seattle center Lauren Jackson.
In 2007, Catchings' averages were 16.9 and 9.0. In 2010, they were 18.2 and 7.1. Jackson also won the MVP both of those seasons.
This year, as the Fever finished first in the Eastern Conference regular-season standings, Catchings' averages were 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals. Her overall career averages for 10 seasons are 16.5, 7.6, 3.7 and 2.5. That indicates remarkable consistency in impacting all facets of the game.
Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird, known for doing that same thing in his NBA career, spoke to reporters via conference call during the season to stump for Catchings.
Bird said in a statement Thursday, "Everyone here at Pacers Sports & Entertainment is not only happy to have an MVP, but also a quality person who is not only great on the court, but in the community as well. This is very deserving, as Tamika fits the true description of an MVP."
Catchings' fans and the Fever marketing machine campaigned year after year for her. She was never caught up in pursuing the award.
"I never focused on the MVP," Catchings said. "I just focused on being the best that I can be, personally. Every year, I wanted to bring something different to the team and to my game."
Catchings said she is pleased that she won the award in a year in which she was 10th in the league in scoring average.
"One of the things is that it sets a different standard," she said. "You look at this and see I didn't score the most points this year, but the other things that I did do definitely made a difference.
"It shows kids growing up that you don't have to score the most points, just do other things and be an impact player for your team."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
After years of being the perennial runner-up, Tamika Catchings finally captured her first WNBA MVP award Thursday.