- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- They've been here previously: one win away from the WNBA title. Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas have faced it before, but not quite like this.
Catchings is at the top of her game, averaging 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in this postseason for the Indiana Fever. The Fever lead the WNBA Finals 2-1, so Catchings will go into Sunday's Game 4 (8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2) against Minnesota trying to make it her last contest of this WNBA season.
Douglas, her teammate with the Fever since 2008, will be there to offer all the moral support possible. But it seems unlikely she'll be able to do much more. Douglas severely injured her left ankle early in the clinching game of the Eastern Conference finals on Oct. 11 and hasn't played since.
Indiana coach Lin Dunn has said the window for Douglas to get on court in this series cracks open just a little more each day, but clearly time is running short. Douglas wasn't at the Fever's workout or media availability Saturday.
"I text her every morning, and throughout the day we'll go back and forth," Catchings said. "I know it's a struggle when you're sitting on the sidelines and you want so bad to be out there. But it's life."
Catchings kind of laughed, and added: "You know, we never do things easy, between her and I. I go out and tear my plantar fascia [last year during the playoffs], and now she's got her ankle that is black, blue, purple, orange, yellow -- a little of every color you can imagine. But I told her, 'You helped us get this far. This right here is a product of what we all started together.'"
Together being the operative word. For the past few years, they've been almost a one-word entity -- "Catch&Katie" -- in leading the Fever. It was a meshing of "the Franchise" -- as Catchings is known after playing her entire WNBA career with the Fever -- and "the Hometown Hero" -- as Douglas, graduate of Indy's Perry Meridian High, is considered.
Yet for these WNBA Finals, it has been more "Catch&Company" -- with various players stepping forward to fill in for all the things Douglas usually provides. One of the WNBA's most respected dynamic duos has been separated by injury, yet they are still united in purpose.
Douglas was born and grew up here in Indianapolis, won an NCAA title with Purdue (an hour and 15 minutes northwest of the capital city), and lobbied for the trade to return here after spending her first seven WNBA seasons in Orlando and Connecticut. Admittedly, it will be a bizarre twist of fate if Indiana does at last win its first WNBA title without Douglas on the court.
Of course, the Fever still has to triumph in Game 4 -- a difficult task considering that other than a three-game losing streak at the start of July, the Lynx haven't lost two games in a row in 2012.
Add in that the Fever had a chance to close out a title at home in Game 4 of the 2009 WNBA Finals against the Mercury, but lost that game and then Game 5 in Phoenix.
Douglas was in action for all those games against Phoenix three years ago. Same for her other two appearances in the WNBA Finals: with Connecticut in 2004 and '05. In fact, until this recent injury, Douglas hasn't missed much time at all since she entered the league in 2001. Durability has been one of her hallmarks.
Meanwhile, Catchings has had more serious physical woes to deal with over the years, going all the way back to a torn ACL that cut short her senior season at Tennessee.
Douglas was also a college senior then, and led the Boilermakers to the NCAA title game, which they lost to Notre Dame. Douglas was the No. 10 WNBA draft pick by Orlando, a franchise that relocated to Connecticut for 2003. Taken earlier in the draft that year was Catchings at No. 3 by Indiana, even though she couldn't play the 2001 WNBA season because she was rehabbing her knee.
Their entry into pro basketball was more than a decade ago, and their careers have taken them all over the world since. They both turned 33 this year, Douglas in May and Catchings in July.
They've each dealt with personal trials. By age 20, Douglas had lost both her parents to cancer. Catchings has a hearing disability that caused her self-confidence issues when she was younger.
And the season that they came together in Indianapolis, 2008, had its challenges, too. They had to learn to mesh their games and their personalities because they really didn't know each other well.
Catchings was on the '08 U.S. Olympic squad, and Douglas was not. Catchings also was still dealing with the effects from both a torn plantar fascia that caused her to miss several games of the 2007 regular season and an Achilles' tendon injury she suffered in the Fever's last game of the '07 playoffs.
All in all, it meant that 2008 -- when Indiana went 17-17 in the regular season and lost in the first round of the playoffs -- was not an easy summer for Catchings or Douglas or the Fever.
"Those are totally different personalities off the court, but great people -- two of my best friends in my life," said center Tammy Sutton-Brown, who's been with the Fever since 2007. "They definitely adjusted and made the conscious effort to say, 'We can do better together.'"
They did in 2009, making it all the way to Game 5 of Finals against Phoenix. Catchings and Douglas both credited the fact that they played on the same team in Turkey during the winter/spring of 2008-09 for helping smooth their transition as WNBA teammates.
"That really got them connected, and it's been that way ever since," Dunn said. "That's when they came to understand each other on and off the court."
Minnesota had a somewhat similar situation with Seimone Augustus, who was drafted No. 1 by the Lynx in 2006, being joined by Minnesota native and Golden Gophers legend Lindsay Whalen in 2010.
"For one thing, you start off with personalities needing to click," Augustus said of blending great players on the same team. "And there's playing style -- knowing where people like to get the ball on the court. With Catch and Katie, they both bring some different things to the table, and they've both just worked well together."
Whalen played six seasons in Connecticut, and was a teammate of Douglas' for four of those years. She relates to what it's like to have the chance to come back "home" and then establish yourself alongside another player who's been there awhile.
"Katie is someone who I looked up to and taught me a lot about being a pro and what that means -- the travel, eating right, taking care of your body," Whalen said. "And she's a cool person, a lot of fun to be around.
"And I know she's meant a lot to this city and the state of Indiana. It's amazing to be playing in the place where you're from, and to be someone whom the city rallies around. It's something not too many people get to experience, and you don't want to ever take that for granted."
Douglas averaged 16.5 points during this regular season, and was at 15.5 during the playoffs before she was hurt. Taking up the big void left by her absence has been a shared duty, but filling the role as on-court leader has been Catchings, who was WNBA MVP in 2011.
If you asked coaches, players and fans around the league which person they most wanted to see win her first championship, Catchings' name would top the list.
"She has a little bit of everything except for a WNBA championship," Augustus said. "She was here three years ago in the same situation and now she has an opportunity to change history and make good on what she hasn't been able to make good on yet. I would love for Catch to get one, but not on my time."
Catchings truly hopes, though, that this will be her time. And even if Douglas never gets to take a shot in these WNBA Finals, she's still so much an essential part of this, too.
"With Katie sitting there on the bench, it breaks your heart," Fever teammate Erin Phillips said. "I can see her on the edge of her seat, wishing she could play, and it helps you lift your own game and your energy. If we are able to get a championship for her and Tamika, it would be incredible.
"With Tamika, I've never seen anybody who wants something so bad. But she's relaxed, calm, focused. It's really great to have both of them with us."
13dBonnie D. Ford