- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Just how much does Tamika Catchings appreciate finally winning her first WNBA title at age 33? To understand, you must go back to the little girl shooting baskets alone on the playground, the place she felt she had the most refuge from bullying.
You must go back to the college senior missing her last NCAA tournament at Tennessee because of a knee injury.
You must go back to the player screaming out in pain when her Achilles' tendon ruptured as the Indiana Fever's 2007 season came to an end.
You must go back to the devastated veteran having lost her closest brush to a WNBA championship, as it slipped away to Phoenix in 2009.
And you must go back to the disappointed regular-season MVP who was hobbled by a foot injury as Indiana fell to Atlanta in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.
You'll get no argument from anyone involved in the WNBA that nobody plays harder than Catchings and yet she's still beloved league-wide despite her limitlessly aggressive, no-off-switch style.
Which is why after Catchings and the Fever beat defending champion Minnesota 87-78 Sunday to win Game 4 of the WNBA Finals and the series 3-1, even the conquered Lynx paid genuine tribute to the Fever's franchise icon.
As Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve put it, "There's not anybody that cannot be happy for Tamika Catchings to finally get a championship."
The first title that Catchings won on a national stage came when she was really too young to appreciate it.
She was just an 18-year-old Tennessee freshman then: a budding star, but not yet the ultimate "go-to" player that she would become. That night in March 1998, when coach Pat Summitt's Lady Vols claimed the program's third consecutive NCAA championship, winning titles seemed like it was going to be Catchings' favorite pastime.
"Coming into college, your dream is to win a championship," Catchings said. "We got that first one, and I was thinking, 'Ooooh! I've got three more years!'"
But then Tennessee was upset in the Elite Eight her sophomore year. Lost the NCAA final when she was a junior. And her senior season, she was sidelined by an ACL injury and had to watch as Tennessee lost in the Sweet 16.
Then in April 2001, Catchings found a new home: Indianapolis. It was perfect, right? The state that worships basketball getting a player who puts everything she has into every game she plays.
"Of all the players at Tennessee, Tamika was the one that I don't remember Pat ever having to get on about her effort," said Fever assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, a longtime Tennessee assistant who helped recruit Catchings. "Never once did Pat have to say to her, 'Is that all you've got?'
"Of course, they are also both very stubborn and strong-willed, so they'd butt heads every once in a while, too. But it was because they were both so darn competitive and wanted so badly to win all the time."
When Catchings left Rocky Top for Indianapolis, the Fever desperately needed her. It was a WNBA expansion franchise that had begun play in 2000. Indiana won nine games in its inaugural season and 10 the next, when Catchings was rehabbing her injury.
Her rookie year was 2002, and that's when one of the great marriages between a professional female athlete and a city truly began. A decade later, that city and one of its most deserving sports heroes finally got their big celebration together.
"The journey we've been on -- it's a dream come true," Catchings said. "More than anything, playing here has given me the chance to let my light shine. I hope that kids who watch me don't just see what I do on the basketball court."
Catchings actually does so much on the court -- she averaged 22.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in the WNBA Finals and was named the series MVP -- that her achievement there alone would make her a civic treasure. But she also works with at-risk kids in the area as her "Catch the Stars" foundation hopes to reach those youngsters who most need an encouraging word or pat on the back.
Catchings has a hearing disability, and grew up being sensitive to peers teasing her about her hearing aid. She has talked over the years about how basketball gave her a place where she could develop self-confidence.
"When I'm driving home sometimes and I go past a basketball court, it's always cool when I see a little girl trying to shoot on that 10-foot hoop that's so much taller than her," Catchings said a few years ago. "I remember when I was that girl. I'm sure there were people in cars who drove by and thought, 'Man, I wonder whose little girl that is? Who's she there with?' And it was just me by myself with my ball. It was my safe haven."
The basketball court is still that for Catchings, but it's never safe for her opponents. She came to the WNBA as a power forward with ferocious tenacity, especially on the boards and on defense, but without much shooting range.
Repetition in the form of shooting workouts outside of practice has made Catchings the all-over-the court threat that she now is. The advice she gives to young players is that you don't just get better only through playing as much as possible. You also need to do individual drills specifically to address weaker aspects of your game.
"When she came from Tennessee, she wasn't going to shoot often from any more than about 6 feet out," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. "But that's something she's worked on really hard with her shooting coach [Marvin Harvey]. She got to where she was comfortable from 8 feet, and then 10 feet, then 12 feet, then 16 feet. "
All the way to being able to smoothly nail shots from beyond the arc. Catchings made 50 3-pointers during this regular season and 17 in the playoffs. She also was money from the foul line in 2012, as has been the case her entire pro career. Catchings hit 140 of 162 attempts in the regular season and 61 of 68 in the playoffs.
That includes a 9-of-9 effort from the stripe Sunday, when she had team highs of 25 points and 8 assists, plus 4 rebounds.
"Catchings has really evolved into the most complete player," Reeve said. "She has tremendous, tremendous work ethic."
This WNBA title caps a triumphant stretch for Catchings in which she also won the league's season MVP in September 2011 and her third Olympic gold medal in August 2012. She won the admiration of her fellow competitors a long time ago.
"Tamika is one of those players that you could call any time of the day or night to talk about anything, and she'd help you, no matter who you are or who you play for," Minnesota's Seimone Augustus said. "Not all players are like that, especially great players."
Maya Moore, another of the Lynx stars who was Catchings' Olympic teammate, added, "She's one of those players you want to model yourself after. She has a view of the bigger picture of the sport; she's never just thinking about herself."
That's why Moore came down the hallway by the Indiana locker room after the game Sunday to seek out Catchings and give her a hug. Then Catchings went into a room set up for taking photographs with the WNBA championship trophy, and posed with her family, including father Harvey, a former NBA player.
She had yet to have a chance to talk to Summitt, who was smiling broadly after the game, having made the trip to Indianapolis from Knoxville.
"I know for Pat, Tamika winning a title is an extra-special thing," DeMoss said. "Everybody wants this so much for Tamika."
Summitt's illness -- she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimers' type in 2011 -- hit Catchings hard, as it did all the Tennessee alums.
Catchings, who turned 33 in July, hopes someday to be a general manager at the WNBA level. She doesn't see herself as a coach. But she does expect to always keep close ties with her alma mater, and let the generations of Tennessee players who don't get the chance to play for Summitt know about what she learned there.
That's something that has been on display throughout Catchings' professional career. She has played with an unquenchable passion all over the globe. She has fought through two of the toughest injuries a basketball player can face: a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles.
And when her Fever team needed her to stand even taller after teammate Katie Douglas suffered an ankle injury that kept her out of the WNBA Finals, Catchings somehow found another emotional stepladder with which to raise her game just a little bit higher.
So just how much does Catchings appreciate finally winning her first WNBA title? About as much as she herself is appreciated by anybody who loves basketball -- and well-deserved happy endings.
17dBonnie D. Ford