Tamika Catchings has spent her entire career chasing perfection.
Of course, perfection on the basketball court is an impossible feat. You can’t make every shot, grab every rebound, come up with every loose ball.
But that has never deterred Catchings. For 16 WNBA seasons, the Indiana Fever’s star forward has logged countless hours in the gym — the first player to arrive in the morning, the last to leave in the evening — always chasing that elusive goal.
On Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Catchings accomplished the impossible. Because there’s no word that can describe her final regular season home game other than perfect.
17,704 people packed The Fieldhouse on Sunday to watch Catchings and the Fever roll to an 83-60 win over the Dallas Wings in their 2016 regular season finale. They all stayed in their seats after the game for what might have been the biggest retirement ceremony ever for a women’s basketball player.
Everywhere you looked in the crowd on Sunday night, you were bound to find someone who had a special impact on Catchings’ life and career. Her family was courtside. Her former teammates and coaches were littered throughout the crowd. A number of Pacers players, including Paul George, Monta Ellis, and Thaddeus Young were in attendance. Even Pacers Hall of Famer Reggie Miller made a rare return to Indiana to pay his respects to his “little sis.”
The first tears of the night came even before pregame introductions. Gospel singer J. Moss, a personal favorite of Catchings, performed a stirring rendition of the national anthem. After it finished, a sobbing Catchings sprinted to midcourt to hug him.
Once the game began, however, it was all business. At age 37, the pains may sting a little harder and the aches may linger a little longer, but make no mistake — Catchings remains one of the WNBA’s best all-around players.
To no one’s surprise, she scored the game’s first points, driving to the rim for an early layup. A couple minutes later, she knocked down a pair of free throws to become the first player in WNBA history to make 2,000 foul shots in a career.
It was the latest addition to a resume so overflowing with accomplishments that listing them all is basically impossible. Here are the highlights:
The WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder. The all-time leader in steals. The all-time leader in free throws. Second all-time in scoring.
10-time All-Star. Five-time Defensive Player of the Year. Four-time Olympic gold medalist. 2011 WNBA MVP. 2012 WNBA champion and Finals MVP.
That list hardly even scratches the surface, but you get the picture.
Of course, there aren’t honors and accolades for intangibles, but Tamika has everyone beat in that respect, too. Whether it’s diving into the first row for a loose ball (she did that on Sunday) or wreaking havoc on the defensive end (she did that, too), Catchings’ trademark hustle has always been her calling card.
Catchings scored eight points in the first six minutes on Sunday night. She finished with a game-high 16 to go along with seven rebounds, two steals, one assist, and one block. She was quite simply the best player on the floor, her plus/minus rating of +19 the highest of any player.
With 1:33 left in the fourth quarter, the game well in-hand, Natalie Achonwa checked in for Catchings, drawing a thunderous standing ovation that lasted for over a minute. As the cheers grew to a crescendo, the scoreboard camera caught Lin Dunn, Catchings’ coach on the Fever’s 2012 WNBA title team, wiping away tears from her courtside seat.
Many more tears would be shed over the next hour. They started in the postgame handshake line, when Catchings embraced Karima Christmas and Erin Phillips, Wings players who were her teammates on that 2012 team. Even ESPN reporter Holly Rowe struggled to control her emotions after Catchings ended her postgame TV interview with one of her signature hugs.
Tamika Catchings will finish her WNBA career with 7,380 points, 3,316 rebounds, 1,488 assists, and 1,074 steals. She’s probably given out twice as many hugs over that time as all those stats combined.
Whether it’s a teammate who knocked down a clutch shot, an excited kid at one of her Catch the Stars Foundation clinics, or a Pacers Sports & Entertainment staffer she’s run into at baggage claim, Catchings greets each and every one of them with a hug and a smile.
It’s hard to describe all the good she has done off the court, from her tireless work with her foundation to her support of the WNBA and the NBA’s own community initiatives. Fever head coach Stephanie White likes to say that Catchings “has a servant’s heart.” Virtually anyone who has ever met her praises her so effusively, a stranger would accuse them of hyperbole, but they’d be wrong.
Just read what the late SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott told Pacers.com’s Eddie White about Catchings during the 2013 NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston:
“People always say, ‘Aw, this is a great person,’ and usually they mean it, most of the time,” Scott said. “Anyone who knows Tamika Catchings knows — you won’t find anybody better than her. She’s one of those people that is just warm and genuine and gracious and kind and respectful. She’s Grade A. As far as quality people go, you won’t find anybody better than her.”
Scott’s words would prove true time and again in Sunday’s postgame ceremony, as speaker after speaker testified to the tremendous legacy Catchings leaves behind in Indiana and in the game of basketball.
Catchings probably didn’t enjoy all the attention. This whole season, she’s strived to make her retirement tour distinct from the typical great athlete’s farewell. In her last stop in each city, she specifically asked not to be given any gifts. Instead, she held postgame events and auctions with fans to raise money for her foundation and wrote checks to other worthy community initiatives in each and every city.
But there was no way the Fever franchise wasn’t going to honor her on Sunday. So there she was at center court, accepting gifts, doling out hugs, and shedding a few tears in a moving ceremony.
The speakers included Congresswoman Susan Brooks, Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett, WNBA President Lisa Borders, Nike’s Ilene Hauser, USA Basketball’s Carol Callan, Dunn, White, Fever point guard Briann January, Fever President and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, Rachel Simon (representing the Herb Simon Family Foundation), Pacers Sports & Entertainment Vice Chairman Jim Morris, and Pacers Sports & Entertainment President and COO Rick Fuson.
There were lots of gifts — a copy of Catchings’ accomplishments entered into the Congressional record from Brooks, a custom hoodie and lounge chairs from Hauser, a framed USA Basketball jersey and team photos from Callan. Morris presented Catchings with a $100,000 check from PS&E to the Catch the Stars Foundation, while Fuson surprised her with a brand new Lexus.
There were plenty of jokes.
Hogsett, Borders, and Dunn got into a friendly debate about where Catchings should live post-retirement: Indiana, New York, or Tennessee (you can guess which was the crowd’s choice).
“If she had decided at this time last year to run for mayor, I would have voted for her,” Hogsett said. “I know my wife would have.”
There were plenty of stories.
White highlighted Catchings’ competitive drive, recalling the first time they met at an AAU tournament when they were teenagers and Catchings slammed the ball into the bleachers in disgust at a referee’s call.
January talked at length about her mentoring influence in the locker room.
“People like you don’t come around often, Catch,” she said. “…I’m blessed beyond measure to call you a sister, a teammate, a role model…and sometimes, a pain in the butt.”
Krauskopf beamed as she remembered deciding to draft Catchings with the third overall pick in the 2001 WNBA Draft, despite knowing that she would have to sit out a season as she recovered from a torn ACL.
“I didn’t know it then, but I know it now — we got the crown jewel of the WNBA,” Krauskopf said.
Finally, Catchings herself took the mic. As she addressed the crowd, Reggie Miller stood up in his suite, one Indiana legend paying respect for another.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be here and doing this,” Catchings told the crowd.
“…It’s been an amazing journey, and I’m just so thankful that my journey ends here.”
There is no other place it could end.
Tamika Catchings is the Indiana Fever. She holds virtually every franchise record. She’s led the Fever to a WNBA-record 12 consecutive playoff appearances, a streak that spans three different head coaches. The only constant over that time? Tamika.
Sunday wasn’t goodbye. Catchings is hoping to lead the Fever on another long playoff run and that journey starts Wednesday night.
But Sunday was a chance to celebrate, and celebrate we did. After all, Tamika Catchings has given this franchise, this state, this game so much to celebrate over the years. It was only fitting that we take a night to celebrate her.