“She plays as hard as any player I’ve ever seen, every possession, offensively, defensively, every year, she brings it every single game.” – WNBA All-Star Sue Bird
The Tamika Catchings Story [Part 2]: As Tamika’s career in the WNBA continued, so did her success with Indiana. The name Tamika Catchings quickly became synonymous with the Indiana Fever, and as time went on, the two became inseparable. Continue as we explore that deep connection between Tamika and the Fever, while tracing the most memorable moments from the second half of her legendary WNBA career.
Please note: This is Part 2 of the Tamika Catchings Story. Click here to read Part 1. Part 3 will be published following the conclusion of her final season.
Tamika Catchings IS the Indiana Fever —
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2009: So Close You Can Taste It —
Throughout her career, Tamika Catchings had always been a winner. She had won championships at every level of basketball she had played in. High School. College. Even in global competition, she had an assortment of championships and medals. But there was one championship she hadn’t won: a WNBA championship.
When Tamika was selected to the WNBA All-Decade Team in 2006, she remembers looking around the group with mixed emotions. Jumbled together with her feelings of excitement and honor, she felt something else too.
“They were talking about everybody’s championships, and I just remember thinking I just kind of felt like the loser of the group because I didn’t have one yet,” Tamika remembered with a sigh.
“You can play great, you can have a great career, but people remember championships.”
Former Fever head coach Lin Dunn remembers yearning for a championship for Tamika. She knew how badly Tamika wanted it and how hard she had worked to get there.
“I don’t know if I would use the word pressure, I would say it’s more like, is there something left to achieve that I haven’t achieved yet,” Dunn said. “If I’m always striving to be the best of the best, what’s left? I’ve got the gold medal, I’ve got the NCAA championship, I’ve got the high school championship, I’ve got the world championship, so there was just a little box there that hadn’t been checked off.”
Tamika agrees that although she never really felt pressure to win a championship, she did feel that it was an expectation for her.
“It’s like you’re here, and every single year you’re doing some amazing things, so on top of the amazing things, the championship is really the only thing that you can bring to an organization,” Tamika said. “You can play great, you can have a great career, but people remember championships.”
In 2009, it seemed that box would finally be checked for Tamika when she led the Indiana Fever to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. After an exciting Eastern Conference Finals series against the Detroit Shock, the Fever would face the Phoenix Mercury in the Finals. Led by a trio of stars in Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and Cappie Pondexter, the Mercury were aiming for their second championship in three years.
The Fever lost the first game in overtime, a game that Tamika says in her autobiography, Catch A Star, is “considered one of the greatest WNBA games of all time.” After winning the next two games in Indianapolis, the Fever led the series 2-1 and were just one win away from winning it all. They returned to Phoenix and were handed a loss. The final game would come down to free throws. Phoenix made all of them in the final minute, and Tamika’s WNBA championship had once again slipped away.
“It was hugely disappointing to get so close and yet not win it all,” Tamika said in her autobiography.
Lin Dunn remembers that same disappointment.
“We came so close in 2009 that you could taste it,” said Dunn. “And Tamika, she could taste it, and then it was like, oh no, it just slipped away. And then as we continued to grow as a team, you started to wonder, would it happen for us?”
The Fever took the loss hard, and doubts began to surmount from fans. Could their superstar lead them to a championship? Or would they keep coming up close but empty-handed?
I think the fact that it just took a little bit longer, made it that much more special.
“I think any great athlete aspires to win a championship, and no matter how good you are, you ultimately are judged by have you ever been a champion, have you ever won it all, have you ever reached the pinnacle of your sport,” said Indianapolis sports reporter Rich Nye. “When you’re on a team sport, you can’t do that by yourself, yet you’re still going to be judged by whether you did it with your team. And she had just never been able to take the Fever all the way to the title.”
But in usual Tamika fashion, she found positives in the losses.
“I think that, that just kind of drove her throughout the years, just every year falling short and wanting to get there next year. I think the fact that it just took a little bit longer, made it that much more special,” said Tauja Catchings, Tamika’s sister.
Tamika would work harder and keep trying to check that box, never losing faith that it would happen. And she wouldn’t have to wait long before it did. Return to Menu »»
2010: Doing it with Defense —
Tamika Catchings is the type of person that you always want to have around. Her genuine personality and kind nature make any person she talks to immediately feel like her best friend. But there’s one situation where most people agree, they aren’t fond of encountering the friendly Catchings: playing against her on the basketball court. Tamika’s all-around basketball game completes her as a player, and there’s one particular area of her game that opponents dread the most.
“She’s never going to have scoring numbers over time that just blow you away, but she has so many other ways that she impacts the game, especially on defense,” Nye said. “Her defense is so strong that at times she can be guarding the entire other team.”
Tamika’s defensive presence on the court is no secret. It’s what has allowed her to solidify herself as one of the greatest players in the WNBA, making the WNBA All-Defensive First Team ten times in her career. It’s something that she learned to value early in her basketball career, first from her father, former NBA player Harvey Catchings, then from her defensive-minded high school coaches, and finally, at the University of Tennessee.
“She had never been the Defensive Player of the Year, but I was convinced that because of the love that Tamika has for defense, that it was just a matter of time.”
“It was a big thing with Pat Summitt. My players are going to defend,” Tauja recalls about the philosophies Tamika learned in college. “She didn’t care if you could score 50 points. If you couldn’t guard somebody, then you were not going to play; so I think that really helped her hone in and focus on that aspect of her game.”
When Lin Dunn, who had ties with Pat Summitt and the University of Tennessee, joined the Fever staff as an assistant coach in 2004, she knew how much Catchings valued defense.
“She had never been the Defensive Player of the Year, but I was convinced that because of the love that Tamika has for defense, that it was just a matter of time,” Dunn said.
It didn’t take long.
Tamika was named the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for the first time in 2005. She would win it again in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2012. When she won the award for the fifth time in 2012, she became the first WNBA player to win the award five times.
“It’s not surprising to me that she probably leads in all sorts of defensive categories in her career because she knows that an emphasis in defense is the foundation of your team, and if you defend at a high level, you have a great chance at being successful,” Dunn said.
“She plays as hard as any player I’ve ever seen, every possession, offensively, defensively, every year, she brings it every single game.”
Tamika’s defensive mindset has gained her the respect of other players in the league.
“She plays as hard as any player I’ve ever seen, every possession, offensively, defensively, every year, she brings it every single game, said WNBA star Sue Bird. “She’s obviously the star player, the franchise player for many years, but she’s also the first one to dive on a loose ball, the first one to dive out of bounds for a ball and end up in the stands. That just speaks to her work ethic and what she has to bring every single night. That’s not easy, and she makes it look really easy.”
“She’ll go out there and battle as hard as she can during the game and then afterwards it’s hugs and fellowship and hanging out, respect for people,” said former WNBA player and current associate head coach of the New York Liberty, Katie Smith. “So I just think, I think the way she does her job every single night, the effort she puts into it, just says a lot about who she is.”
“When you think about defense, you think about doing the dirty work. Defense is tough, it’s physical, it’s diving on the floor for loose balls, it’s taking charges, it’s just doing the work that a lot of people don’t want to do. And Tamika values that. That’s that blue collar work ethic,” said Dunn.
Tamika’s defense has set a mold for future players and has left a big impression on the Fever and the WNBA.
“I’m not sure there’s a better impact you can leave on the game,” said former Fever head coach Nell Fortner. “Other fans, they know who you are, and they dread watching you play their team. She’s hard to guard, you can’t score on her because she’s just too good of a defender, and her play just elevates the level of the team that she’s playing on. There’s just no question about it.” Return to Menu »»
2011: Tamika Catchings, MVP —
By the time Tamika reached her eleventh season with the Fever, she was among the best players in the WNBA.
Her 2011 season solidified that.
Catchings had an exceptional year, averaging 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. She became the first player in WNBA history to score 5,000 points, grab 2,000 rebounds, and dish 1,000 assists in a career. She finished first in the MVP voting with 292 points and 21 first place votes. She had become the league’s Most Valuable Player for the first time, but it wasn’t the first time her statistics had warranted MVP attention.
“Well, let me say something about Tamika’s MVP Award in 2011. I personally think by now she should have maybe three or four MVP Awards,” said Dunn. “I think there were a couple years early in her career where it was very close, and somebody else got the MVP that she really deserved because no one, no one has played the game on both ends of the floor like she has.”
“I’m one of those people that feel strongly that she may only have one MVP Award, but she certainly earned about four, and I’m being real serious about that.”
Dunn’s usual chipper attitude faded to seriousness as she continued.
“There have been times when someone has received the award, and Catch finished second and I’ve always thought, ‘gosh, how could you pick that person over Catchings when I know they don’t defend like her, they don’t rebound like her, they don’t play 110% all of the time like her. So I’m one of those people that feel strongly that she may only have one MVP Award, but she certainly earned about four, and I’m being real serious about that,” she said.
It’s hard to argue with Dunn’s seriousness on the issue. Catchings had in fact come close to winning the award many times throughout her career before winning it in 2011. In the previous season, she put up numbers that indicated perhaps the best season of her career—averaging 18.4 points per game, shooting 48.4 percent, and recording a league-high 77 steals—but came in as runner-up for the MVP Award for the second season in a row. In fact, Catchings has finished among the top three in balloting for the WNBA MVP Award seven times and among the top five 10 times.
“Finally, I think she got the recognition for the all-around player that she is in 2011, but when she got that award, I just thought, ok that’s really number four,” Dunn said.
Dunn’s response wasn’t alone over the years, as those close to Tamika continued to witness her greatness on the court. Despite the thoughts of those around her, Tamika never cared much about it.
“I think she couldn’t have cared less about the MVP. I think everyone else around her was more upset, you know, ‘You should have won the MVP!’ But that was never her focus, that was never her goal,” said Tauja.
Tamika never got caught up in the voting or even actually becoming the Most Valuable Player. Instead, she always tried to bring the most value she could to her team and find the value in others. As a true testament to her continued humility, she accepted the award in 2011 with a warm smile, then refocused on bigger things, like winning a championship.
“She’s really just a quality individual and all of the successes that she’s had, she’s stayed grounded. That’s why she is received so well,” said former WNBA player Dawn Staley.
Grasping Tamika’s humility through written words is difficult, but in graceful irony, Tamika was able to capture it in a single sentence in her autobiography. It’s in this single sentence that Tamika mentions her MVP Award for the first and only time in her 250-page book.
“At the end of the 2011 regular season the WNBA had voted me the Most Valuable Player,” she writes.
And that’s all. She doesn’t brag. She doesn’t boast. She simply mentions it in passing, as if it’s simply a trivial detail with no need to draw any more attention to it or herself. Return to Menu »»
2012: Checking the Box —
Tamika says in her autobiography that she believes it’s only when you get close to the top of the mountain that you realize how rare it is to get that close and how crucial it is to keep pushing and complete the climb. In 2012, Tamika Catchings and the Fever reached the top of their mountain.
It seemed like the tougher we got, the better we got, and that goes back to her.
“The clock’s final seconds ticked down, and then—the game was over. We were the 2012 WNBA Champions,” Tamika wrote.
The Fever had clinched the WNBA championship for the first time in franchise history and the first time in Tamika’s WNBA career.
“When we first won the championship, the first thing I thought of was Tamika,” Dunn said. “When people ask me about my coaching career, one of the things that I’m most proud of is that I could be a part of helping her win a championship because she deserved it. Tamika Catchings deserves to check off every one of those boxes because she has worked tirelessly, relentlessly all her life to achieve that.”
The road to the championship wasn’t an easy one for the Fever, who squared off in the Finals against the Minnesota Lynx, the strongest team in the WNBA that season. It took four hard-fought games in order to win. It took players stepping up as injuries plagued the Fever. Most importantly, it took Tamika.
“I thought it was so fitting when we won in 2012 because we won it through adversity, and that is kind of the story of Tamika’s life,” Dunn said. “We had so many people get hurt—out with a broken ankle, out with an ACL—and there were so many times that we were down, that it just became that type of season where we were like ok, we are going to do this, just like Tamika has done it through her life, through adversity. It seemed like the tougher we got, the better we got, and that goes back to her.”
In the Finals, the Fever were forced to play without key players Jeanette Pohlen and Katie Douglas. But that didn’t stop them.
“Getting to the Finals is a rare thing. We’d been here before and fallen short. Who knows when we would get here again? We had to do it this time,” Tamika said about their 2012 championship run.
Winning the championship allowed Tamika to finally check off her missing box. But it also allowed her, and the Fever, to leave a big impact on the city of Indianapolis.
“Winning it for a franchise that has been unbelievably supportive and gracious and kind to her, winning it with that team, those players, that franchise, it just meant everything to her.”
“In Indianapolis, it was almost identical, to me, to Peyton Manning finally getting the Colts to a Super Bowl and winning a Super Bowl,” Nye said. “I think it had to give her some sense of satisfaction, but I think it also—in the public eye and in the world of basketball—removed any doubt about her being a champion at the highest level, and for the Fever franchise in Indianapolis, it took it to a new level.”
Tauja Catchings compared Tamika winning the championship with the Fever to another athlete, Lebron James brining an NBA championship to the city of Cleveland in 2016.
“I think there is nothing better than winning it for your fans and your city,” Tauja said. “Just the support that she’s had since she was drafted here, winning it for a franchise that has been unbelievably supportive and gracious and kind to her, winning it with that team, those players, that franchise, it just meant everything to her.”
The city that had supported Tamika and the Fever for so long finally had a WNBA championship, one that allowed the future of the franchise in Indianapolis to remain secure.
“People around here will remember that there was talk during that championship season about what was the future of the franchise itself, and when they won the championship, I think that removed any doubt that the franchise was going to continue in Indianapolis,” Nye said. “I think Tamika was a big part of that. She was helping essentially to win a championship, but potentially to save a franchise. That’s pretty big stuff.”
The championship meant the world to the Fever organization. It meant the world to Tamika. And it meant the world to the city of Indianapolis, the city that had become Tamika’s home.
“The most vivid example of what it meant I think was that the Fever don’t sell out a lot of games. Even playoff games were not going to be 18,000, but in those WNBA Finals, Indianapolis was filling Bankers Life Fieldhouse to watch the Fever play and go for a championship. I don’t think that’s ever happened before or since in the history of the Fever. That season, and that time, that playoff run captured the hearts of Indianapolis.”
And Tamika had captured the hearts of Indianapolis, too. Return to Menu »»
2013: The Ones that Matter —
The list of accolades Tamika Catchings has won throughout her career is filled with a variety of awards. Most of them Tamika humbly views as not as big of a deal — they actually are. There are some awards on that list, however, Tamika is very proud of.
Catch has always led by example. She’s always led by her work ethic. She’s always led by her intensity and her competitiveness
The Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award is the WNBA’s counterpart to the NBA Sportsmanship Award and is given annually to the player who exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court. The player who is honored with the award each year portrays the highest level of ethical behavior, fair play, and integrity. The elite players who have won the award form a small group, and in 2013, Catchings became just the fourth WNBA player to win the award for a second time.
“I think of everything that she has done, that was something that she was just over the moon excited about just because of what the award stands for,” Tauja said.
Tamika’s ability to set such a strong example for other players in the WNBA, and use her leadership skills to impress that example on to others, make her a predictable candidate for the award. Even though she had always been one to set a positive example for others, using her positive influence to lead took Tamika longer to develop.
“Catch has always led by example. She’s always led by her work ethic. She’s always led by her intensity and her competitiveness,” said Dunn. “She’s led by example all of her life, but I do believe in the 11 years that I worked with her, I saw her go from leading by example to go to more leading with her words and her actions.”
That evolution started for Tamika early in her Fever career when she met another WNBA player who would become well known for her leadership and sportsmanship efforts and one of the few players, like Tamika, to win the Sportsmanship Award twice. That player was Dawn Staley.
“Dawn just had a way of being able to talk to everybody, just a way of getting everybody to play together and really being able to get the best out of everybody,” Tamika said.
She remembers playing alongside Staley in the 2004 Olympics and realizing then that Staley’s effectiveness as a leader and the way she practiced sportsmanship could be something Tamika could aim to emulate.
“I think for me, I was just watching her with wide-eyes. Whatever Dawn says, ok I’m going to do it! That’s just the kind of the impact that she had on everybody,” Tamika said. “We all knew that she’s the type of person that she’s not going to ask you to do something that she’s not willing to do herself. And I just really admired that.”
Tamika learned through Dawn that in order to be the most effective leader, she would need to be a vocal leader too. With Dawn as her mentor, Tamika was determined to lead in a way that would help others become the best that they could be.
“She’s just real, she’s authentic, she’s selfless.”
“Dawn Staley is a huge inspiration and role model of hers, and not just for the way that she played and for the things that she accomplished as a player, but also for what she did in the community,” said Tauja. “She was so motivating, and that’s what really got Tamika. That’s what drove her to say, ‘that’s what I want to do too’.”
Today, the way Tamika speaks about Dawn is the same way others speak about Tamika.
“She’s someone that if you’re in a room with her, she makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room,” Staley said. “She just gives you undivided attention even if she’s got a lot of people that’s waiting to speak to her. She’s just real, she’s authentic, she’s selfless, I mean I can go on and on and on, she’s just that type of person that it’s so easy.”
The way Tamika handled herself ethically, and with so much integrity, led her to continue to develop in her role as a leader. That leadership has allowed her to win another set of awards she is extremely proud of: the WNBA’s Community Leadership Award, whose namesake belongs to none other than Tamika’s role model, Dawn Staley
“Leaders don’t do things alone. Leaders go outside of themselves to figure out what is the best scenario,” Staley said. “They bounce things off of other people and then they make a conclusion after gathering information. That’s what I did as a leader, and that’s what Tamika does.”
“She could win the award every year. Every single year she could win that award really with the work that she does.”
Tamika won the Dawn Staley Leadership Award in its inaugural season in 2007 and again most recently in 2016.
“She epitomizes what that award is based on,” Staley said. “She could win the award every year. Every single year she could win that award really with the work that she does. It’s more like Tamika to want to share it. She could win it, but she would rather share it. That’s just Tamika.”
When Catchings looks back on a basketball career full of awards and accolades, these awards will mean the most. They epitomize the type of person she is, and the impact she’s had on the people around her throughout her 16 years in the league. These awards, to Tamika, are the ones that really matter. Return to Menu »»