Catchings is a leader in word and deed

By TOM RIETMANN | September 2, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- “Nice work, ladies.”

That's the voice of Tamika Catchings ringing out at the end of a strong and productive practice session for the Indiana Fever. But it comes only after productive sessions. A mediocre practice by the Fever typically sends the team's star forward home quiet and dissatisfied.

Catchings' teammates can sense when she is displeased with the effort. They want to make her happy.

“As a younger player,” point guard Briann January said, “I look up to her so much. You want her being proud of what you just did on the court and acknowledging what you did. She's amazing. And she's our leader.”

Catchings is the Fever leader in so many ways. She has led by example since she walked on the Conseco Fieldhouse court for her first game in 2002. Nobody in the WNBA practices and plays with more ferocity and relentlessness. And at age 32 and in her 10th active pro season, she performs with the passion and enthusiasm of someone who clearly embraces what she does for a living.

“Anyone who comes to our games can see the work and intensity she puts into every game, every single possession,” said Fever center Tammy Sutton-Brown. “That's something we feed off as a team. I remember playing against her when I was in Charlotte (from 2001 to 2006). I'm just so glad I'm playing with her now and no longer against her.”

The WNBA knows all about Catchings, who is a leading candidate for the 2011 Most Valuable Player award. She has pushed her team to the top of the Eastern Conference standings with averages of 15.6 points, 7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals. Catchings recently became the first player in league history with 5,000 points, 2,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. She already is the WNBA’s career leader in steals.

The WNBA knows not only about Catchings' statistics but also about her overall effect on a team. Atlanta Coach Marynell Meadors witnesses it regularly when the Dream and the Fever meet in league play. And she saw it last fall when she worked with Catchings as an assistant coach for the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the FIBA World Championship in Czech Republic.

“No question who is the best leader on the court,” Meadors said. “(Catchings) can be having a great game and she's a great leader. She can be having a poor game, which she doesn't have many of, and she's always a true leader. She's inspiring to her teammates. Her energy brings everybody else's energy up so many different levels.”

At the World Championships, Meadors said, Catchings became something of a mentor to Angel McCoughtry, who's a young standout for the Dream. “I think Tamika took her under her wing, and I know Angel was asking a lot of questions. Just the things she said to Angel really stuck with her,” Meadors said.

Indiana's young players can vouch for that. Catchings has helped them in much the same way. Shavonte Zellous talks often about how Catchings immediately reached out to her last season when Zellous relocated to Indianapolis following a trade with Tulsa. January, Jeanette Pohlen and other young Fever players all tell similar stories.

“She's a natural leader, vocally and through her actions,” Sutton-Brown said about Catchings. “She's one of those people you just like to be around.”

Catchings' all-out drive and energy have always been part of her persona. However, becoming a vocal leader wasn't easy for her. She battled shyness. When she played in high school in Chicago, she made sure her sister, Tauja, was at her side whenever reporters came for interviews.

“Media would ask questions and Tauja would answer my questions and I would just stand there,” Catchings recalled.

But that changed when Tamika moved to Texas as a high school junior.

“I would think one of the biggest steppingstones in my life was when I moved with my mom, and Tauja stayed in Chicago with my dad,” Catchings said. “We had to separate from each other. I had to have my own friends. I had to talk to people. I had to make my own decisions. I think that is when it kind of started blossoming, and also when I got to college (at Tennessee).”

There are no signs of reticence now. In the locker room, Catchings' teammates enjoy her sense of humor and look forward to it after a good practice or a big win. She is a captivating public speaker. Through her works and her Catch The Stars Foundation, she gives back to the Indianapolis community in a huge way. Fans gravitate to her.

Indeed, she has become the face of the Indiana Fever. Like Reggie Miller was for the Pacers. And like Peyton Manning is for the Colts.

“To be that person, it's kind of surreal,” Catchings told Fever broadcaster Chris Denari when he mentioned the similarities in a recent interview.

Catchings' leadership and enthusiasm stem from the fact she has never grown complacent with her role. When she is introduced before home games at Conseco Fieldhouse in 2011, Catchings said she experiences the same “chills” she did when she played her first game in 2002.

The only difference now is that she tries to channel her fervor in more judicious ways after the opening tip.

“Early on, I was like a freight train going 150 miles per hour,” she said. “If anything gets in my way, it gets run over. For me now, it's about slowing down and becoming more of a student of the game.”

That slowing-down process, however, won't be visible to fans at The Fieldhouse. Catchings hasn't cut back her desire to win. Not one iota. And while some players in their 30-something years might cease their push to improve, Catchings suffers from no such affliction.

“A lot of people talk about it, but she comes in early, she stays late,” Indiana Coach Lin Dunn said. “She's investing the time. She has that tremendous will to prepare to win.”

And it comes with plenty of game.

“So multidimensional,” Dunn said. “She can shoot the 3, post up, she has mid-range game, she drives to the rim. And she does so many things defensively -- rebounding, playing off the ball, getting steals. Catch is really good at everything, and I think that's what makes her so special.”

Assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg said Catchings is a “really good cornerstone” for the pressure style that Indiana plays. And when that cornerstone player talks, her teammates listen.

“She's not a screamer, but she holds them accountable as far as their work in practice,” Kloppenburg said. “If they're making a mistake or not putting effort out, then they'll hear from her. She's not calling anybody out, but she makes sure the team is accountable for the effort.”

Kloppenburg paused.

“She's a very good teammate,” he said about Catchings. “The players love her.”