With MVP in Hand, Tamika’s Quest Continues

Sep 22 2011 6:14PM

When the Top 15 Players in WNBA History were announced at halftime of the 2011 All-Star Game, Tamika Catchings was not pleased.

They didn’t pronounce her name wrong. The facts were all correct. It was the facts themselves that she had a problem with.

“As they’re announcing all the players, it was so-and-so won four championships, so-and-so won two championships, so-and-so won one championship and Tamika Catchings, two Olympics medals,” she said. “It’s like, that’s great and I’m not discounting the Olympic medals that I’ve won, but at the same time I want to be in that class of winning a WNBA championship.”

On Thursday, she crossed one more accomplishment off that list, taking home the 2011 WNBA Most Valuable Player award at long last. Throughout her 10-year career, Catchings has been a runner-up for the award three times and in finished in the top three five times.

But this year she was the one that got the phone call from league president Laurel Richie with the news that she had won the award.

“When she said ‘You’ve been named the 2011 WNBA MVP,’ I was just kind of like ‘wow’. I really didn’t know what to say,” Catchings said. “I was so excited. I kind of had tears in my eyes – and not necessarily because it’s something that I really wanted to win, but obviously when you win an award like that it does stand for a lot.”

Catchings does anything and everything on the court for the Indiana Fever, who finished the season atop the Eastern Conference with a record of 21-13 and are set to open up the Eastern Conference Finals against the Dream on Thursday night. Catchings led the team in scoring (15.5 ppg), rebounding (7.1), assists (3.5), steals (2.0), minutes played (31.5) and free-throw percentage (a career-best .883). Briann January did average 5.0 assists, but only played 10 games this season due to injury.

“My most valuable player is somebody that impacts the game in every aspect,” said Catchings. “I’m not necessarily looking for the player that scores the most points or whatever the case may be, I’m looking for somebody that impacts the game both on the offensive and defensive end.”

However, voters did not always see it that way.

Catchings has been recognized as the top defender in the game throughout her career, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors four times, including the past two seasons. But her all-around play never seemed to be able to top the gaudy scoring numbers of others.

“I would never say ‘underappreciated’ because the fans have always been great and the support they have given me has always been awesome, I just think more so overlooked,” she said. “Because the thing has always been ‘her shooting percentage isn’t up to par’ or ‘her points per game isn’t where it needs to be.’ And it’s kind of like, that’s only on offense. You’re looking at one area of the game; you’re not even looking at the total game overall.”

When you look at the history of the MVP award, the winner has also been the league’s leading scorer in seven of the past 14 years and never finished below fourth in scoring average.

Until now.

Catchings’ scoring average of 15.5 points ranked 10th in the WNBA this season. And while she may not lead the league in any particular statistical category, no other player ranks as high as she does in as many categories as she does.

In addition to being ranked 10th in scoring, she also finished ninth in rebounding, fourth in steals, 11th in blocks and 13th in assists and is the only player in the WNBA to rank in the top 15 in each category.

Catchings said she appreciates that her style of play has finally been seen by the masses as most valuable and hopes that it changes the standard of what constitutes an MVP.

“In the past, the MVP has been the player that has scores the most points, that’s what we’ve noticed, that’s just more so from looking at the box scores and doing it off of that,” she said. “With me winning this award, hopefully it will change people’s perspective and really truly looking into our game and when you think about an MVP you don’t think about whoever scored the most points, you think about the player who has the best overall game, offensively and defensively.”

Catchings believes she is playing her best basketball at this point of her career but has yet to hit her peak. She still feels the best is yet to come.

“I still feel like I have a lot of room for improvement and before I shut down I want to make sure that I get everything that I possibly can out of this career,” she said.

“I continue to strive to get better every single year and add something different to my game and I believe that’s probably why I am so motivated and so passionate about what I do. Because every single year I look at my game and I think I can do better here, I can do better there, I can do this differently. And just knowing that I can continue to get better that’s an added incentive every single time I’m out there.”

That desire to dominate has faced a number of obstacles over the years. Catchings was actually drafted in 2001, but did not make her debut until the following season after tearing an ACL in her senior season at Tennessee. How did she respond? By putting together an amazing rookie campaign that saw her finish third in MVP voting in 2002.

Then in 2007 came a more severe injury, a torn Achilles’ tendon which forced her to miss the remainder of the 2007 season and part of the 2008 campaign.

“When you go through an injury and you come back to playing this game you appreciate it so much more,” she said. “For me personally, looking at the things I’ve been able to come through and overcome, and definitely through my faith and that God has put me in a situation to be an example and to show people to always strive to be the best and to never give up.

“I do stand up and look at this award and think about it like man, we’ve done a lot. This body has seen some wear and tear and gone through a lot, but through it all I’ve just keep pushing.”

Anyone that knows Catchings knows that what she pushes for most is the elusive WNBA title. The Fever had a shot at the title in 2009, but fell in five games to the Phoenix Mercury.

“I think for Catch, more importantly on the resume would be a WNBA championship,” said teammate Katie Douglas. “Individual awards are great, and she deserves it, but if she had to pick between the two she’d definitely pick a WNBA championship.”

Whether it was the MVP award or the WNBA title, Catchings has always been a runner-up. Even with the MVP recognition and the ultimate team success just out of the reach of her outstretched fingertips, Catchings says she is not discouraged, but instead, motivated.

“I kind of noted myself as being the Almost Kid – almost get this, almost get that, but it never really happened,” she said. “Even with the championship, you know in 2009 you’re right there, you almost get it and then bam. For me I think what’s so frustrating is how I want to win a championship more than anything.

“Now being named the MVP is great and I’m really excited about it but my mission is still not accomplished. My mission is to win a championship and I believe as a team that is what we are all striving for.”

Now, when the Fever open the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Dream at Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday, Catchings will be just five wins away from adding the most important item to her basketball resume.

“I really feel like that would complete everything in every single aspect of basketball," she said. "I’ve completed everything else. That’s the last thing missing now.”