Time to Pass the Torch?

Oct 15 2012 3:44AM

The 2012 WNBA Finals is shaping up to be a showdown between rising star Maya Moore and seasoned vet Tamika Catchings.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. -- As reporters began to surround Indiana’s Tamika Catchings for interviews before the Fever practiced on Saturday, they were interrupted by none other than Minnesota’s Maya Moore.

Moore came over to greet Catchings and the two friends exchanged a hug. Moore, in her Lynx warmup gear after finishing her practice, then left the gym holding only a water bottle.

There was no evidence of her carrying a torch.

Many may speculate, however, that this is what the 2012 WNBA Finals, which tips off on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2, could signify; Catchings, the battle-tested, accomplished vet, passing the torch as the league’s preeminent all-around player to Moore, the youthful, budding superstar.

This is not to discredit Catchings, the 2011 MVP, in any way. The 33-year-old finished third in MVP voting this year – one spot ahead of Moore – and was named Defensive Player of the Year for the fifth time. In fact, you could argue that Catchings had a better season this year than in her 2011 MVP campaign. It’s just that Moore, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 who entered the league with so much fanfare, appears to have the right combination of skill, work ethic and youth to dominate this league for many years to come. And, she’s just beginning to bloom. “For me, it’s just kind of like being a proud big sister watching my little sister out there,” Catchings said of Moore’s evolution this past year.

Sibling roles aside, Catchings and Moore are in rarified air when it comes to today’s WNBA superstars. They are virtual carbon copies of one another in terms of playing style and they both affect the game in all facets. The only discernible difference between them – besides age – is championships.

While Moore won a WNBA title with Minnesota her rookie season and finds herself in her second WNBA Finals in as many years, Catchings, who has yet to win the big one, is making only her second Finals appearance in 12 years, the other coming in 2009 when the Fever squandered a 2-1 series lead to the Phoenix Mercury.

For a player of Catchings’ caliber that’s accomplished everything you can as basketball player sans a WNBA title – a Rookie of the Year award, seven All-Star selections, five Defensive Player of the Year awards, one MVP and three Olympic gold medals – it’s not surprising that finally hoisting a championship trophy would be vitally important to her.

Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings celebrate after winning
gold in the 2012 Olympics (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)
“For all of us, it’s that one thing you come in [to the league] and aspire to and dream about – being a champion on every single level that you play in,” Catchings said. “We have an opportunity; we had one in 2009 and we weren’t able to follow through with it. Now we have another opportunity.”

As relentless and unyielding as a player this league has ever seen, Catchings has willed her team to this point and the Fever have adopted her no-holds-barred approach as they try to help her get that first championship.

“She’s done it all and [a championship] is kind of the last little thing that lingers over,” Indiana guard Briann January said. “We’re with her every day and we see the work she puts in and it’s not every other day, it’s consistently every day. She’s the leader on our team. She leads not only by speaking what needs to be done, she leads by example. If anyone deserves it, she does.”

On the other hand, championships just seem to follow Moore wherever she goes. In fact, she’s won a championship in three of her last four seasons – two in college with Connecticut and one last year with the Lynx.

While a humble Moore is quick to pour credit on her teammates, her performance in the second half this season, which really propelled her into elite company as far as stars in this league are concerned, was pivotal in the Minnesota’s journey back to the Finals in an increasingly competitive Western Conference.

“Maya has elevated her game I think, especially since the Olympics,” Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen said. “She really came back with a great mind frame. She had it going before the Olympics as well, but I think her spirit has really shown since the Olympics. She’s done some great things and she just such a phenomenal player and such a great talent.”

After coming back from London, Moore averaged 17.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists. And if you ask Catchings, Moore’s ascension post-London is not a coincidence. Catchings said that Moore was a sponge, soaking up knowledge from her teammates – Catchings included – while playing for Team USA.

“I think that’s what being on the Olympic team does for you,” Catchings said. “I think when you have an opportunity to play with players and you’re in a situation like that and you’re representing your country and you’re amongst some of the best players and playing against some of the best players, it kind of forces you to learn and to grow.”

It’s hard not to get the feeling that when Catchings is talking about Moore that she’s talking about a younger version of herself. And, when Moore is talking about Catchings, that she’s talking about the player she wants to become.

“Growing up I definitely looked up to Tamika and I still do now,” Moore said. “She’s somebody that plays with so much heart and passion and that’s the same thing I try to do. I feel like our God-given gifts are supposed to be displayed every time we step on that court so we try to do that with our hustle and she’s someone I greatly respect as a competitor.”

In the ultimate compliment, Moore, a UConn product, says she modeled her game after Catchings, a Tennessee alum, and the similarities on the court are hard to ignore.

“We’re both really active both offensively and defensively,” Catchings said. “We’re able to do so much on the court. For a lot of the younger players, I think early on you grow up learning how to play your position, like you play the one, you play the two and you get locked in to that. For both of us, it’s been one of those things where we’ve moved around. We’re versatile players. We can play at the two, the three or the four and if we have to bring the ball up we can or if we have to play down low with the fives we can.”

The resemblance between the two is becoming so striking that it’s starting to fool some of the people closest to them.

“It’s funny because after [Team USA] played at Connecticut last year when we did the exhibition game out there, [Moore’s] mom was there and her mom was like, ‘Gosh darn it, both you guys are wearing knee pads and sometimes I just get confused which one is which,’ especially since we both played at the same time,” Catchings said with a laugh.

They’ll be playing at the same time again this week, but on different teams, with their career trajectories hanging in the balance. Moore has her ticket for super-stardom waiting to be punched, but Catchings and her quest for that elusive title stands in her way.