A Rivalry In The Making: Battle Of I-65

May 25, 2006
The Indiana Fever has a new geographic rival this season as the expansion Chicago Sky begins play in its first season this week. Indiana, the Sky’s closest geographic competitor and also a member of the Eastern Conference, plays at Chicago on Friday night (8:30 p.m. ET).

How are the two franchises similar, or different? How are they comparable? Is geographic proximity worthy of establishing the Sky as the Fever’s next rivalry?

Only 164 miles of Interstate 65 separate the two cities. While Chicago, as a city, is certainly more deeply established in its history of pro sports franchises than Indianapolis overall (Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks) – how will the Sky compare with the Fever in the WNBA?

For certain, the Fever is more established currently – an Eastern Conference finalist in 2005 and a seventh-year franchise with one of the game’s top stars in Tamika Catchings. Catchings, though, coincidentally, prepped at the Chicago-area’s Stevenson High School where she and her sister both won Illinois state championships.

Friday, Catchings will “come home” to Chicago to play a road game. She will play opposite a pair of former Indiana teammates in Deanna Jackson, who was selected by Chicago during the WNBA’s Expansion Draft last winter, and Nikki McCray, who helped lead the Fever to its first playoff berth in 2002.

And then there are the coaches – Indiana’s Brian Winters and the Sky’s Dave Cowens. Both were NBA All-Stars during a 1970s era in which they played against, and beside each other – they were teammates for a season with the Milwaukee Bucks. And later, as their coaching careers grew, they were on the same staff briefly with the Golden State Warriors.

Which begs the question, a trivia question if you will, to which Winters and Cowens are the answer: Who are the only current WNBA coaches who have both played and coached in the NBA?

And so, how comparable are the Fever and the Sky? Or are they?

The Fever is operated in conjunction with the Indiana Pacers, as part of Pacers Sports & Entertainment. The Fever and Pacers share one of the world’s most glowing basketball showplaces – Conseco Fieldhouse. Chicago, however, is one of three WNBA franchises with no affiliation to an NBA club, and one of just two WNBA clubs whose arena is not home to an NBA team. The Sky, in fact, play at the WNBA’s smallest venue, 6,500-seat UIC Pavilion on a local college campus.

As a first-year franchise, though, Chicago is significantly more developed on the court than the Fever during its first season. In 2000 when the Fever and Seattle Storm entered the WNBA as expansion clubs, Indiana and Seattle did not have the benefit of free agency. Nor were the Storm or Fever warranted a first-round draft pick. Chicago, meanwhile has used free agency and a top college center to molds its first-year roster – former Temple star Candice Dupree, chosen with the No. 6 overall pick in the WNBA’s April draft, is currently the Sky’s top scorer.

On paper and just two games into the 2006 season, the Fever is surely more advanced as an overall franchise – on and off the court.

Indiana is currently 2-0 during its first week of the new campaign, Chicago is 1-1. Chicago beat Charlotte on the road last week for a “W” in the first game in franchise history. And yes, similarly, Indiana won its first game in history, as well, and also on the road, besting Miami 57-54 on June 1, 2000.

Comparisons and similarities aside, a game is scheduled to be played between the two on Friday. It is the very first meeting. It’s Indiana at Chicago as the I-65 series opens with the first of four meetings in 2006. And the first of many in years to come.