Catchings Reflects on 2012 Title Run

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- Next week, Tamika Catchings will pack her bags and head for China, where she will play professional basketball through February.

This week, the Indiana Fever star will rest and reboot and take a few more days to savor her team's joyous ride to its first WNBA championship.

And one other thing will likely happen for Catchings this week. You can expect the 33-year-old forward to hear more questions about her club's potential to repeat as league champions in 2013 and about her own playing future now that a coveted team title is in hand.

Catchings faced a number of such queries Monday as she talked with local and national media during a 30-minute teleconference. The session came amid the backdrop of Indiana's WNBA Finals victory eight days earlier over the Minnesota Lynx -- a championship that capped a season full of accomplishment and stirring moments for the Fever and Catchings alike.

“I'm probably like any other player in the league. You want to win as much as you can before you retire,” said Catchings, who was named Finals MVP after the Fever captured a 3-1 victory in the best-of-five series.

“The league's going to get better. We have some great players who are coming out of college next year and will be going to different teams. It's going to be a different journey. When you're the champion … everybody will be really coming after us.”

Repeating as champions in the WNBA poses an enormous challenge. Catchings knows that. Such a feat hasn't happened since the Los Angeles Sparks accomplished it in 2001-02.

However, Catchings' considerable skills, as well as her leadership abilities, are showing no signs of diminishing. She averaged 22.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in the Finals. Also, with help from Catchings' strong will and resolve, her teammates rose up around her, playing through the entire postseason at a lofty level that will long be remembered in the WNBA.

Catchings said Monday she has a “few aches and pains” but generally feels fine. Little slows her down.  Indeed, her life since the Fever closed out the Lynx on Oct. 21 has been a swirl of activity, including a meeting at the team's offices during which President Barack Obama called to offer congratulations.

So how many more WNBA seasons are in store for the 11-year veteran?

“I haven't really thought about it,” Catchings said. “Everybody keeps asking me, 'How many more years do you think you want to play? What do you think about 2016 (the next Olympics)?'

“As long as I'm feeling good and I'm able to get up and down the court and play at the level I play at,” she added, referring to her plans to continue. “My one fear is somebody saying, 'I remember what she used to do …'  OK, at that point I think it'll be time to step down.”

Which seems a long long way off.

Catchings, never one to shy from a challenge, figures to return for the 2013 WNBA season with her engines revved. And why not? With Catchings and Katie Douglas back as scoring linchpins, and with a returning nucleus of young players who took turns emerging in starring roles in the 2012 postseason, Indiana's core group appears set and capable.

Monday, Catchings went down the roster as she praised her teammates. She credited Jeanette Pohlen, who will come back in 2013 after undergoing off-season knee surgery, for picking up the scoring load when Douglas went down with an ankle injury in the Eastern Conference finals.

Catchings lauded Erin Phillips for her big-game mentality, her timely defensive play and “just taking the ball to the basket and knocking down so many big shots.” Phillips hit 15-of-29 3-pointers (.519) during the playoffs. Catchings also praised Shavonte Zellous, who hit her share of big and buzzer-beating shots in the playoffs and compiled a perfect 18-of-18 free throw mark during the Finals.

Catchings talked about Erlana Larkins, who ranked as the storybook player of the WNBA season after failing to make a league roster in two consecutive seasons and then becoming a rebounding phenom.  Larkins totaled 48 rebounds in four Finals games, twice grabbing 15.

Catchings became a mentor to Larkins. The Indiana veteran often talked privately with the young player. She injected her with confidence.

“(It was) just letting her know, you are here for a reason,” Catchings said, explaining her relationship with Larkins. “Don't feel like you don't belong. Don't feel like you don't have a role. Focus on (rebounding). Your game will come to you.

“I think she just got more comfortable being here. I thought she was really receptive,” Catchings said about the counseling.

Catchings also played a leadership role in the development of point guard Briann January, who made the All-WNBA Defensive Team and appears on the verge of true stardom. January's defensive play was the talk of the Finals after she held Lynx standout Seimone Augustus to 3-of-21 shooting in the close-out game.

Catchings indicated she emphasized to January how she could “really make an impact on the game with how you play defense.”

“The whole season, and specifically down the stretch during the playoffs, (January) was definitely a  difference maker,” Catchings said.

What enabled the Fever to build steam in the playoffs, Catchings said, was the decision-making of Coach Lin Dunn.

The veteran coach chose to insert Larkins into the starting lineup. Dunn also managed the club's practice time all summer, making sure older players were rested and bench players were prepared to make contributions when needed. That time of need surfaced in the playoffs.

And during a month-long break for the Olympics, while Catchings was off collecting her third gold medal with the U.S. team, Dunn ratcheted up the practice work during sessions at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana went on to tie the franchise record with 22 regular-season victories and make the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year.

“You could tell everybody got better during the break,” Catchings said about what she immediately noticed upon returning from London. “Everybody was kind of on a different level as far as excitement, as far as commitment, as far as focus.”

Catchings was asked specifically about the 2012 championship and what memory she will embrace the most. She reiterated what virtually every Fever team member noted in the afterglow of the Game 4 victory over Minnesota. She talked about the camaraderie and togetherness and memorable times off the court.

“For it to actually happen, to happen with the group it did, it's just a special year,” Catchings said.