Fever Take the Cake

By Mark Montieth

It had been here once before, on Oct. 7, 2009, when it had a homecourt game before a sellout crowd that could have brought a WNBA championship. 

The Fever wasn't ready for that moment, falling to Phoenix, 90-77 and then going back to Phoenix and losing the series in the fifth and deciding game. 

It was ready for this moment, though. Sunday's 87-78 victory over Minnesota finally … finally … brought a championship to veterans Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas and Tammy Sutton-Brown, to owner Herb Simon and to the city.

This championship, produced by the sort of poise that enables a team to hit 29-of-31 foul shots and commit just eight turnovers, couldn't have happened without that previous heartbreak. Such ultimate accomplishments are normally a long, painful process, and what happened in 2009 turned out to be a lesson that enabled them to ace Sunday's test.

Catchings, the obvious finals Most Valuable Player after finishing with 25 points, eight assists and four rebounds, cried after the series in 2009. She cried again on Sunday, tears spiced equally by joy and relief. 

“We're older; more mature,” she said in the champagne-scented postgame locker room. “I think in '09 we were excited to be there, excited about the opportunity, but we didn't take advantage of it like we should. Tonight, I felt like everybody took advantage of it. We didn't celebrate after any of the games that we won. I said, We'll have a big celebration after we win.

“It definitely paid off.”

Douglas endured a nightmare in 2009, hitting just 2-of-14 shots in that Game 4 loss at the Fieldhouse. Sunday, she endured the cruel fate of a sprained ankle suffered in the final game of the Eastern Conference finals against Connecticut that kept her out of all but the final 3.2 seconds of the championship series.

She contributed Sunday by screaming loud and long from the bench throughout the game, so much so that she was coughing afterward, and also by injecting calm in the locker room before the game.

“Tammy, Tamika and I were telling everybody … how much we were able to learn from '09,” Douglas said. “That really played a big part in this win tonight. In '09 we were so uptight.

“Tonight we were actually pretty loose in here. That was key for us, to have fun and enjoy the moment and stay loose. It was like a normal locker room atmosphere. At the same time, people were in here straight-faced doing their normal things. Everybody kept their same routines. We didn't do anything different.”

That was obvious from the start, when the Fever plugged into the crowd's energy without short-circuiting. It jumped to an 18-9 lead by hitting seven of its first nine shots. Minnesota came back to tie the game four times after that -- the final one with 2:40 remaining in the third period – but the Fever never lost its cool.

“Did you hear that crowd?” Catchings said when asked about the fast start. “We used the adrenaline from (Friday's Game 3 victory at the Fieldhouse) and carried it over tonight. We did a good job jumping on them right off the bat with our defensive intensity. Offensively, as long as we shared the ball like we did … it was amazing.”

Douglas had to experience the championship series vicariously, but had earned her share of it long before that. Almost fittingly, the four-time WNBA All-Star was rudely cast aside afterward when the growing crowd of reporters encircling locker neighbor Erin Phillips forced her to vacate the area for a moment. But she had played 12 WNBA seasons and made four trips to the finals with Connecticut and the Fever in anticipation of this moment, and it wasn't going to be spoiled by injury or intrusion.   
She had told the coaches earlier in the day she was available if needed, but was aware that her sudden return could disrupt the chemistry that had led to Sunday's game. She didn't expect to play at all, but coach Lin Dunn walked to the end of the bench in the final seconds and sent her out for what amounted to a curtain call.

“I wasn't trying to lobby to put myself in,” she said. “They were doing great without me. I was doing just fine on the sidelines being a vocal person. Coach Dunn comes over and I'm thinking, What does she want? I was kind of confused. She wants me to take off my (warmup) pants, I'm going in. OK, I know I can do that for three seconds.”

Douglas, the only Indiana native on the Fever roster, won a national championship as a sophomore at Purdue in 1999. This one wasn't necessarily better, but it seemed harder to come by.

“Man, that was so long ago,” she said. “This one feels so good. In college it's only four years. I've been chasing this one for 12 years. I was starving. It was like three collegiate careers competing for this championship.”

Sutton-Brown also had invested 12 years in the championship. She had played a reserve role throughout the season, and only played 24 seconds on Sunday. But she had been a starter on that 2009 team, and had earned the same sense of relief that Catchings and Douglas felt.

She's a free agent now, and uncertain of her future, but was in no mood to mull her future before the champagne has dried.

“You know what?” she said. “The body's feeling pretty good. As long as everything is holding up, we'll see what happens next year. I just want to enjoy this moment right now.”