INDIANAPOLIS – It’s 3 p.m. and the line to get into Bankers Life Fieldhouse curls around the sidewalk and spills onto the street. Although these fans won’t get to see tip-off for another hour, the energy is already electric.
Tamika Catchings is about to play the final regular season game of what has become one of the greatest women’s basketball careers of all time.
When she was drafted by the Indiana Fever in 2001, she was selected to a newly crafted expansion team that had played in just one WNBA season and amassed a grand total of nine wins before she donned a Fever uniform. A mountain of pressure was immediately placed on a then 22-year-old Catchings, who if everything went as planned, could serve as the foundation for which the franchise was build on. Both figuratively and literally.
Sixteen years later there’s 17,704 fans, many wearing Catchings’ number 24, that have crammed into Bankers Life Fieldhouse to show their support for a player who grew to become the face of the Indiana Fever, and in some respects women’s basketball around the world.
While Catchings went through her usual pregame routine it was clear that she was doing her best to make this just another game.
But, it was so much more. This day was all about her.
One of the humblest professional athletes you will ever meet, Catchings built a reputation for being the quintessential team-first superstar. This will always be her legacy, but as the clock began to creep closer and closer to 0, and the horn eventually sounded to signal the start of the game, all eyes and camera phones were squarely pointed on number 24.
The tears started early for Tamika, who promised a day prior that they would be flowing, as her favorite artist and close friend J. Moss belts out a rendition of the National Anthem fit for the sending off of a legend. With final note still ringing in most ears, Tamika runs up to Moss to express her gratitude. The bright lights of Bankers Life flick on, the buzzer sounded, and with that a career that’s seen an MVP award, a championship trophy, gold medals, and plenty of All-Star appearances to match, had just 40 regular season minutes remaining.
With Indiana already assured a home playoff game, Sunday’s contest against the Wings has no bearing on the postseason, but still the pace is frenetic and heated. At 37 years old, Catchings is the oldest player on the floor, but she plays with the same intensity as she did when she was an all-American at the University of Tennessee. Not surprisingly, she is heavily involved in all of the action right from the start.
Her first basket comes in typical Tamika fashion. After receiving a pass a step outside the three-point line, she gives a ball fake to her defender, gets her to shift her weight to the other foot and then, she’s gone. Her noted acceleration sees her leave Plenette Pierson in her wake, side step around Odyssey Sims, and coolly finish at the rim with ease.
Fittingly, Catchings’ first basket in her regular season finale is the first made basket of the game, and her and the Fever never looked back.
Indiana cruises to a comfortable 83-60 victory. Catchings and Lynette Kizer lead all scorers in Catch’s final game with 16 points apiece. Although she didn’t quite reach the Kobe 60-point outburst from his closing ceremony, a stat line of 16 points, seven rebounds, two steals and perfect 6-for-6 from the line is the epitome everything she’s done throughout her career.
While the win went like so many have before for Catch, the proceedings around it were wholly unique to the day. Paul George and a collection of Pacers took in the action from a box high above center court. Catchings’ old teammates Jessica Davenport and Katie Douglas are on-hand along with her former coach, Lin Dunn, with whom she won the 2012 WNBA championship. Video tributes play at every stoppage — some highlight Tamika’s on-the-court exploits, more recognize her charitable efforts off it.
The entire arena itself is shrouded in white shirts bearing the hashtag: #24Forever. Fans held signs that say “Thank you Tamika,” one fan even brought along a sign that said watching Catchings’ final game checked a box on his bucket list.
This is what you get when you’ve put together 16 seasons of the finest basketball the women’s game as ever seen. You also get a special postgame ceremony to be recognized for the incredible impact you’ve had on a city and a sport.
Anyone that knows the WNBA is familiar with Catch’s on-court gifts, but the kind of difference she’s made in the community of Indianapolis may be even more remarkable. A testament to her passion for giving off the court is evident in the first two people to speak at her postgame ceremony, Indiana’s 5th district congresswoman Susan Brooks, and Indianapolis’ mayor, Joe Hogsett.
“I was on the first Fever advisory committee and when Tamika came to greet me after we drafted her I knew she was a rockstar,” said Brooks. “We are so blessed to have had Tamika Catchings come to Indiana.”
“I’m looking around at all the exits and I don’t think a single fan has left, you did that Tamika,” said Mayor Hogsett. “Rarely do you have an athlete with so many accomplishments that may have even greater off the court accomplishments. That’s Tamika Catchings. I’d say if she would have decided to run for mayor at this time last year I would have voted for her.”
WNBA President Lisa Borders offered equally high praise for Catchings and what she’s meant to women’s basketball as a whole.
“It’s been said that you cannot be what you cannot see, we watched you set a shining example not just for family or teammates, but for the league and little boys and little girls all across the globe,” Border said. “Basketball is played in 214 countries and you have left an indelible fingerprint and dare I say footprint all over this game.”
The admiration continued as representatives from Nike, USA Basketball, and the ownership group of the Fever offered their own unique praise for what Catchings has meant to them. Current Indiana head coach Stephanie White told a story of how Catchings literally offered the shirt off her back to White one night when she was missing one for a dinner party. Former coach Lin Dunn described the sincerity with which Catchings goes about her daily life.
One speech that particularly stood out was from Catchings’ current teammate Briann January. Like Catch, January has spent the duration of her WNBA career on the Fever since being drafted in 2009. She was there for the 2012 championship and has grown up under the tutelage of Tamika.
“The day before the first day of training camp in my rookie season I went to the gym to get some shots up. When I got there I saw someone shooting on the other side of floor and it was Catch. As any rookie would do I just stood in the corner and didn’t say anything but within 30 seconds I hear ‘hey, what are you doing over there, let’s get it in.’ That was the start of a beautiful eight-year run, and the first of many times she’s taken me under her wing and shown me what it means to be a true professional.”
When Tamika took the mic there were thank you’s and appreciation shown from her to the Fever fans that have seen her greatest moments time and time again.
“After I tore my ACL my senior year at Tennessee I thought no one would take a chance on me, I mean who goes to the store to get something that’s already broken,” Catchings told the Indiana crowd. “You guys did, thank you, thank you.”
One career, 7,380 points, 3,316 rebounds, 1,488 assists, and 14,370 minutes later, Catchings stepped off the floor in Indianapolis for the final time in the regular season. She’ll be back soon as the Fever will host the Mercury in the first round of the playoffs on September 21. Catchings and Fever have qualified for the postseason a record 12 straight times, and last year reached the WNBA Finals where they ultimately lost to the Lynx in a classic five-game series.
For now, though, Catchings and her three gifted portraits, two custom made couches and brand new Lexus, given to her by the Pacers Sports and Entertainment group, can marvel at the career she’s had.
When she exited the game for the final time at the 1:30 mark in the fourth quarter, time stood still. Echoing applause were the soundtrack as Catch waved to the crowd and hugged her teammates, her smile revealing equal parts happiness and relief. While her career isn’t quite done yet, she left the court on this day as she has so many times before — the ultimate victor.