UNCASVILLE, CONN. — Tamika Catchings said she did not fully realize that this would be her final WNBA All-Star Game until all 22 of the 2015 participants gathered in a room on Friday.
The first-timers were asked to stand up.
“And I felt like we were the minority,” Catchings said after Saturday’s game, laughing. “Everybody’s standing up and I’m like, ‘Oh my god — I’ve been here that long.'”
No player in the 19-year history of the league has participated in as many All-Star Games as Catchings. She claimed that title for herself on Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena, where she made her 10th and final appearance (surpassing Tina Thompson’s record), scored eight points to become the game’s all-time leading scorer (108 points), and reflected on a career as decorated as any the WNBA has seen.
“You could tell every single moment [teammates] could hug or touch me. It was kind of surreal, that feeling like, ‘This is it,'” said Catchings, who announced in October that she will retire following the 2016 season, when no All-Star Game will be held due to the Summer Olympics. “I’m like, ‘I’m not leaving yet — I’ll be back next year!”
Plenty more surreal moments await Catchings on her retirement tour. But this All-Star edition, which essentially doubled as Tamika Catchings Appreciation Weekend, was the start.
She turned 36 on Tuesday, and her fellow All-Stars welcomed her on Friday with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” On Saturday, they gifted her a jersey covered in their signatures. Both the Eastern and Western Conference locker rooms were filled with players who grew up watching Catchings.
That group included East guard Alex Bentley, an Indianapolis native and former Indiana Fever intern.
“I used to watch her. Like, I watched her play and wanted to be where she was,” Bentley said after the West’s 117-112 win. “Now I’m sitting here high-fiving her and playing with her and passing her the ball. It’s just incredible.”
But as for any on-court festivities, there were none to be had; in typical Tamika form, Catchings made sure of it.
The five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year shot 4-of-8 and tallied 10 rebounds and six assists as East coach Pokey Chatman resisted the urge to force-feed her the ball.
“As a coach, we’re always thinking, ‘Let’s run this play and get Catchings a touch here, a touch there, and sometimes with the great players, a touch for them doesn’t always net a shot. They’re gonna make a basketball play. It’s no different than when she goes in the game immediately: offensive rebound, extra possession, offensive rebound, extra possession. She’s such a consummate pro, she just wanted to blend.”
When Chatman inserted the vet into the game for the final time, with 3:13 left in the third quarter and the East trailing 84-75, Catchings said she looked up at the scoreboard and told herself, “OK, before I sit down, we’ll at least be tied.”
She sunk the game-tying bucket with 5:28 left in the fourth and exited 45 seconds of game time later, with the score at an even 100-100.
The symbolism of the moment — leaving the game better than she found it — was not lost on Catchings, who watched in-her-prime superstar Maya Moore seal the West’s victory and the game’s MVP Award from the bench.
“In this game, everybody always talks about passing that torch,” said Catchings, who entered the WNBA in its fourth season. “From the beginning for us, it was Dawn [Staley], it was Sheryl [Swoopes] that passed the torch onto us. In between it was Katie [Smith], it was Tina [Thompson]. Then it came to us and at the end of our group there’s Cappie [Pondexter]. And then you go into the Candace Parkers, then you go into Elena Delle Donne, Maya, Skylar [Diggins] and that group.
“We’ve progressed. We’ve come a long way from the beginning. As we progress and and look at the future, today is an example of how good the WNBA will continue to be.”
At a postgame press conference that had hints of a retirement presser, Catchings paid homage to the players whose footsteps she followed. One of those players was Lisa Leslie, whose career All-Star Game scoring record (102 points) she surpassed on Saturday, and who Catchings watched on the 1996 Olympic team that inspired her to play in the WNBA in the first place.
“I just remember thinking, ‘I want to be like that. I want to be where they are. I want to be remembered like they’ll be remembered,'” said a choked-up Catchings. “And now you fast forward. And I will be.”