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A Farewell to Tamika

Back in July, my wife, my three-year-old daughter and I took a family vacation to Los Angeles. It was a trip of firsts for my daughter – her first visit to Disneyland, her first time at the beach, her first time seeing the ballet and her first professional basketball game, with the Sparks hosting the Indiana Fever.

As we watched the game together, I was explaining what was going on and what she should watch for as she sat next to me munching on popcorn. I remember telling her to watch No. 24 on Indiana; her name was Tamika and she was one of the best players to ever play the game.

Go to WNBA.com/Tamika

I didn’t rattle off any of the accolades that Tamika had won during her WNBA career – five Defensive Player of the Year awards, 2011 MVP, 2012 champion and Finals MVP, all-time leader in steals and top 10 in nearly every statistical category. Those accomplishments would not mean anything to a three-year-old watching her first game in person, anyway.

Instead, I told her how Tamika played so hard and gave everything she possibly could to help her team win, how she would dive on the floor to save a ball from going out of bounds and always try to stop the other team’s best player. In this case, that was Candace Parker, who helped the Sparks win the game to improve to 17-1 on the season. Tamika finished the game with 14 points, four steals and three rebounds as she led a fourth-quarter Fever rally that fell just short.

“At the end of the day, that’s great, like you get announced and people read a whole sheet of paper about what you’ve done — that’s awesome. And you don’t want to discount that,” Catchings told WNBA.com. “But when you walk in a room and people can talk about the things you’ve done for them, outside of being able to read a sheet of paper, that’s more valuable than all of these accolades you can pick up.

“That’s great, but 10 years from now, are people really going to remember who won the championship in 2012? Who won the MVP? No one really gets caught up in that. I’m more a relationship person, and being able to build that to where it becomes something more.”

“When you walk in a room and people can talk about the things you’ve done for them, outside of being able to read a sheet of paper, that’s more valuable than all of these accolades you can pick up.”
– Tamika Catchings

Being a WNBA junkie, I’ll remember that Catchings led the Fever to the title in 2012 and Finals appearances in 2009 (the greatest Finals I ever saw and luckily got to cover) and 2015, and I’ll be able to list many of her career accomplishments from memory. But the first thing that I’ll think of when I think of Tamika Catchings is the passion and intensity with which she played with every single night. She has a competitive fire that few players have ever matched – think Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett on the NBA side.

But I’ll also remember Tamika off the court, which is a complete 180 from her persona during a game. She’ll rip your heart out on the court and give you her heart off of it.

Just two weeks ago, Catchings was recognized for her charitable efforts as the recipient of her second Dawn Staley Community Service Award – an award that recognizes a player who is an inspiration in her community and reflects Staley’s leadership, spirit, charitable efforts and love for the game.

“How fitting that we again honor Tamika Catchings with this award in her final season in the WNBA,” said Staley in the award announcement. “Her dedication to her community has been just as strong as her commitment to the game of basketball, and countless young people are better off because of both. The beauty of Tamika is that the end of her basketball career only means more time for her to continue her outstanding work in the community. For that, she will continue to be an inspiration to me and so many others.”

Catchings established her Catch the Stars Foundation a dozen years ago with an aim to inspire young people to achieve their dreams though literacy, fitness and mentoring. As part of her Legacy Tour, Catchings held postgame meet and greets in every WNBA city and each WNBA team received a grant from her foundation to benefit the community.

“She is just an incredible person, and if you know of her and you don’t know the person that she is, then you’re kind of missing out, because it far exceeds her basketball prowess.”
– Tina Thompson on Tamika Catchings

In addition to the recognition for her off-the-court efforts, Catchings has also received countless honors for her play on the court. Catchings has made a strong imprint on the WNBA record books and she has two more regular season games to continue to add to her already incredible resume:

Rank Among All-Time WNBA Leaders (All stats as of Sept 15, 2016)

  • Steals: 1st (1,071)
  • Free Throws: 1st (1,995)
  • Points: 2nd (7,353)
  • Rebounds: 2nd (3,305)
  • Field Goals: 2nd (2,376)
  • Assists: 6th (1,487)
  • 3-Pointers: 7th (606)
  • Blocks: 12th (384)

Catchings’ Career Awards and Honors

  • 10-time All-Star (WNBA record)
  • 5-time Defensive Player of the Year (WNBA record)
  • 7-time Steals Leader (WNBA record)
  • 12-time All-WNBA selection (WNBA record, tied with Lisa Leslie); 7-time First Team selection
  • 22-time WNBA Player of the Week (WNBA record)
  • 2011 WNBA Most Valuable Player
  • 2012 WNBA Finals MVP
  • 2002 Rookie of the Year
  • Member of the All-Decade Team (2006)
  • Member of the Top 15 Team (2011)
  • Member of the Top 20@20 Team (2016)

Already the all-time leader in both steals and free throws made, Catchings needs just three rebounds in her final two games to pass Lisa Leslie for the all-time lead in rebounds. However, when it comes to the all-time scoring lead, Tina Thompson’s record appears safe as Catchings trails the all-time scoring champ by 135 points.

“Tamika and I have an incredible relationship,” said Thompson. “We consider ourselves more than just friends and colleagues; I see her as one of my little sisters. I am extremely proud not just of her basketball career and what she’s been able to accomplish, but just her person. I mean, she is just an incredible person, and if you know of her and you don’t know the person that she is, then you’re kind of missing out, because it far exceeds her basketball prowess.”

Thompson, who retired in 2013 after 17 seasons in the WNBA, appreciates the fact that Catchings is going to “walk away at the top of her game.”

“I don’t want to say that I’m happy that she’s retiring because, of course, why wouldn’t you want to see her continue to play, but I get it,” Thompson said. “I was there at this very moment not very long ago and as much as you can continue to play, there comes this moment where you just kind of decide, ‘Yeah, I think that I’ve done the absolute best that I absolutely can and there’s other stuff out there for me, so I’m going to go ahead and try to do that and put my energy and my passion and work ethic into that.

“So I absolutely get it. And I think that she’s had an exceptional career, not comparable to many. Few can say that they’ve done the things that she’s done and I’m just extremely proud and very, very happy for her.”

But before Catchings gets her post-basketball career underway, there is still some work to be done. In addition to the final two regular season games, the Fever are guaranteed at least one playoff game as they have clinched a playoff berth and will face a single-elimination game in either the first or second round depending on their final seeding. Entering Friday’s games, the Fever hold the No. 6 seed, but have a chance to climb as high as No. 4 and earn a first \-round bye under the new WNBA playoff format.

My hope is that when I leave after this season, next year when they come back, all the things that were important to me are ingrained in my teammates.”
– Tamika Catchings

Can Catchings and the Fever put together another magical playoff run like they did last season, when they made it all the way to the WNBA Finals and gave the eventual champion Lynx everything they could handle in a competitive five-game series?

“A perfect year for me is being able to rally my teammates and obviously winning a championship,” Catchings said earlier this season. “But rallying my teammates and getting them to the point like last year, the way we played until the end, just being able to carry that over.

“When you look at great leaders in the world, you think of people who sent the message, set the tone and then have other people around them to keep the message going. My hope is that when I leave after this season, next year when they come back, all the things that were important to me are ingrained in my teammates.”

That is what a legacy is truly all about: establishing a standard of excellence and inspiring those around you to aspire to that level even after you are gone. Catchings’ basketball legacy is nearly complete and there is no doubt that she will use the same drive, determination and passion to be just as successful in whatever she chooses for her next chapter.