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24 Really Is Forever: Catchings’ Jersey Retirement Fitting End To Storybook Career

Tamika Catchings’ No. 24 jersey will be retired to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse rafters on Saturday 6/24 (7 PM ET). The only player in club history to wear No. 24, Catchings becomes the first player in franchise history to have her number retired.

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In 2001 the Indiana Fever held the 3rd pick in the WNBA draft and found themselves with a bevy of potential options that would hopefully grow to be the face of their franchise.

The Fever had come into existence a year prior and gone 9-23 in their inaugural season. Their second to last place finish in the Eastern Conference ended up well outside the playoff picture.

The squad was built from the inside out in that first season, as 6’7″ center Kara Wolters was their leading scorer and primary offensive threat, but only averaged 11.9 points per game. They received decent guard play from Rita Williams and found a usable tandem of forwards in Monica Maxwell and Alicia Thompson, but they lacked a two-way player, a reputable name. In simpler terms, they needed a star.

Indiana could have gone any number of directions with that 3rd pick. There was Lauren Jackson, the hard-nosed Australian post player who already had an Olympic Silver medal to her name. There was also duel-threat point guard Kelly Miller, skilled big Ruth Riley, and adept scorer Jackie Stiles out of Southwestern Missouri State. The options were plenty.

Then there was the curious case of Tamika Catchings. Catchings, a three-time All-American at the University of Tennessee, had been the 2000 Naismith College Player of the Year, as well as the AP Player of the Year that season. She was the second player in Tennessee history to have more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career and played a vital role in the 1997-98 Lady Vols’ undefeated, championship season.

Her résumé spelled differently should have been “first overall pick,” but then there was the injury. Catchings tore her ACL midway through her senior season and the doubters began to creep in. ACL injuries are notoriously difficult to recover from, especially for basketball players who generate so much power with their knee ligaments.

So, the Storm decided Jackson first overall and the Charlotte Sting took Kelly Miller right behind her when draft time came around. The Fever were left with a difficult decision to make. Do they take a vastly talented Catchings knowing she’ll miss the entirety of what would be her rookie season and with possibility of her never being the athletic specimen she once was, or do they pass on the risk and take a healthy player who would be ready from day one instead?

On that day the Fever made a decision that would shape their franchise for the next 15 seasons to come. They chose Catchings.

“If I wasn’t hurt would I have ended up in Indiana, you never know,” Catchings told WNBA.com ahead of her jersey retirement on Saturday. “I thank God that things ended up the way they did. I’m just so thankful to have had the career that I had here.”

Turning a negative into a positive isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but Catchings did that and then a lot more once the Fever took a chance on her.

When she finally stepped on the floor in 2002 with a surgically repaired ACL and a point to prove, Tamika Catchings was unleashed. She averaged a team-high 18.7 points per game and led Indiana to its first playoff appearance in her rookie season.

But “Catch” would immediately be recognized as so much more than just an elite scorer for the Fever. She led the team in rebounds per game (5.8) while also leading the entirety of the WNBA in steals per game (2.9) and total minutes played (1167). Right from the jump she was the kind of superstar that teams only dream of plucking from a process like a draft that always comes with so much uncertainty. She was fearless, tireless, tenacious, and above all else humble. Her play on the court spoke for itself and it would be the backbone of the Fever franchise for a decade and a half.

As the legend of Tamika Catchings grew to seismic proportions so did the expectations of the Fever. After the squad burst onto the scene in Catchings’ rookie year and made the playoffs, they had to wait two more seasons before making a return to the postseason. But then, with Catchings at the helm, they became a staple in the chase for a WNBA title over the next seven seasons.

In the midst of the championship pursuit the Fever made a coaching change in 2008 that would be the necessary and final piece to Catchings’ quest for a title. The squad promoted Lin Dunn from assistant to full-time head coach and in 2012 – with Dunn’s tutelage and Catchings’ talent – the Fever hoisted the WNBA championship trophy after a resounding 3-1 series defeat of the Minnesota Lynx. Fittingly, Catchings was named Finals MVP.

With their careers intrinsically connected from that moment on, their partnership will now be immortalized atop the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indiana when Catchings’ jersey is retired on Saturday as Dunn’s name already has a permanent place there.

“It’s awesome, literally it’s amazing,” Catchings said. “To have my jersey in between Lin’s and then the WNBA championship banner is truly a blessing. A lot of players don’t finish their careers with a championship, let alone have their jersey retired. To be the only 24 in Indiana it’s just a blessing to be here and be a part of such a great organization.”

Catchings officially called it a career after the 2016 season. She finished her time in the WNBA as a ten-time All-Star, five-time Defensive Player of the Year, 2011 league MVP, the all-time league leader in steals and rebounds as well the league’s all-time playoff scoring leader. She was selected as a member of the 20@20 team prior to her final season, which named the top 20 players in the history of the WNBA before the start of it’s historic 20th season. She won an Olympic-record 4th gold medal with the United States national team in the summer of 2016 and not to be forgotten, Catchings is a WNBA-record three-time winner of the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award given to the player who most “exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court—ethical behavior, fair play and integrity.”

On Saturday, she’ll take her rightful place next to other Indiana basketball legends like Reggie Miller, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, and the aforementioned Dunn.

“The championship is definitely still at number one when it comes to Bankers Life Fieldhouse memories, but the jersey retirement will no doubt be up there because that’s really special,” Catchings said. “I can only imagine that there will be some tears coming down and not so much from the night but knowing that it’s over. I still am involved with the team but it will be more finalized than it’s already been.”

Ever the competitor, Catchings has no plans of slowing down after Saturday. She joined the SEC Network as an analyst this summer as well as being named director of player programs and franchise development with Pacers Sports & Entertainment. She also opened her own tea shop in Indianapolis and still works closely with the current Fever roster.

“I’ve just begun another phase of life,” Catchings told WNBA.com. “You close a chapter and then open another chapter and that’s where I’m at right now. In my current role with Pacers Sports & Entertainment I’m working with current Fever players to help them look at what their lives can be after the game of basketball is over and finding out what they’re passionate about. I’m giving them the resources and then working with them to nurture those relationships for the future.”

It’s been a whirlwind of success for Tamika Catchings and the future is brighter than ever for a player who defined how you should go about your business on and off the floor. Saturday will be a special day for not just the Fever organization or even the state of Indiana, but for the WNBA and the game of basketball as a whole.

#24Forever became the millennial representation of how Catchings was to be remembered by her teammates, fans, and organization heading into her final game last season. Now, that mantra will become a reality as an icon becomes an immortal high above the arena she provided so many memories.