INDIANAPOLIS – Milky-white shirts adorn every seat of the lower bowl inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The message on their front is clear, to the point, and written in bold, black type: “#24Forever.” The Indiana Fever logo is displayed prominently under the hashtag that was born in early May but will become all the more relevant on Sunday.
By 4 p.m. ET, these shirts will be worn by thousands of Fever fans, who will have turned out in droves to witness Tamika Catchings’ final regular season game. For now, they serve as a fitting backdrop to a candid conversation with one of the pillars of women’s basketball ahead of what will undoubtedly be a surreal 40 minutes of basketball for her.
Catchings, fresh off a longer than expected practice Saturday, approached holding two water bottles and displayed her always magnetic smile. Her calming floor presence can be felt even when the only defenders are television crews laying wiring for Sunday’s match-up with the Dallas Wings.
“I don’t know if I’m feeling nervous, it’s more anxious actually,” Catchings said. “Everybody is coming in town, the last big group will get in tonight, and I’m thinking about what Sunday will even look like. I’m ready to get through this and I’m excited about it.”
“This,” is 16 years in the making. “This,” is comprised of 10 WNBA All-Star appearances, five WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, a league MVP award and the 2012 Finals trophy. Catchings has done it 455 times before, now a Hall of Fame career must be encapsulated in just one afternoon.
Back in 2001 Catchings was a hard-nosed product of Pat Summitt’s University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball dynasty that spanned the entirety of the ’90s and early 2000s. Despite winning a National Championship as a freshmen and going on to earn All-American honors, Catchings’ WNBA career could have been over before it ever truly started. She suffered a ACL injury her senior year with the Lady Vols and that put her out of what would’ve been her rookie season in 2001.
Knee injuries can be debilitating to any athlete, at any level, but for one with as much promise as Catchings, it could have changed her career path forever. Instead, she used it as motivation and made her rookie debut all the more sweeter in 2002. The anxious feeling of that first game serves as a fascinating juxtaposition to what she’s going through today.
“The feeling of that night was all about, will I be good enough? I was coming off the ACL and everyone was anticipating what I would do on the court,” Catchings told WNBA.com. “I just remember thinking, what if I fail? Now, the feeling of going out is more of just ‘Ahhh’.”
“A little girl had dreams, a goal, and so much passion all rolled into one. I’ve been so lucky to be able to have this opportunity to play the game that I love for so long. The thought of failure was so scary when I started, now it’s all about what’s next.”
Born in 1979, the WNBA wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for a young Catch. When she was starring at Duncanville High School in Texas where she recorded the first-ever quintuple-double with 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks in 1997, the W was in its inaugural season. Twenty years later, Catchings is one of the main reasons why the league has grown, expanded, and inspired so many generations of young women.
“My motivation was to work and work and make it as far as I could. And, then when the W came my freshmen year in college everything was suddenly possible. Sixteen years later and we’re here,” Catchings said. “I’ve talked with my teammates and told them I didn’t even know if I would be around five, six or 10 years, let alone 16. It’s just flown by.”
Catchings hasn’t looked back since winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2002. She’s brought MVP awards, gold medals and Sportsmanship plaques back to the city of Indianapolis, but some of her fondest memories come in the form of recognition for the entirety of the Fever organization.
“I remember driving to up to Detroit in 2009, and randomly I stopped at some remote gas station in northern Indiana,” Catchings said. “While I was pumping gas this guy comes over to me and says ‘oh my god, you play for the Fever,’ and ‘I’m like yeah, yeah I do.’ But then he started naming everyone on the team like Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport.
“That was one of the proudest moments for me because up until then I had heard a lot about myself but not my teammates. I didn’t want it to ever just be about me, I have always had a whole team behind me. It made me so happy to see people recognizing the skills we hand as team. Now, you don’t see just 24 jerseys in the stands, and I like that.”
Ever the consummate professional and teammate, Sunday will serve as one of the last times number 24 will lace up her vibrant yellow Nikes with the teammates she appreciates on a personal level. Anticipation is already palpable as public figures like Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George, University of Connecticut and U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team Head Coach Geno Auriemma and Indiana’s fifth district congresswoman, Susan Brooks, have been among the many offering their support to the legend.
“It’s going to be crazy in here,” Catching said. “There will be a lot of tears shed I’m sure, I’m just trying to prepare myself mentally. The game is one part but then it’s also all the stuff that’s tied into it. I don’t want to overthink or over analyze anything. It’s going to be crazy but also a lot of fun. My whole family is coming and of course PG and the Pacers guys will be here, it just feels like a storybook ending. The only way it could be better is by winning championship.”
The Fever could make this notion a reality as they are guaranteed to play a home playoff game, the only thing yet to be determined is their opponent. On Wednesday, Catchings will play her 68th playoff game against either the Seattle Storm or Phoenix Mercury. But, first things first, she’s got say goodbye.
“I talked to Lisa Leslie a lot about it, and it’s crazy because she was one of my heroes,” Catchings said. “To have the relationship that I’ve had with her playing in USA basketball since ’02, she’s been my mentor.
“We randomly got stuck in Charlotte after [WNBA] rookie orientation and we’re together watching Kobe [Bryant]’s last game [in April] and I talked with her about how crazy this has all been. At the end of this year it will be my end too. It’s just cool how situations like that happen.”
Bryant’s final game will always be remembered for his 60-point outburst. Catchings admits she “realistically couldn’t even take 50 shots in a game,” in fact, she’s got a much simpler goal in mind for her last regular season minutes in the WNBA. “I want to win. I want to go out winning because I think that’s the only way to do it.”
What’s next for Catch?
“I want to chill, relax,” she said. “My husband and I are going on our honeymoon in November, so I’m looking forward to that. I want to get to a beach and chill out. I’m going to give it some time, and just relax.”
If anyone has earned some time to kick their feet up on a lounge chair somewhere in paradise it’s Tamika Catchings. For now though, she’s still got more work to do. The Fever are hoping to make an extended playoff run and keep the legacy tour going for a little while longer.
As she stood to leave Saturday, a wedding party made its way on the floor to take pictures on the Fever logo at center court. A photographer approaches Catchings and asks if she’ll take a picture with the bride and groom, who are apparently huge fans. Without a second thought Catch is hugging the happy couple and giving them a picture that will last a lifetime.
Now, less than a day away from the most important game of her career, this is the person Tamika Catchings has become. Then again, it always has been.