Indiana Fever star and University of Tennessee alum, Tamika Catchings, talks about her career and what has inspired her to be one of the best.
MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a sea of green and blue surrounding me and the roar is deafening. The Lynx Nation has turned out in force to root their team on to what they know will be the first back-to-back WNBA championships in a decade. A sellout crowd of 13,478 has packed the Target Center. This is their house, and they're quick to let you know it.
Indianapolis is a little less than 600 miles from Minneapolis, but has anybody made the trip to cheer on the Fever? If so, they're traveling incognito. I check out anyone around me wearing red or yellow. Fever fans? Nope. Just Minnesotans making poor sartorial choices.
Despite my best efforts, there's only one person in sight sporting Indiana attire -- and his bona fides become suspect when after flaunting his Fever jersey honoring No. 23, Katie Douglas, in an on-camera arena dance contest, he is chased from the stands by Prowl, the Lynx mascot, wielding a faux fire extinguisher. His place in the packed stands is soon taken over by a more appropriately dressed Lynx fan.
For a while, this gentleman appeared to be the only Indiana Fever fan on hand in the sold-out Minneapolis Target Center for Game Two of the WNBA Finals between the Fever and the Minnesota Lynx. (Photo by Lee MIchaelson)
Soon enough, however, even he was outed as an imposter, a participant in a skit in which he was chased from the stands, to the delight of the Minnesota crowd, by Lynx mascot Prowl, who was armed with a fire extinguisher. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)
So it comes as a bit of a surprise when Indiana's No. 24 picks off Rebekkah Brunson's bad pass, drives the lane, cuts through traffic to drop in a layup and I hear behind me -- could it be? -- the sound of clapping. I look around. Have I missed someone? Is there a Fever fan here after all?
Minutes later, No. 24 is back at it -- skying to rebound a teammate's miss, firing the outlet pass deftly out to the perimeter, jockeying for position in the key, then grabbing the dish and elevating for a short jumper -- and I hear it again. Not a swell of applause. Just the sound of one person clapping.
I finally identify the source of the dissonnant noise: a silver-haired woman clad in a Minnesota jersey. And though she also applauds a reverse layup by Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, a sweet jumper by Seimone Augustus and a Maya Moore trey, she continues to salute each great play by Indiana's Tamika Catching -- and there are a lot of them on this night as Catchings puts up 27 points, matching Augustus for the game high, while pulling down eight boards, handing out two assists, and grabbing two steals. Even when Catchings draws contact late in the second period, with the Lynx' Taj McWilliams-Franklin picking up her second personal, the silver-haired woman applauds as Catchings drops in both to put Indiana up by four.
Remarkably, none of the Lynx fans in the silver-haired woman's vicinity gives her a bit of grief for offering aid and comfort to the enemy. I had to find out what gives.
I low crawl over to the mystery woman during a break between quarters. "Did I get it right?" I ask. "Were you actually clapping for Tamika Catchings?"
"Oh, yeah," says the woman emphatically, identifying herself as Sally Standiford.
"But from your jersey, I'd think you were a Lynx fan," I follow.
She is, she tells me. Has been since the franchise got started back in 1999. Her favorite player is Taj McWilliams-Franklin, "because of the way she's mentoring the youngsters and the way that she's playing so smart at 42."
"So then why are you clapping for Tamika Catchings?"
"Well, she's just one of the best players in the game," comes the answer from Standiford, who describes herself as a fan not only of the Lynx but also of the "larger game."
No question Catchings is good. Very good. Since being drafted in 2001 by the Fever with the No. 3 overall pick, Catchings has become one of the most decorated players in the league's history. After sitting her first season recovering from an ACL injury suffered in college, Catchings got off to a strong start, named as the 2002 Rookie of the Year and finishing as runnerup for the league's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Awards. She is the only player in WNBA history ever to rank in the league's top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks in the same season, accomplishing the feat twice, in 2002 and in 2006, and has posted double-doubles in nearly a quarter of her professional outings.
And she's still going strong: The 2011 WNBA Most Valuable Player -- who won last year in a vote many felt was a lifetime achievement award bestowed by an admiring press after Catchings finished among the top three in MVP balloting in six of what were then her 10 active seasons, and among the top five MVP finishers in nine of her 10 active seasons -- consistently ranks among the league's top 10 in both scoring and rebounding. Though her college coach Pat Summitt has said that Catchings was not much of a defender when she arrived in Knoxville, she has certainly become one since then, taking the WNBA honors as Defensive Player of the Year an unprecedented five times.
On Wednesday, Catchings was named -- again -- to the All-WNBA First Team. It's her seventh selection to the distinguished list, more than any other active player in the league other than Seattle's Lauren Jackson, who has also been selected to the WNBA First Team seven times. In three other seasons over the course of her 12-year career in the league, the five-time WNBA All Star was named to the All-WNBA Second Team, placing her second in league history only to the now-retired Lisa Leslie who had eight first team and four second team selections over the course of her storied career. Catchings was also selected to the WNBA's All-Decade Team and more recently to the WNBA Top 15, which marked the league's 15th anniversary by honoring its top 15 all-time players.
Then there's the rest of the hardware, highlighted by three Olympic gold medals. Respected by her fellow athletes, Catchings serves as the current president of the WNBA Players Association; she was the first recipient of the Dawn Staley Leadership Award and the 2008 female recipient of the Henry P. Iba Citizen-Athlete Award. Deeply engrained in public service, Catchings has been a finalist for the United Nations NGO Positive Peace Award, as well as the 2006 Wooden Citizenship Cup and the Jefferson Award's "Dream Team for Public Service." She serves as a trustee for the Women's Sports Foundation, as an NBA/WNBA ambassador to the Dribble to Stop Diabetes Campaign, and as a spokesperson for Indy's Super Cure, an initiative of the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee supporting breast cancer research. She has appeared with First Lady Michelle Obama in support of the "Let's Move Campaign" to combat childhood obesity,
But as anyone who has been even half-conscious during television coverage of the Fever's nearly annual trips to the playoffs knows, there's one divot in Catchings' otherwise stellar basketball resume: a WNBA championship. Indiana came close, making it to the finals and taking Phoenix to five games, in 2009, but came up short. Catchings isn't getting any younger, leading many to believe that this year's campaign is the star's last best chance (albeit not a very good one, given the strength of Minnesota) at a ring.
But being good -- even great -- can't be the complete answer to how Catchings has commanded league-wide popularity. Some of the best players in the league have inspired equal passion on the part of their fans and their detractors. Leslie was roundly booed every time she entered an opponent's arena. Diana Taurasi is routinely heckled. Lauren Jackson, Tina Thompson, even Katie Smith have all had their harsh critics, happy to accuse them of "dirty" play, whether those accusations are warranted or not.
And, indeed, there is more to Sally Standiford's admiration for Catchings: "She has a remarkable personal story," says Standiford, referring to Catchings' fight to overcome the stigma many associated with her deafness as a child. Born with a binaural hearing disability, which in turn led to a mild speech impediment, she suffered so much teasing from her peers that she decided to throw her hearing aids away, hoping to end the bullying and embarassment. Her parents, however, decided to teach her a lesson and refused to replace them. She used the steadfast work ethic for which she has become known on the basketball court to compensate, learning to read lips, sitting near the front of the class, reading ahead so she would know what was going on, asking questions to be sure she understood.
Catchings turned to sports as well as to her faith to overcome the adversity life had thrown at her. "In the classroom, kids could make fun of me for being different," Catchings once wrote of her early years. "On the soccer field (my first sport) and eventually the basketball court, they couldn't. I outworked them, plain and simple. Eventually, I was better than them."
Catchings was still living -- and playing basketball -- without her hearing aids when she arrived at Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt and trainer Jenny Moshak confronted her about it.
"'Tamika,' Catchings recalled Summitt telling her, "'people wear glasses to help them see. Go to speech therapists to help them talk better. And wear hearing aids to help them hear. You have big goals in life, and we agree that it'd be best for you to go back to wearing hearing aids and to work with our university speech therapists.'"
Catchings took Summitt's advice, acquiring a new set of hearing aids that were much smaller and less clunky than the ones that had brought her ridicule as a child. Still, the going wasn't entirely easy. When Catchings would wear the equipment during games and practices, she would perspire so much they'd be constantly in the shop for repair.
Thinking back to my grandmother, who often avoided parties and other noisy settings because it would cause her hearing aids to whistle and crank out grating feedback, I once asked Catchings whether the noise of a basketball court ever created similar problems for her. No, she told me, but that's because she now wears a state-of-the-art set of hearing aids designed for her by Bill and Tani Austin and the Starkey Hearing Foundation, that have far superior technology to those used by many of the hearing-impaired.
With them, Catchings says she can hear what is going on on the basketball court, but acknowledges that she also uses other senses that she has come to rely on over the years to compensate for her hearing deficit -- her peripheral vision and an enhanced awareness of what is going on around her, a feel for motion or bodies in proximity to her, and a heightened anticipation of what is about to happen. Catchings says that in many ways these heightened senses and her tendency to be extremely observant of what is going on around her on the court give her an advantage over other players who tend to rely on hearing alone.
Beyond Catchings' skills and inspiring personal history, asks Standiford, "What's not to like about her?" Then she adds, "Except when she's playing you."
Despite her admiration for Catchings, Standiford is still rooting for her Lynx to win it all, again. "These are all good players," she says, pointing to the Lynx who are filing back onto the floor after the break in play. "I want them all to do their best. I just want our team to win."
"Lynx in four," she predicts.
Tamika Catchings drives to the basket on Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson (Photo by Lee Michaelson)
Not everyone in the arena is clapping for Catchings like Standiford, but she has plenty of fans there among the Lynx Nation nonetheless.
A trio of Lynx fans -- Connie, Lani and Lani's daughter Ceira, a sixth-grader who is just starting to play basketball this fall -- stand waiting near the tunnel to cheer on the home team as they enter the arena. Lani has been a fan of the Lynx for the past two-and-a-half years, she tells me; Connie for just about a year, since Minnesota was in its last title run. Both cite Candice Wiggins as their favorite Lynx player.
"She's just down to earth," says Lani. "She's just awesome on the court and off the court. Just a really incredible person."
Asked who's her favorite player on the Fever, Lani is even quicker to answer: "Tamika Catchings," she says with authority.
"I like her because I think she's very down to earth, she's very spiritual. I just like her as an all-around player. She just seems like a very kind person, just in general."
"If she wasn't playing the Lynx, yeah, of course I would" find it hard to cheer against Catchings, says Lani. "I think even the players would say they like her as a person. They played with her on the Olympics and on different venues and stuff. But when you come in this arena, this is our house. We're in it to win it. So that's the important thing."
And then Connie relents. "You know, it is hard. She seems like a very wonderful person. You want the best for her. But not against us."
As for Ceira, she thinks Catchings is "really good." But the Lynx: "They're great."
I find Frank in the crowd, not far from the Fever bench. He's one of the red-and-yellow clad fans I mistake for Indiana supporters. "No," he tells me. "Minnesota."
But he can't say enough about Tamika Catchings. "I'm very impressed," he says. "I knew how strong she was offensively, but she's incredible defensively."
Five-time defensive player of the year, I remind him.
"Yes, I know," he replies, "but until you see her in person -- I'd never seen her in person -- it's incredible!"
Three Olympic gold medals -- "That's pretty good," says Frank.
So does he find it difficult to cheer against her in her pursuit of a championship? "Well ...," Frank thinks a bit. "Well, maybe next year," he replies. This year, he's still with the Lynx. "But this is a great matchup," he adds. "No better matchup."
Though each has their home-team favorite, most of the fans I talk with voice views similar to those of Sharon, who shifted her allegiance from the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs to the Lynx after moving from California to Minneapolis and describes Mama Taj as her favorite Lynx player: "I love her spirit and I love her game," says Sharon.
Initially, she says she's not that familiar with the Indiana team, but when asked if she knows of Catchings, Sharon responds: "Oh, yeah, of course. She was on the Olympic team."
And she thinks it's great that Catchings has tied Jackson for the highest number of All-WNBA First Team selections among players active in the league and achieved her many other honors.
But like most of the Lynx fans I speak with, Sharon says that much as she may admire Catchings, she has no problem cheering against her, at least when she's playing the Lynx. "I'm true to my home team. I want them to win," Sharon explains. If it weren't the Lynx in the Finals, she'd be more than happy to root for Catchings and Indiana.
But despite their protestations, when you watch these fans in action, you don't see them cheering against Catchings. Rather, they're cheering for the Lynx. And that's most definitely not the case with many other WNBA stars.
At the end of the day, trying to find someone with a bad word to say about Catchings is difficult. "I think it's going to be hard," to find a Catchings' hater, Lani observes. "She's just got a wonderful presence about her."
Indeed, it is hard, about as difficult as -- well, as difficult as finding an Indiana fan at Target Center for Game Two Thursday night.
- Minnesota wears down Indiana in Game Two
- Charles headlines 2012 All-WNBA First Team; Catchings earns seventh first-team nod
- Lin Dunn leverages the matchups into Indiana win over Lynx in WNBA Finals opener
- Indiana's Catchings honored as top defensive player