<strong>Owner Herb Simon hoists the 2012 WNBA Championship trophy as, from left, Erin Phillips, Erlana Larkins, Tamika Catchings, General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, Shavonte Zellous, head coach Lin Dunn and other Fever players join the celebration of a title that had been long in coming. (Photo by Lee MIchaelson)</strong>
Owner Herb Simon hoists the 2012 WNBA Championship trophy as, from left, Erin Phillips, Erlana Larkins, Tamika Catchings, General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, Shavonte Zellous, head coach Lin Dunn and other Fever players join the celebration of a title that had been long in coming. (Photo by Lee MIchaelson)

The long wait is over in Indianapolis

Publisher
October 23, 2012 - 9:24pm

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a long time coming, this shiny silver trophy. They've gathered in the lobby of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to celebrate as rain has driven the festivities indoors, cancelling the planned parade. But the weather has done nothing to dampen the spirits of the fans who have taken time out in the middle of their workday or of the team whose ultimate success, so long in arriving, they have assembled here to salute.

"Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance," Samuel Johnson wrote long ago. This Indiana championship proved him right nearly three centuries later.

You'll Google in vain for a single basketball pundit who predicted the Fever would emerge as the 2012 WNBA champions. FullCourt.com was one of the few to predict that the Fever had a chance, that at the very least, they would make a tough series of it.

Lin Dunn herself was quick to concede on Sunday night, after her injury-addled squad did what most thought was impossible in dethroning the reigning champs, that when it came to strength -- as measured by raw talent -- the Fever weren't supposed to win.

"Well, on paper we're not supposed to win, it doesn't look like. You know what I'm saying. [The Minnesota Lynx] had three Olympians, and we had one. And they had a longer bench than we did. But only five people can be at the floor at one time," Dunn continued. "And I thought the people that we played were so focused in on winning a championship not only  for themselves but for [Tamika] Catchings, for [Katie] Douglas, for [Tammy]. Sutton-Brown. ... A lot of emotional things came into play here that somehow overcame the talent."

For Catchings. When thinking about how long this championship has been in the making, one's mind turns first to the 2011 MVP. As Dunn noted, "Everybody talks about the missing piece in Tamika Catchings' career, and our players took that personally. I really believe that was an incentive ...."

Tamika and Harvey Catchings

Tamika Catchings displays the 2012 WNBA Championship Trophy and her 2012 WNBA Finals MVP award as she receives a hug from her father, Harvey Catchings, who played 11 years in the NBA. "Can you imagine?" said the elder Catchings, beaming with pride at his daughter's accomplishment. "Isn't it something?" (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Perseverance could be the middle name of Fever star Tamika Catchings. If, as the WNBA promo tells us, this league has been "all about the 'W,'" then two "Ws" have marked Catchings' career -- Waiting and Working.

Catchings' career in the pros started with waiting. Lin Dunn was still in Seattle, taking Lauren Jackson with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001. Nell Fortner was still at the helm in Indianapolis, surprising many when she took Catchings for the Fever at No. 3 overall that year. Catchings' stock had once been higher -- the previous season she been named Naismith Player of the Year after leading Tennessee to the NCAA championship game for the second season in a row. But 17 games into her senior season, after leading the Lady Vols to a 16-1 record and a No. 2 rating in the national polls, Catchings tore her ACL, sidelining her for the remainder of the season. Though she finished her collegiate career as one of the few four-time Kodak All-Americans, on draft day in 2001, the injury made her an unknown quantity, and both Catchings and the Fever would wait a year to discover whether she still had game.

As we all know now, she did. Despite reinjuring the knee, tearing the medial meniscus during a Fever practice in  early July 2001 and undergoing surgery to repair both injuries that summer, Catchings took the epic work ethic she had developed while struggling to succeed in school as a deaf child without the help of hearing aids (Catchings had thrown the clunky devices away after being ridiculed by her school mates, and her parents had given her a lesson in tough love by refusing to replace them) and pushed herself back to peak form in 2002. She won the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award in 2002 and was runner-up for both the league's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Awards that summer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the years that followed Catchings became one of the most highly decorated players in the WNBA who never won a professional championship -- until two nights ago. She won WNBA Defensive Player of the Year honors an unprecedented five times, including this season. She was named to the All-WNBA First Team seven times, and to the second team three more, becoming, together with Jackson, one of the two active players most frequently named to the honorary squads and the second most-often so-honored player in league history, behind the storied Lisa Leslie. Catchings is the only player in WNBA history to have finished in the league's top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks all in the same season, and she's accomplished the feat not once, but twice, in 2002 and again in 2006. She has registered double-doubles in nearly a quarter of her professional appearances, and ranks among the top 10 in scoring and rebounding on nearly an annual basis. She was named to the WNBA's All-Decade and Top 15 teams, named in honor of the league's tenth and 15th anniversaries.

In 2011, after six years of finishing among the top three in the balloting and nine years among the league's top five MVP finishers, Catchings was named the WNBA's Most Valuable Player. There were other championships -- in Korea, as a star for Woori Bank, in the World Championships for USA Basketball in 2002 and 2010, in the Olympics where she picked up her third gold medal this summer in London. But a WNBA championship continued to elude her.

Catchings and the Fever had come close to a championship on several occasions. In 2007, Indiana made its way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where tied with the Detroit Shock at 1-1 in the series, and leading 17-3 in the early going of Game Three, Catchings, who had missed much of the latter half of the season with a partial tear of her plantar fascia, went down with a torn Achilles tendon. The Shock went on to win the game (85-61) and the series, but fell to the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals. Two years later, the Fever stood on the cusp of the championship, leading the Mercury 2-1 in the 2009 WNBA Finals; but Phoenix stole Game Four at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and the series returned to Phoenix, where the Mercury took their second title. Last season, the pieces seemed to be in place for another deep run into the playoffs for the Fever, seeded first in the East, only to see themselves upset by the third-seeded Atlanta Dream, after Catchings again tore her plantar fascia but tried to play through it.

And so, that glaring hole in Catchings' distinguished resume remained. Until Sunday night.

After the game, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve talked about the challenge of trying to keep her team hungry after having attained the top of the women's basketball mountain. Quoting her player Candice Wiggins, who said early in the season, "The hungry lion hunts best," Reeve noted, "I think for us we had our challenges with the idea of being hungrier than the teams we were playing. Once you have something, it's human nature to not be as hungry as someone else who doesn't have it."

If Catchings and her Fever had a challenge, it was not in keeping touch with their hunger for something they had never had, it was in hanging on to the hope needed to keep their perseverance alive through all of the injuries, setbacks and near misses. So it was a hungry, and most-deserving Tamika Catchings, who, her facing streaming with tears of joy, accepted the 2012 WNBA Finals MVP trophy from league president Laurel Richie Sunday night. The reigning champs had not gone down easily. After watching the Fever go up by nine in the first period, the Lynx battled back to tie the score at 38 all as Lindsay Whalen dished to Rebekkah Brunson for a three-footer late in the second period. It was Catchings who pulled up for a long jumper seconds later to put the Fever back on top, and more often than not, it would be Catchings with the answer each time the Lynx rallied.

And rally they would. In the third quarter, the Fever would run their lead back up to 10, as Briann January drove the lane for a finger roll. Whalen, who for a while seemed to have found the hidden trail to the hoop as she penetrated time after time, drained a short jumper, and again it was Catchings, with a running bank shot, who made it a 10-point game. Maya Moore and Brunson again combined to tie the score at 56 with less than three minutes remaining in the third period. Again, it was Catchings, denying the Lynx the chance to gain traction, draining a long trey, then picking off a pass by the typically sure-handed Whalen and delivering it down court, where Jessica Davenport laid it in to make it a five-point game. Throughout the night, Catchings made sure that the Lynx would lead for only 18 seconds, the 18 seconds that followed Taj McWilliams-Franklin dropping in the opening points of the game. Whether it was scoring (a game-high 25 points), facilitating her teammates (eight assists, tying Whalen for the game-high in dishes), or swatting down blocks (three of them, once again a game high), Catchings made sure this final game would be a defensive battle, in which the Lynx, never the Fever, would have to fight from behind.

No one could help but be happy for Catchings as she stood on the podium, her face glowing as the tears flowed, her father, former NBA player Harvey Catchings hugging her close, her college coach in the stands watching with pride, sharing the moment with teammates and fans. Even Reeve had to acknowledge, "[O]bviously, you've got some quality people on the Indiana roster, starting with Tamika Catchings. There's not anybody that cannot be happy for Tamika Catchings to finally get a championship. We were trying to keep her from getting it, but it just didn't happen, and now that she's got it, she's easy to be happy for."

But if Catchings had waited a long 12 years for that championship, there were others in the arena on Sunday night and on stage in the Bankers Life lobby on Tuesday who had waited nearly as long, and in some cases even longer.

For Douglas. There was her running mate, Katie Douglas, who began her WNBA career the same year as Catchings, drafted in the first round in 2001 by the Orlando Miracle, which has since moved to Uncasville to become the Connecticut Sun. Like Catchings, Douglas had helped her college team, Purdue, to the NCAA championship, its first, as just a sophomore in 1999, and like Catchings, she has waited 12 long years to repeat that experience as a pro. Douglas, a four-time WNBA All-Star, a four-time selectee to the All-WNBA team and a five-time WNBA All-Defensive Team honoree, followed the Miracle to Connecticut before returning to her Indiana roots in 2008. Since then, she has consistently been the Fever's second-leading scorer and one of the top-scoring guards in the game.

Douglas was there, sharing the disappointment, when the Mercury snatched the 2009 title out from beneath the Fever, and she was there again, on the sidelines, cheering on her teammates as they brought the title home. It was Douglas, in large part, who had put the Fever in a position to win it all this season, coming up big in the decisive game against Atlanta (24 points, including three-of-six from the arc) and then pouring it on with 27 and 24-point performances in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against her former team, the top-seeded Connecticut Sun.

And then, just five minutes into Game Three against the Sun, Douglas went down, hard, badly spraining her ankle, and was able to do little more than cheerlead from the sidelines the rest of the way. There had been high hopes that Douglas would make an appearance in Game Four after she had joined the team in shoot-around on Sunday morning, then laced her swollen leg into a special brace, worn under her sock, as she suited up for the first time in the Finals series on Sunday night. But though Dunn, in typical style, wasn't giving anything away, she knew that while the desire might be there, Douglas' ankle was not yet ready to answer the call. So Katie Douglas again watched from the bench, able to do nothing but cheer, as her teammates brought home the title she had waited for so long.

But in a touch of class, also so typical of the veteran coach, Dunn used a January free-throw with 3.2 seconds left in the game, as an opportunity to insert the injured star into the game. And the crowd, as could have been predicted, found some way to go even wilder than they already were on the cusp of their championship. "I was so glad that I had the opportunity to insert Katie there at the end of the game so the crowd could acknowledge her and the contributions she's made," said Dunn. "When Katie went down, [our players] wanted to win it for her," she added.

Katie Douglas checks in Katie Douglas, who had been sidelined with a severely sprained ankle throughout the Finals series, prepares to check in for the final seconds of Sunday's Game Four to an ovation from the Indianapolis crowd. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

For Sutton-Brown. Tammy Sutton-Brown, remarkably, joined the league the same year as Catchings and Douglas, heading first to the now-defunct Charlotte Sting, who drafted her early in the second round. She, too, has been waiting 12 years for a WNBA championship, but unlike Catchings and Douglas, who knew peak success as collegians, Sutton-Brown helped her Rutgers squad to reach the NCAA Final Four for the first time ever in 2000, but even there, the championship eluded her.

Since then, Sutton-Brown has appeared in the playoffs in nine of the 12 seasons of her WNBA career. This was her third trip to the WNBA Finals, where she watched the brass ring escape her grasp in 2001 with Charlotte and again in 2009, when the Fever came oh, so close. And you could not have told from the smile on her face, that this year, the aging center had suffered what some might have considered the ultimate indignity: After Sutton-Brown had managed just four points and two boards in a humiliating 66-75 home loss that opened the Fever's 2012 playoff series against the Atlanta Dream, Dunn moved the veteran to the bench, seeking better rebounding elsewhere.

In the nine playoff games that followed, Sutton-Brown saw just a little more than five minutes per game, not appearing at all in the final game against Connecticut or in the first two of the Finals series against the Lynx, and making only a token appearance (24 seconds) in Sunday's title game against Minnesota. Ever the team player, the former Canadian Olympian and two-time WNBA All-Star accepted her move to the bench without complaint, and was ready to do what was asked of her in the limited minutes she saw, putting up 11 points and grabbing five rebounds in just 13 minutes in Atlanta, to return that series to Indianapolis, and chipping in eight points and three rebounds in the Fever's opening game loss to Connecticut.

For the others. Then there were the rest of the Fever parts and pieces. None, individually, had as much time in the league as Catchings, Douglas or Sutton-Brown, but cumulatively they represent 27 years of waiting for a championship. Briann January, perhaps one of the most underestimated members of the Fever roster, was a rookie in 2009 when the Fever made their first appearance in the Finals, only to lose out to Phoenix. Her Arizona State Sun Devils never got close to the NCAA championship, and last year, when she thought the Fever finally had its best chance, she was sidelined by a torn ACL just 10 games into the season.

"Last year I felt like we had what it took to get it to the championship, and I was sidelined," said January after Sunday's trophy ceremony. "Tamika [Catchings] was in my ear the entire time, keeping me positive, letting me know that this was the time I needed to work so I could make the team better when I got back. That was my goal, was coming back this year, and just doing whatever I could to take us up another notch. I know we made it to the Playoffs but we wanted to take another step this year, and I think we really did. I think, man, every day I was working was for this moment, last year, just every day of rehab was for this moment.

"I just thank my teammates because they were there for me every day; Tamika especially, she was there being positive and telling me just to keep working, and we did it. We did it!"

January Drives Briann January heads to the hole for two of her 15 points in Game Four, but it was her excellent defense on Lynx Olympian Seimone Augustus that made the greatest contribution to the Fever's victory. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

They sure did, and next to Catchings' do-it-all performance, January's lock-down defense on the Lynx' Seimone Augustus may be the biggest reason why we're celebrating a title in Indianapolis today, not traveling to Minneapolis for Game Five. The 6-0 Augustus, who was the MVP of last year's WNBA Finals, has four inches on January, and the two-time Olympic gold medalist got the better of many a skilled defender this season, averaging 16.6 points per game on just shy of 50-percent field-goal shooting (.491) and a healthy 43.7 percent from long distance. So the Fever veterans were a bit skeptical when Dunn first announced the move:

"Man, Lin made the switch-up after Game 2 [of the WNBA Finals] when we lost up there [in Minneapolis]. 'We're going to put Bri on Seimone.' And I know everybody was like, 'Okay, Bri is a little bit shorter than Seimone ...,'" recalled Catchings.

But Dunn knew that her point guard was "tougher than nails on defense," and the doggedly persistent and quick January, who was known for her defense in the PAC-10 where she was twice named Defensive Player of the Year (2008, 2009), showed why that reputation has followed her into the pros with an All-WNBA Defensive First Team nod this season. January, backed by the team defense of the rest of the Fever lineup, held Augustus to just six points on three-of-nine shooting in Friday's Game Three Indiana victory and to eight points on a dreadful three-of-21 from the field and 0-for-four from the arc in Sunday's championship game.

"[W]e've got confidence in her," Catchings continued, "and she came and really I think just set the tone straight from the beginning. They could not get [Augustus] the ball. All her touches were hard. All the baskets that she made, she used up her energy, probably in the first quarter, and really like the rest of the time, it was like dribbling the ball off her knee, off her foot. I thought Bri set the tone early on and made it hard for her."

Then there's Erlana Larkins, Dunn's choice to replace Sutton-Brown in the starting five, and whose performance on the boards since then has earned her the moniker "The Beast" from her teammates. Dunn said it repeatedly throughout the Finals' series -- "If we [win] the boards, we'd win the game; if we win the game, we win the championship."

But on paper, at least -- based on height, records, you name it, the Lynx looked like the team far more likely to rule the boards, as they did in Game Two of the series in Minneapolis, where Minnesota finished with 32-20 rebounding advantage, including an overwhelming 17-2 edge on the offensive glass, to take that game in an 83-71 rout.

Larkins Defends Augustus

The Fever's Erlana Larkins gets a hand in the face of the Lynx' Seimone Augustus, who was held to just eight points in Game Four. Larkins, who made the first starts of her pro career when Lin Dunn radically altered her lineup mid-playoffs, hauled down a game-high 13 rebounds in Game Four to give the Fever control of the boards. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Dunn found the solution in what to most would have seemed an unlikely spot. Larkins had plenty to celebrate just for having gotten the chance to play in the WNBA this season, much less to have helped her team to the title in the process. Drafted in 2008 out of North Carolina, where she made it to the Final Four, but not to a college championship, Larkins rode the pines in New York for a year and a half, before being waived first by the Liberty and the following year by the Mercury. She headed to Europe, where she made a name for herself with her rebounding in the Turkish league before Dunn gave her a second chance in the WNBA this season. Even then, Larkins once again held down the bench until after putting up 11 points and pulling down five boards (plus delivering two swats) off the bench in the Fever's opening playoff game loss to Atlanta, Dunn made the bold move that would give Larkins her chance to shine.

What were the Fever's chance of winning this championship without Larkins? "Slim and none," was Dunn's answer. "You know, I've coached for 42 years and probably the best coaching adjustment I ever have made in my life was when I inserted Erlana Larkins into the starting lineup in the Atlanta series. I've been thinking about doing it but I loved her coming off the bench; I loved her energy; I loved her sixth man, but I didn't love how we were starting the game getting beat on the boards. So putting her in the lineup, telling her how important she was and what we needed her to do was huge, and we would not be here today if we hadn't done that. No doubt.

"Kudos to Larkins," Dunn continued. "How many [rebounds] did she get tonight [in Game Four]? Only 13. Oh, shucks!"

And what about Erin Phillips? Once a member of Australia's Olympic team, she lost that chance this year in part because she chose to divide her time between the Fever and preparing in Australia, rather than heading back home full time. Then, after replacing January at the point in the starting lineup after her injury last season, Phillips found herself once again relegated to the bench. Phillips could have been bitter, but instead she invested her energy in making sure she was ready.

And she was ready when she got the call, when Dunn restructured her lineup after the opening round loss to the Dream. Phillips had once been hesitant to pull the trigger, recalled Catchings. But her teammates told her, "'Erin, you're a scorer; when you touch the ball, shoot the ball. You're a three-point threat, so you don't need to put the ball down, you just need to shoot."

And Phillips got the message, moving back to the starting rotation, replacing Shavonte Zellous, and proceeding to post double-digit scoring in six of the Fever's next nine playoff games. She improved steadily, more than doubling her regular-season scoring production in the WNBA Finals, culminating in her 18-point outing in the championship game in which she also contributed eight boards to the team rebounding effort the Fever needed so badly to prevail.

"I think Erin's game went to a whole 'nother level during the playoffs," said Catchings, "knocking down wide-open threes, being able to get to the basket. Even from a defensive standpoint, when we put her on Whalen, I thought she wore Whalen down, too. She got off a little bit tonight. But the last couple games I felt EP did a really good job on Whalen, too."

As for Zellous, her term on the bench was brief, as Douglas' injury in Game Three against the Sun resulted in a return to the starting five for the Pitt product. Zellous, too, more than doubled her regular-season production, averaging 17 points per game in the WNBA Finals. Zellous was a virtual font of energy, leading the Fever to their Game Three victory with a career-high 30 points, and though she had a tougher time finding her stroke in Sunday's final, she nevertheless followed up with 15 points, four rebounds and even two blocks in Sunday's title game. She greeted Sunday's trophy ceremony with an almost childlike enthusiasm, and she was still dancing with joy at Tuesday's celebration.

It was Zellous who came in after the intermission Sunday and helped shut the door on Whalen's path to the basket off the middle screen and roll. Zellous described herself as having been in a zone she had never experienced before in that pivotal game on Friday, and that energy carried over to Game Four as well.

"A little bit [more in the zone on Friday], because I knew that Minnesota was going to come out hungry. In Game Two, they came out and put us on our heels. We weren't going to allow that to happen, and we came out with a win."

January Zellous celebrate The Fever's Briann January (20) and Shavonte Zellous (1) celebrate after Zellous knocks down a trey to give Indiana an eight-point lead heading into the final five minutes of Game Four Sunday. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

After all the injuries and lineup changes, there wasn't a whole lot left to the Fever bench, but they've been waiting too, albeit not as long. Six-foot wing Karima Christmas has bounced around a lot in her two years  in the league, starting in Washington out of Duke as a late second-round draft pick in 2011, then moving to Tulsa midway through the 2011 season, starting this season in Oklahoma, then traded to the Fever in July of this year. Christmas has spent nearly her entire career in the pros coming off the bench, averaging just three points per game. But when Jeanette Pohlen, who comes off the Indiana bench ahead of her, tore her ACL in Game Two against Minnesota, Christmas was ready to answer the call, and her plays were noteworthy not for the volume of her points but for their timing. It was Christmas taking a feed from Catchings and knocking down a huge trey early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's final, just when the Lynx had once again closed to within three points. It was Christmas again, a minute-and-a-half later, whose swat denied a Maya Moore bunny.

Jessica Davenport spent her first two years in the WNBA in New York and the last four with the Fever, coming off the bench for most of her time in the league. Davenport is one of the five Fever players who returned from the 2009 Finals disappointment, but it is telling that when Dunn went looking for more power on the boards, she didn't turn to the 6-5 relief center from Ohio State, nor to her back-up, Sasha Goodlett, a rookie out of Georgia Tech, who saw only four minutes in the campaign. Davenport averaged nearly 11 points, plus almost five boards a game in 2011, but saw those numbers fall to just 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game this year. Her minutes were limited in this season's playoffs, though she did see her best performance, on the backboards anyway, during Game Three, when she added six rebounds, to Larkins' tally of 15, in 18 minutes off the bench.

All told, these role players, plus the injured Jeanette Pohlen, represent 27 years of waiting for a professional basketball championship, on top of the 36 years for which Catchings, Douglas, and Sutton-Brown have been waiting. Even so, there are others whose waits have been longer.

For Simon and Krauskopf. Fever Chief Operating Officer and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf and owner Herb Simon, the Chief Executive Officer of Pacers Sports and Entertainment, have been with the Fever since the franchise began in 2000. Krauskopf has never had a No. 1 draft pick to work with, but in the women's basketball equivalent of Moneyball's Oakland As, she has gradually assembled the role players around the team's two stars -- Catchings and Douglas, whom she brought home to Indiana from Connecticut -- all the while carrying the torch for a championship that at times must have seemed hopelessly out of reach.

As for Simon, he persevered well after many of the other NBA owners David Stern had strong-armed into sponsoring women's teams in 1997 had raised the white flag. In 2009, after nearly a decade of financial losses, even he began to lose hope, serving notice that if the team did not show success -- and soon -- both on the court and at the box office, its days in Indianapolis would be numbered. The Fever answered that call with their run to the brink of a championship that season, filling the stands in their two home Finals games that year, and Simon relented, setting the stage for Sunday night's triumph. Simon and Krauskopf have 26 years of waiting between them, and their joy was palpable during the ceremonies on Sunday night and again today.

For Lin Dunn. Lin Dunn has been waiting longer than any of them. In 42 years of coaching, she's never enjoyed a professional or national championship, though she's come excruciatingly close at times. As a college coach, she took Purdue to the Big Ten title three times. She made seven trips to the NCAA tournament, four to the Sweet Sixteen, and even one to the Final Four (1994), but despite a 206-68 record, Dunn had moved on by the time Douglas and the Boilermakers took home their first (and last, to date) NCAA championship in 1999.

Dunn with Trophy Coach Lin Dunn cradles the 2012 WNBA Championship trophy Sunday, savoring her first professional or collegiate national championship after 42 years in coaching, as Fever General Manager Kelly Krauskopf and Fever guard Shavonte Zellous share the moment. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Indeed, despite an impressive cumulative college coaching record of 447-257, none of the programs -- Austin Peay, Miami, Ole Miss and Purdue -- where Dunn served as head coach earned an NCAA or, earlier, AIAW, national championship during her tenure. Dunn also served as an assistant coach for USA Basketball's gold-medal winning 1992 Olympic and 1990 World Championship and Goodwill Games teams, but as a head coach, she settled for the bronze with the 1995 USA Jones Cup team.

Her career as a pro coach began not with the WNBA, but with its one-time rival, the American Basketball League. In just her second year as head coach of the Portland Power, she earned Coach of the Year honors while taking her team from that league's basement to a 27-17 record and the Western Conference Championship. She was on course to take the Power to the ABL title the following year, but that's when, with the Power in first place at 9-4, the ABL closed its doors shortly before Christmas 1998.

Dunn moved on to become the first head coach and general manager of the Seattle Storm when that franchise opened in 2000, the same year as the Indiana Fever. It was Dunn who secured the talents of Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird with the top picks in the 2001 and 2002 WNBA Drafts, respectively, but once again, Dunn, who took the Storm from a 6-26 record in their first year to a playoff appearance in 2002, would be gone before those and other acquisitions would bear fruit in the team's first championship in 2004 under Anne Donovan.

Next up for Dunn was a stint first as a scout for the Indiana Fever under former coach Nell Fortner (2003) and later as an assistant coach to Brian Winters for the Fever (2004-07), where Dunn took over the reins as head coach in 2008. Since Dunn took the helm, the Fever have never seen a losing season; they have made the playoffs every year, advancing as far as the WNBA Finals in 2009, and to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. (The Fever also made the playoffs in 2005-07, with Dunn assisting Winters, advancing as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005 and 2007.)

And so Sunday's victory also came as a long awaited moment for Dunn, who despite the crusty, tough-as-nails demeanor she habitually maintains, was seen wiping away tears during the trophy ceremony. Dunn had to clear her throat several times as she told reporters,

"I didn't win a championship [with the American Basketball League]. I won the conference championship there. The last something similar to this was going way back I was an assistant coach for the World Championship gold medal team. ... Big Ten championships, been to the Final Four. But this is a significant moment in my career. You know, I've finished second a lot of times, and we've been to the Finals, like we did in '09, but to take this team all the way to the Finals, and finish it off with a trophy, is really big."

For the Hoosiers. But even Dunn hasn't waited the longest for this championship. Indiana considers itself the epicenter of U.S. basketball, and it is a true sports powerhouse,  home to 10 professional sports teams, including two of the "bigs" in the Pacers and the Colts, as well as to NCAA headquarters. But though the Colts have won a championship, defeating the Chicago Bears, 29-17, to win Super Bowl XLI in 2006, the city has come up dry on the basketball court. The Pacers won three ABA championships, and Reggie Miller helped lead the team to the playoffs in 14 out of his 17 seasons with the team. But when it comes to championships, the Pacers have come up empty since joining the NBA in 1976. The closest they've gotten was in the 1998-99 season, their inaugural year in what was then known as Conseco Fieldhouse; they lost to the Lakers in six games.

The City of Indianapolis has been waiting for a basketball championship for 36 years. And perhaps that's why it meant so much when Reggie Miller tweeted Erin Phillips shortly before Game Four Sunday.

"It's unreal," declared the Aussie guard. "Oh, my God, it was about four o'clock and he tweeted me. He was looking forward to watching me and Tamika [Catchings] play tonight. I dropped my phone. I had to pick it up and read it again. He's my hero. When I got a tweet from him, I was like, 'Okay, we have to do this -- Reggie's tweeting at me. There's no turning back. He's going to be watching.' It was just awesome."

That long wait for the city might also explain why Paul George joined two of his Pacers teammates, as well as the Pacers' head coach Frank Vogel, in buying 4,000 tickets, distributing them free to fans for Friday's Game Three, and why he was back in the front row again on Sunday, cheering the Fever on to victory. It takes a certain class for a man to support a woman's team's efforts to do what his own team has been unable to do, but George said he wanted the fans to have a chance to be there and witness a basketball championship come to their home town. Though he takes some grief from other men who question his support for the women's game, George shrugs it off. "Anyone who's a true fan of the game of basketball -- men's or women's -- has gotta love this," he said, pointing to the court where the Fever were battling to hang on to what was then a five-point lead.

That long wait may also explain why fans of Indianapolis snapped up those tickets -- and anything else they could find -- in less than an hour last Thursday. Why the same thing happened when five members of the Indianapolis Colts banded together to donate 2,500 tickets for fans for Sunday's decisive game. Why the 15.213 fans who filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse to standing-room-only capacity for the second game in a row on Sunday remained on their feet, with virtually no one heading toward the exits, through the Trophy Ceremony on Sunday. Why the governor of Indiana declared Tuesday "WNBA World Champions Indiana Fever Day" throughout the state. And why, despite the demands of the workday, hundreds of them streamed back to the Fieldhouse through the rain on their lunch hours Tuesday to celebrate the triumph, and the team that had brought it to them, one more time. The downtown parade might have been canceled, moving the festivities inside the Fieldhouse lobby, but the jubilation was not, as Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and Congressman Andre Carson joined Dunn, Simon and Krauskopf, Catchings, Douglas, Sutton-Brown and the rest of the Fever, but most of all the Fever Faithful who persevered, waiting for this championship for so long it seemed it might never happen.

 


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