MINNEAPOLIS — It’s one thing to leave your mark on a team and a sport. It’s another to leave a piece of yourself that stays on after you’re gone.
And regardless of how corny or cliché it might sound, that is exactly what Indiana forward Tamika Catchings is doing. She has been forthright about how much time is still on the clock. The curtains will close on her playing career next year, whenever the 2016 WNBA season finishes for the Fever.
She knows exactly how she wants this all to end. You’re thinking, “With a championship, right?” Sure, but that’s not something she can plan on, not this year, with the Fever playing in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET), or next.
What Catchings is sure of, though, is that a leadership torch that is not passed on means that it’s been dropped. That’s something Catchings absolutely won’t let happen.
“At the start of this season, the first team meeting,” Catchings said, “I let people know, ‘I have two years left. What I don’t want is for me to do everything. And me to take all the leadership and responsibility on the court, and then I leave and nobody knows what to do.’
“So I’ve really taken it upon myself to give [my teammates] more responsibility. Because my goal before I leave is to help them be the best teammate that they can be, the best player, and hopefully the best leaders. That’s my goal before I walk away.”
Of course, these statements are all the more resonant because this is how Catchings has been since she played her first game for the Fever in 2002. Even as a rookie, she was immediately a leader because of her talent and hustle.
She was instantly a high-level, pro-ready defensive player. She worked on the offensive end to expand her shooting range and improve her passing. She became, very quickly in fact, a perennial MVP candidate. She won that award in the 2011 season.
Then she and the Fever won the league championship in 2012, and they’re playing for another one here at Target Center in Minnesota. But win or lose, Catchings’ reputation is already golden.
Teammate Briann January referenced the recent espnW best women’s basketball player ever bracket, which, understandably, she didn’t agree with. No offense to winner Diana Taurasi, but January would have voted for someone else.
“I could be biased,” January said, “but I can’t imagine any other more all-around great player, leader, and person than Catch.
“I really didn’t know the magnitude when I was drafted here, but over my seven seasons, the example she set has changed the way I play this game and the way I lead as a point guard, for the positive. It has made me better.”
“I can’t imagine any other more all-around great player, leader and person than Catch. … Over my seven seasons, the example she set has changed the way I play this game and the way I lead as a point guard, for the positive. It has made me better.”
Indiana guard Briann January on Tamika Catchings
And January points specifically to the way Catchings, especially this season, has been nudging everyone else forward into the spotlight. Catchings wants everyone else to chat with the media, to do television interviews. At a time when some players would be consumed only with their numbers, Catchings couldn’t care less about that part of history. She is interested in the people who’ll keep playing for Indiana after her.
Catchings gave her teammates journals before the WNBA Finals and told them to write down all their experiences, aware that those will be precious memories that one day that they’ll be very thankful they chronicled.
“Knowing her time is dwindling down, she basically has put us through this leadership-training thing, and it’s been awesome,” January said. “To see the people step up in our group, it’s really helped us down the stretch.
“We have been faced with times when Catch gets in foul trouble, and we have other people to carry us, and that’s been huge. Her value, you can’t put the real worth on that. It’s unbelievable what she’s done.”
The opposition notices all of this, too.
“The ability to lead in the locker room is a very rare thing,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “To be able to get people to follow you — not just to hear you, but to take it and then apply it — that’s a gift.”
That’s a quality that in its most pure form, most fans and media really never see. Because it doesn’t just happen in games, but in practices and strength workouts and all the time that a team privately spends together. The people who are true leaders are that way no matter the time, place or circumstances.
“I remember what was important to me as a player was they would walk the walk,” Reeve said of what she looked for in leaders. “You’re not going to tell me to play hard, or be disciplined, or do things the right way if you’re not going to do it yourself. So you have to have that believability in your own accountability.
“And then from there, I think it’s the way you communicate. If you demoralize or are condescending, people are not going to buy into it. So it’s how you treat people.”
As with everything else she does, Catchings has been consistently great at that, too.
“You look at Tamika Catchings, it doesn’t matter who she’s around,” Reeve said. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anybody who came into contact with Tamika and didn’t think instantly, ‘What an amazing human being.’ And so when you have that at the core, it just makes you want to do things for her.”
“When we won in 2012, everybody wanted it for Tamika,” Indiana coach Stephanie White said. “Everybody wants it for her now because she’s such a special, selfless person. I’ve said all along one of the greatest things she’s done all season long is empower her teammates, trust them, believe in them. And in turn, helping them believe in themselves.
“I think it’s special … you don’t always have a superstar player that everybody rallies around.”
Let alone superstars who gracefully and voluntarily ease themselves out of the spotlight.
“The things that make players great are also what can become their greatest weaknesses when they age or get injured,” White said. “Because you still think you can do the things you’ve always done. Well, maybe your mind can do them, but your body cannot. And it’s just a reality.
“Since I’ve been here, Tamika and I have had a lot of conversations about that. We talked about transferring that mindset from being the piece to being a piece. I think that is one of the things I am most proud of her for, because she has taken that to heart.”
Catchings averaged 13.1 points during the 2015 regular season, her lowest scoring average since 13.3 in 2008, a season in which she battled injury and was also dealing with the fatigue of playing in the Olympics. During these WNBA Finals, she’s averaged 10.8 points. The Fever’s top scorers in this series are January (16.0), Marissa Coleman (13.5) and Shenise Johnson (13.0).
“So many times, we get caught up in the numbers; she’s not putting up 20 and 10,” White said of Catchings’ scoring and rebounding averages. “Well, she’s adding three or four more assists. And what she does in terms of spacing on the floor allows Marissa, Shenise, and Bri to get into double figures, because [defenses] have to guard her.
“Her communication, her aggression, her positioning on defense directly impacts our team’s synergy on that end of the floor. We can move her around in ways we can’t move a lot of other players on our team.”
Yet as irreplaceable as Catchings seems for the Fever, who drafted her at No. 3 in 2001 when she had a knee injury, she wants her younger teammates to believe they really can carry on without her when the time comes, and still be successful. Those that competed with her can always keep a part of her with them — and then pass it on to those younger players who won’t get that chance.
“I think the thing Tamika can always hang her hat on is how hard she plays,” Reeve said. “Because that’s such a big part of her game. I can’t imagine her ever being on the floor and not giving what she gives. It’s just innate to her.”