Older, wiser -- and stronger than ever

Tamika Catchings spent the winter in Poland, getting a good look at the country and finding a new home away from home. Meanwhile, back in Knoxville, Tenn., Catchings' former coach was at times feeling like she wished she was somewhere in Europe, too.

Just like other Tennessee alumni, Catchings always has been able to call Pat Summitt to get advice and encouragement. But during the past college season, the former players were also giving back those things to Summitt. She won her 1,000th career game, but had a difficult season that ended in an unprecedented (for Tennessee) loss in the NCAA tournament's first round.

"I'd call her and say, 'It's OK, they'll get it. It may take awhile, but they'll get it eventually,'" Catchings said of the conversations she and Summitt would have about the current Tennessee players. "We'd talk about the different mentality that players have now even compared to when we came up, and before we came."

By "we," Catchings meant those players she competed with at Tennessee from 1997-2001. They are now "old school." They don't always understand these kids today.

"When you're so used to winning, when you lose a little bit, it's difficult," Catchings said. "And as a coach, then you start talking to your players and saying, 'This is what we need to do,' but they're not responding. That's where a lot of the frustration comes in for [Summitt]."

Catchings shakes her head a bit when she says this, as if she's an old lady discussing whippersnappers. She just turned 30, having celebrated her birthday Tuesday night with her best game of this season. Catchings had 28 points, 10 rebounds and three steals as Indiana bounced back from its lone loss in six weeks and beat Washington 82-70.

The Fever had won 11 games in a row, dating back to early June, before falling at Connecticut last Sunday. But the victory in D.C. puts the East-leading Fever at 12-3 with one more contest before Saturday's All-Star Game, for which Catchings was the top vote-getter.

Catchings overall is feeling stronger now than she has in recent years. She missed 13 games during the 2007 WNBA regular season with a plantar fascia injury in her left foot. Then during the playoffs that year, she suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon and wasn't able to go overseas to compete.

She had to work hard in rehab to be able to come back not just for the Fever in 2008, but also for the U.S. Olympic team.

She was able to do that. Then the Polish team she didn't get a chance to play for the previous winter still wanted her to come. She played for Lotos Gdynia, along with the Washington Mystics' Alana Beard and Monique Currie.

"I've played in Korea, Russia and Poland," Catchings said. "Korea is my favorite because that's where I became comfortable first; it was my first opportunity overseas. It became like a family over there. We lived in a dorm, and my sister went with me.

"But in Poland, I enjoyed it, too, and I liked being able to get around. It was the first time when I was overseas I had my own car, so I was able to explore things. In Poland, it was easy to drive."

Not so much in her other overseas stops?

"In Russia -- never. In Korea -- never," Catchings said, laughing. "But Poland was laid-back. And we were by the water in Gdynia, and it was just easy. And having AB and Mo there made it a lot easier, too."

Catchings is a star player, of course, but she's happier when she has teammates to share the spotlight with. It was true on the Olympic team, true in Poland and true now in Indiana, too. But there have been times with the Fever when Catchings did feel the team's fate was almost all on her.

"She doesn't have to carry the whole load for us this year, and that's taken some of the pressure off of her," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. "In the past, she's felt like, 'I have to carry this team, I have to make something happen.' I don't think she feels that way now, and she's happy that she doesn't."

Katie Douglas, in her second season in Indiana, leads the Fever at 16.1 points per game. Catchings is at 14.3, and Tammy Sutton-Brown and Ebony Hoffman at 11.5 each. Sutton-Brown and Hoffman, who was the WNBA's most improved player last season, also combine for about 12 rebounds a game and have helped make up for the loss inside of veteran Yolanda Griffith.

The Fever had brought Griffith aboard for her veteran leadership, but she suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on June 9.

"When it happened, I was gone emotionally," Catchings said. "I was crying like crazy afterward. Knowing the rehab and the long days that she was facing, I've been there and feel for her. It's her last year, and I was really looking forward to playing with her, that post presence and everything she brings."

But that was also the same night the Fever started their 11-game winning streak, and much of that has to do with Catchings' resolve.

Of her desire to win a WNBA title, she says, "It burns -- vividly, wildly. But you get there by focusing on what's right in front of you.

"When my teammates are doing well, get them the ball. Do whatever it takes to win. For a long time, it was like if I struggled, everybody struggled. Now, if I'm struggling, I focus on what is going well for everybody else. Our chemistry is phenomenal."

Dunn, who will coach Catchings in the All-Star Game, says another key is just keeping Catchings from wearing herself out.

"The thing we have to do with Tamika is get her more rest," Dunn said. "She plays much better when she's not fatigued. And because she plays so hard, she can get fatigued. She's not 20 anymore, she's 30 and we've got to get her those extra minutes here and there to rest. I can see the difference when we do.

"But when you talk to her about pace and trying to gear down, she looks at you like you're speaking in a foreign language."

Summitt, though, might counsel Catchings on taking it easy when you can. Because Catchings definitely is still listening to her former coach.

"It says something for [Summitt] to be able to still have an impact on my life even today -- eight years removed from college," Catchings said. "Everybody sees her as this icon, like, 'Oh, my gosh, Pat Summitt!' But we all have a relationship with her that lasts. We're able to call her up and say, 'Pat, I'm struggling. What am I doing wrong?'"

Right now, though, Pat would say, "You're doing great, Tamika. Think there's any way we could get you eligible for another college season?"

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.