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True to form, Tamika Catchings competes right to the end

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Fever team kneels during national anthem; coach is proud (0:24)

Indiana Fever coach Stephanie White is proud of her players for kneeling in solidarity during the national anthem prior to Tuesday's game. (0:24)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Emotions aren't always the same in the professional game. Most WNBA players compete nearly year-round in countries all over the globe. When basketball becomes your business, some of the most genuine and pure emotions in sports take a back seat to pragmatism. It's understandable.

But then there is a night such as Wednesday, when a team, a league, a city and a sport say goodbye to someone who made them feel those emotions in a bittersweet flood as very few players could.

Tamika Catchings' career came to an end with the Fever's 89-78 loss to Phoenix at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That meant tears. A whole lot of them.

"That's my rock, man," Fever guard Briann January said through sobs. "She's just impacted every area of my life and always been there for me and taught me so much about being a professional, about being a good person.

"I've been here eight years with her, and it's amazing what she does here. People like her just don't come around often, and I am so lucky to have been around her."

Don't we all feel that way, even if we didn't get to be around Catchings as closely as a teammate? Aren't we all proud that she represented so completely what we want our sports heroes to represent? For 15 years in the WNBA, didn't she compete every game the way we all dream we could for even a single day?

Even when Wednesday's game was essentially over, with just 13 seconds left and the Fever down by 11, Catchings waved off an attempt to sub her out for one last standing ovation.

"Gotta finish strong," Catchings said. "I didn't want to spend 13.1 seconds on the bench knowing that I had 13.1 seconds to give everything that I could."

That's what Catchings has done ever since she first started playing basketball. The daughter of NBA player Harvey Catchings, she faced the challenge of being hearing-impaired and looked to sports as a way to avoid being mocked by other kids. It turned out that she was destined for greatness.

"Every game I've played against her, she's been such a warrior," said Phoenix's Penny Taylor, who is also retiring when this season ends and faced the potential that Wednesday would be her last game. "I feel happy that we're going on. As a team, we worked really hard to win that game. But also, it's sad because Tamika is such a great player, and you never want to see great players stop."

But they all have to. Ever since Catchings announced last year that 2016 would be her final season, WNBA followers have been dreading the end. Yet there is so much to celebrate about what we've seen from a player who defined effort.

Catchings had 13 points and 10 rebounds in her last game, and when it was over, she got hugs not just from her teammates but also from all the Mercury players, who showed their respect and affection.

"I didn't want to spend 13.1 seconds on the bench knowing that I had 13.1 seconds to give everything that I could." Tamika Catchings, on waving off an attempt to sub her out

"It just makes you really appreciate what she's done," Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi said. "If anyone wants to play basketball and loves the game, they should use her blueprint because that's how you do it. There's not many people I've been around who put that much into it. I said to her, 'Thank you for everything.'"

Taurasi, Catchings and Seattle's Sue Bird each won their fourth Olympic gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games in August. That's something Taurasi cherishes too.

"It's an honor to share the court with them," Taurasi said. "I think we'll look back on it, and it will feel good that we did that with each other. We have so much respect for each other, and we really do like each other. That's the other side of it too."

Taurasi has spent her career with Phoenix and is the signature player of that franchise. The same has been true for Catchings in Indiana.

"It's going to be a change for the whole Indiana franchise now," Taurasi said. "It's like, I was a Lakers fan growing up, and now Kobe [Bryant] is not there. And I don't even know if I'm a Lakers fan anymore. But I think Indiana is a great organization. It will be tough, but they'll move on. This is a place people want to play."

A big reason for that, of course, has been the presence of Catchings, who finishes her career as the WNBA's leader in rebounds and steals and is second in scoring.

"We wanted her to go on top, and it's hard," said the Fever's Marissa Coleman, who was crying like everyone else in the Indiana locker room. "Because she's given everything to us and this organization, and I kind of feel like we let her down. I know she doesn't feel that way, but that's how we feel. We're going to miss her. She's one of my favorite people."

Catchings was honored Sunday with a postgame ceremony that included tributes from politicians, coaches, teammates and officials from the WNBA, USA Basketball and the Fever and Pacers. It was as heartfelt and well-done a send-off as any player could hope for, and really, that is the closing memory of Catchings that everyone should hold onto.

"If anyone wants to play basketball and loves the game, they should use her blueprint because that's how you do it. There's not many people I've been around who put that much into it." Diana Taurasi on Tamika Catchings

For her part, Catchings was the selfless leader right until the end.

"They'll be fine," Catchings said of the Fever moving on without her. "I think it's always tough when you look at passing the baton in any organization. You don't replace 'me.' You find players that step up to the plate for the good of the team to do what they need to do. ... They'll continue to make this organization grow."

Catchings reflected on the big picture of her role in the WNBA and her pride that she has been instrumental in its establishment.

"We're celebrating the WNBA's 20th year, and that's a big deal," she said. "I remember the first year and all the people who doubted if we wouldn't make it past two years, three years, five, 10, 15. We're standing here knowing the next generation who've watched us play aspire to follow in our footsteps. And that gives me strength."

Catchings recalls being a child and wishing she could play in the NBA like her dad. The WNBA launched in the summer before her freshman year at Tennessee, and she had a new dream.

"One of those little girls growing up now hopefully wants to be me," Catchings said. "But my challenge is for her to be better than I was."

That is some challenge. In Catchings, we saw the best.