Catchings an oldie but goodie

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- As a decidedly less than strenuous practice wound to a close on the day before the WNBA All-Star Game, Eastern Conference coach Lin Dunn instructed her players to line up for a half-court shooting contest designed to please fans far more than prepare for the Western Conference. That she wanted the players to arrange themselves in order of youngest to oldest left a knot near the front of the queue.

Tamika Catchings looked around and realized she needn't rush. Having just celebrated her 34th birthday, she was the end of the line. There by a good three years over anyone and considerably more than that over most.

"It just seems like yesterday she was a baby on one of the teams," Dunn said. "It's hard to believe it's been 12 years."

That's the future for you. Always in such a rush to become the past.

The buzz that was supposed to surround this year's game now sounds a lot more like a collective sigh. Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne won't be on the court Saturday afternoon, both rookies whom fans selected as starters sidelined by injuries. Griner is at least here in street clothes. Delle Donne isn't even in Connecticut, unable to travel due to a concussion suffered late in the third quarter of the Sky's final game before the break.

Instead of a showcase for two players already among its biggest names, Saturday is now that tricky thing for a league looking for exposure. It becomes a game loaded with young players, including seven first-time All-Stars, who are the equivalent of quality indie bands. They are appreciated by those who already follow the league but unlikely to pull in casual viewers on a summer Saturday.

That may not be the best news for television ratings, but it comes with a silver lining of sorts. For all the focus on the future that led up to this season and through its first half, the eight-time All-Star from the Fever who won her first title a season ago is as good a spokesperson for the present as the league has.

"Catch is a great athlete, a great player and a great person," Candace Parker said. "She represents us on the court as well as off the court, in her many charity works and just the way she carries herself. She's a great leader, and she leads by example more so than words. I love playing with her [for USA Basketball], I love learning from her."

The Fever selected Catchings with the third pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, one pick before the Portland Fire selected Jackie Stiles. That both franchise and star in the latter combination are now footnotes in league history offers some perspective on the time involved. A knee injury Catchings sustained in her final season at the University of Tennessee meant she didn't make her WNBA debut until the following season, but she nonetheless played her first professional game before any of her current All-Star teammates played a single game -- in college. Brazilian Erika de Souza, who replaced Delle Donne on the roster, played 11 games for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002 and next returned to the league five years later. The next closest for the East is Cappie Pondexter, who was named the Big East's top rookie in 2003, months after Catchings appeared in her first All-Star Game.

While teammates Saturday like Allison Hightower, Ivory Latta, Crystal Langhorne and others began and concluded college careers, Catchings was already well into building her professional résumé.

As an assistant at Tennessee, Mickie DeMoss recruited Catchings when the latter was just a freshman in high school. Now in her second season on Dunn's staff with the Fever, DeMoss sees the other end of the journey.

"As a college player, she was tremendous, but she still had some growth as far as her leadership was concerned," DeMoss said. "But she was a heck of a player. When I got in the league last year and just was able to be around her and see how her leadership skills had grown, she's just matured. She gives a lot back to her teammates. ... It's a coach's dream to have her on the team because she takes care of any kind of off-the-court friction. She just makes sure that people do things the right way, and they do it the way it's supposed to be done.

"She's a pro. She's learned how to be a pro."

And as much as the WNBA thirsts for national stars with Delle Donne, Griner and Skylar Diggins, Catchings also suggests how much local means to a league like this. She knew nothing about Indianapolis when the Fever drafted her. But even in that first summer spent rehabbing from the knee injury, before fans had a chance to embrace her skills, she sought out opportunities in the community. Her foundation to work with underserved youth in Indianapolis, Catch the Stars, followed soon after. Like former Pacers guard Reggie Miller and former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, she became more than a part-time presence in town for a paycheck.

"I would say that's our big three, Manning, Miller and Catchings -- not necessarily in that order," Dunn said. "For how they have united the city, how they have given back to the city. They've all been winners on and off the court. But they're not only winners in the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis, I think they are nationally."

Not that it's time to stock up on rocking chairs for the retirement tour. What makes it so strange to see her as the East's elder stateswoman is the degree to which she never stopped playing with the energy of a teenager. Two years ago she was MVP. A year ago she was the catalyst for a championship. Even now, her first half slowed by injuries, she enters Saturday's game averaging better than 17 points, three steals and nearly seven rebounds per game, just as she always has.

She doesn't age, which is why it's so difficult to fathom that she played in one of these for the first time 11 years ago in Washington, D.C.

"I think the memory that stands out is a lot of what I see in the faces of our first-timers here," Catchings said. "It's just that excitement of being here and I think the excitement of playing with players that you may never get a chance to play with. Being an All-Star, especially being one of the starters or even getting voted in by one of the coaches, it's just a respect thing."

Nobody deserves more respect. It won't be the All-Star Game it could have been without Delle Donne and Griner. There's no escaping that. It wouldn't be the league it is without Catchings. That's worth celebrating, too.

"The best is yet to come for them," Catchings said of the rookies. "They're going to be great. Give them two of three more years. You think they're good now, but just think what they will be."

There is time for Delle Donne, Diggins, Griner and the rest of a generation asked to take the league to new heights. As quickly as it arrives, that's another thing about the future. It's always out there.

None of the three to see will be on the court Saturday. One to appreciate while we can will be.