For Douglas, you can go home again

In a café in Phoenix during breakfast a few days ago, Indiana's Katie Douglas found herself summarizing her life to someone who had watched her play in the WNBA Finals.

This is how it is for WNBA players like Douglas. Their stories that are so familiar to longtime women's basketball followers are like brand-new novels to those who encounter them by chance and become intrigued.

And how could anyone who saw her score 30 points and send the highest-scoring game in WNBA history into overtime with a 3-pointer not be curious?

The new fan wondered if she had brothers and sisters, and if her parents were tall.

"I said, 'Yes, I have the two best brothers and a great sister," said Douglas, the youngest of the four siblings. "And my parents are both deceased but, no, neither one of them were tall or athletic. I was just kind of the fluke in the family."

The fluke who became the pride and joy, who has provided the unifying chance for her immediate and extended family to go on the ride that athletics can take a person.

"You know, I grew up really quickly," Douglas further explained to her new fan. "I was 18 when I lost my father to pancreatic cancer and 20 when I lost my mother to breast cancer, so I was an adult really quick. I think a lot earlier than I anticipated or would have liked.

"But, you know, I was telling him that basketball has been my refuge, my place where I go to take my emotions out, to kind of still grieve a little bit and get away from everything personally I've gone through. I'm just so blessed and thankful that I've had such a close, tight-knit family and a network that's supported me throughout the years.

"That's what made it so special when we won [the Eastern Conference title] against Detroit. To have all those people that have supported me through my ups and a lot of downs. Who have been there to pick me up, put me back in my place and keep me going. For them to be able to enjoy these WNBA Finals with me means an awful lot."

Douglas would extend that to everyone who might be at Conseco Fieldhouse for Game 3 on Sunday (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET), or who might watch on television, or at least be aware that the Fever are playing for a championship. Which, by this point, has to be everyone in Indianapolis.

The Fever, a franchise considered in jeopardy when the season started and technically still not out of the woods yet in terms of its future, has finally permeated the city's collective consciousness.

When you look at the players involved -- their skills, personalities, community service -- it seemed inevitable that would happen if the Fever made it to the final stage of the WNBA postseason. But what made it more certain was the presence of Douglas. Because she is Indiana.

She was born and grew up in Indianapolis, won a national championship for Purdue, and pushed for a trade to the Fever even though she was happy playing for Connecticut's franchise.

Coming home meant that much to Douglas.

"I don't think it's out of ordinary for a player to want to play at home," she said. "But for me it's just a different circumstance. With my parents gone and my brothers and sister [in Indiana] and me being the odd one out, always away, not able to be with my family. I just understand what life is all about and making the most of the time that we have.

"Connecticut -- I had a great situation out there, but it was time to devote myself to my family and come back home."

On Sunday, she'll walk into a full arena in her hometown, as her team plays in hopes of winning this series and a league championship for Indiana.

"It's definitely one of those things you dream about," Douglas said, "and think, 'Is this possible?'"

Many people have been hurt by cancer at a young age. But not that many see the disease leave them an orphan while in college. Douglas also lost a beloved teammate at Purdue to a drunken driver.

So when she missed a shot at the buzzer of the 2001 NCAA title game in St. Louis -- the "Hoosiers" matchup between Notre Dame and Purdue -- Douglas did not grieve the 68-66 loss quite the way some players might have. She had, after all, been through much worse things already.

But as much as it seems that Douglas' life story is one of those that might be told with images of stark skies and fallen leaves swirling, accompanied by melancholy piano music, she actually doesn't come across that way at all.

Douglas is Midwestern pragmatic and quick to smile away from the court. She recounts the hard times she has been through with dry eyes, even though her listeners' might start welling up.

She has always said her parents, Ken and Karen Douglas, told her to persevere, to not let grief and loss affect either her life's path or her everyday demeanor. Now at age 30, Douglas has become the talkative team leader, the person who brings everyone together and keeps up the chatter.

If someone on the Fever is going to say something hilariously crazy at a practice, in the locker room or on a plane ride, there's a good chance it will be Douglas.

A lot of very sad things have happened to her. But she is not a sad person.

"I'm still a kid in a lot of ways," she said. "I understand not taking things for granted, but I still like to have fun and not take everything too seriously. On the court, everybody says I'm extremely intense and straight-faced, but it's my job. I try to have fun, but I also want to be a warrior out there for my team."

During her college days, when so many people are out on their own having fun but still have Mom and Dad to run home to, Douglas had some understandably bleak times.

"Whew -- it was a long time ago," she said. "I think I definitely matured a lot more. But I am who I am from those experiences. There were a lot of deep, dark days that I had. It was really tough, and there was a lot of growing up for me to do.

"But the rest of my family was always there, no matter how much pain I was going through. They could always get me back on my feet. They pushed me to go back to Purdue and finish my senior year [after my mother died] and to pursue a professional career."

When the 6-foot Douglas was done at Purdue, not everyone was so certain about how she would do in the WNBA. What position was she? A big guard? A small forward? A combo?

It was the same way at Purdue, but it hadn't been an issue because for the Boilermakers, she was simply whatever they needed her to be. As a sophomore in their 1998-99 championship season, she was the complementary underclass star to senior guards Stephanie White and Ukari Figgs. Two years later, she had become the senior go-to player.

"When I was at Perry Meridian in high school, I was a point guard and a slasher," Douglas said. "I went to Purdue with zero jump shot. Now, it's hilarious that everybody thinks of me as a shooter, because no one ever would have called me that my first two years at Purdue.

"I couldn't shoot beyond 10 feet. I remember Ukari Figgs just yelling at me, 'KT, you've got to shoot!' and I'd say, 'I can't!' I've worked so hard on my game."

In the 2001 WNBA draft, which had a lot of talent, Douglas was bypassed until the No. 10 pick, when she was selected by Orlando. There, Carolyn Peck, who'd coached Douglas two seasons at Purdue, was in charge.

But after the 2002 season, Orlando, which had tenuous ownership interest, relocated to Connecticut. In five seasons there, Douglas played in two WNBA Finals and improved her stats each year. She averaged 17.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 2007, and about the last thing Sun coach Mike Thibault wanted to do was trade her.

But he knew how strong Douglas' pull to home was, and in February 2008 agreed to a deal to let her go back to Indiana.

The 2008 season was not the perfect homecoming; Douglas did not make the roster for the U.S. Olympic team and the Fever lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Detroit.

This season, though, after starting 0-2, the Fever went on an 11-game winning streak. Douglas and Tamika Catchings, the longtime centerpiece player for the Fever, really began to click together.

"Last year was more an experimental year with us trying to learn how to play together," Catchings said. "We both had injuries to deal with, and I feel like it was an up and down year. This year, being able to practice together and get to know each other has helped us and helped the team jell quicker.

"I'm more the laid-back one, she's more the talker. … I think that's why it's a good mix and we don't bump heads. Between her and Ebony [Hoffman], they keep things light and make fun of everybody. Katie can dish it."

Douglas wasn't always so chatty, but it has come to her.

"I think people are surprised that I've become 'the talker,'" Douglas said. "I used to be more the quiet one, but I've learned from other people that have led me. I am vocal out there now; somebody's got to be talking to and reassuring people. I am that person now who's always in the huddles chirping away."

And when opponents talk about Douglas, they admit she drives them crazy to defend.

"When she gets going, she is the most confident player out there," said Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, who knows a little bit about confidence. "And she's so dynamic … there's just something about a lefty that's hard to guard. As a defender you're always used to going one way. We've thrown everything and the kitchen sink at her and it didn't matter."

Or as Mercury teammate Cappie Pondexter said, "You're guarding her and you think, 'I've got her!' but you really don't. It's weird. It's like you think you're stopping her and the next thing you know, she's coming at you with something else."

Douglas acknowledges that being a lefty has its advantages.

"There aren't many left-handers in the league, so it's kind of awkward when you go against one because everyone is so used to guarding right-dominant," she said. "With the time and work I've put into my game, I hopefully have them guessing."

Douglas regretted having to miss the celebration for the 10-year anniversary of Purdue's national championship this past college season. But she was overseas competing, like most WNBA players do during the winter.

Douglas isn't sure right now where she'll be going when this WNBA season is over. The CSKA Moscow team she is under contract to has had serious financial problems, so she likely has to go elsewhere. Because of the uncertainty surrounding that, Douglas turned down USA Basketball's recent offer for her to come train with the national team program for the 2010 World Championship and 2012 Olympics.

"It's a three-year commitment, and I just felt like I couldn't do that because it's tenuous times with my overseas job," Douglas said. "I'm not sure what's going on with CSKA. I hear day-by-day different stories. I'm unsure of my employment right now. I was very grateful for the invitation from USA Basketball, but right now, I just can't."

This is just part of life for women's pro basketball players. The need to go overseas during the winter made it all the more imperative to Douglas to play in Indiana for the summer.

However, even that has not been without some stress. The Fever franchise has been the subject of speculation as to its future. A recent Indianapolis Star report that owner Herb Simon said he would do "everything in my power to keep the team here" stopped short of a total confirmation the Fever would remain in Indy. But with the success in the playoffs and increased fan interest, the franchise's outlook is considerably brighter than when the season began.

Still, Douglas isn't taking that for granted. She says she has felt a similar sense of needing to "get it done" as she did her sophomore year at Purdue, when White and Figgs were seniors and Peck had already announced she would leave the program at season's end.

"Hopefully, I can do the same thing now as we did a decade ago with that special Purdue team," Douglas said. "I feel like we have that same chemistry here with the Fever. And at Purdue, we knew it was the last year for that group to be together. Here, we know that there are things that have been up in the air. So I feel like we definitely have a sense of urgency."

Douglas thinks about all that has happened in the 10 years since Purdue won the NCAA title. Indiana was awarded a WNBA franchise. Purdue teammate Tiffany Young was killed when a drunk driver hit a car in which she was a passenger. Douglas' mother died. Douglas played in another NCAA title game and began her professional career.

Her father, who passed away in 1997, was not alive to celebrate with and console Katie for any of those things. But she grins when she says she can still hear in her head the only bit of basketball advice he ever gave her.

It came to her Sept. 25. Indiana beat Detroit in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, but Douglas -- normally very good at the foul line -- missed five free throws.

"My dad would have been like, 'Bend your knees. I told you to bend your knees,'" Douglas said, laughing. "That's about all they would ever say. They were the ultimate parents in just enjoying it; they just wanted me to be happy. They were never coaching me from the sidelines, because they didn't know anything about basketball. They were just proud of me.

"I got so many texts after that game, 'You know what Dad would have said: Bend your knees.' I don't even know that it works, but I'll take it."

She feels much the same about the abbreviated time she got with her parents. It was far too short, but she'll take it. What they did have a chance to give her will last the rest of her life.

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