All-Star Tamika Catchings preparing for life after hoops

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- A little girl is battling her jump rope -- she accidentally hit herself with it -- and appears close to meltdown mode. Uh oh, her shoulders are slumping, her eyes are watering, her face is scrunching up ...

Time for Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings, the WNBA standout so famed for her scoring, defense and rebounding, to come in with the assist.

It's Friday morning at the Mohegan Tribe Community Center just up the hill from the Mohegan Sun Arena that will host Saturday's WNBA All-Star game. Catchings is among the players taking part in a fitness clinic for kids. It's the kind of thing she has done countless times in her WNBA career.

As one attendant tries to encourage the upset little girl, Catchings comes over to whisper encouragement to her. Then Catchings begins jumping up and down herself, and the child starts to grin and joins her.

Nice job. You saved it, Catch.

"I really enjoy this," Catchings said. "Kids can get so frustrated when they can't do something. They look at us and think, 'Oh, she's perfect, she plays basketball,' and they don't realize we started just like them. It's great to be able to go back to the beginning. Hey, I was terrible at jumping rope when I was little."

It's hard to picture Catchings, who is in her record 10th All-Star game, being terrible at any athletic pursuit. This is a player who has won championships at every level, including the 1998 NCAA title at Tennessee, the 2012 WNBA title at Indiana and three Olympic gold medals for the United States.

Her career is now winding down, with the finish line in sight. Catchings turned 36 this week. She will compete through the end of the 2016 WNBA season and hopes to make a fourth Olympic team next year. The league doesn't have an official All-Star game in Olympic years, so this one is it for Catchings. She has spent her entire WNBA career with Indiana, and that's where she will say goodbye to playing. And then?

"It's going to be an adjustment. I've been playing basketball my whole life," said Catchings, the 2011 WNBA MVP. "I've gotten some advice about not just jumping into something really fast -- give yourself some time to assess things but also to reminisce a little about the things you've done.

"You win all these awards and things in your career, and people ask you how you feel. And you say, 'I don't know. I'm still playing.' You don't have time to think about it because you're going on to the next thing."

One of Catchings' most recent awards, though, is more about what she will be moving on to after she stops playing. Catchings won in the individual category in the inaugural Sports Humanitarian of the Year awards, sponsored by ESPN and PlayStation. The Chicago Bulls won the team award.

Catchings' Indianapolis-based charitable foundation, Catch the Stars, focuses on empowering youth through literacy, fitness and mentoring.

"I see myself continuing to work with my foundation and playing a bigger role in that," Catchings said of her outlook on 2017 and beyond. "I know what I don't want to do -- I don't want to coach. I love working with kids, but coaching doesn't really appeal to me.

"Broadcasting, maybe. I've talked about wanting to be a general manager and working in sports from a business standpoint. I read about this a lot. I like to see what other people have done. You read about the horror stories of athletes who finish playing and then lose all their money. But you also read the success stories."

Suffice it to say, if Catchings in her post-playing career is anything like she has been on the court, there will be no stopping her.

"Every program she has touched has been successful," said Chicago's Pokey Chatman, who will coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars. "I get goose bumps talking about her. That's how much respect I have.

"When I first saw her here, I said, 'Finally, I get to coach you and not have to coach against you.' Because she is a nightmare to face. She can play the 2, 3, 4 ... she's going to get the steal or rebound that kills you. And she will make everyone around her better."

Catchings is known as both a great player and great teammate, in part because she relates well to everyone -- veteran or rookie.

"I've always admired her from afar," said the Fever's Marissa Coleman, who is appearing in her first All-Star game. "When I got the opportunity to play in Indiana with her, I was really excited.

"You assume some things about people, but Catch really is what everybody thinks she is. She's a great teammate and a great basketball player. She approaches everything the same, whether it's a practice, shoot-around or a game."

During her career, Catchings has recovered from two of the most difficult injuries basketball players face: a torn ACL and Achilles' tendon. She transformed herself from more of a slasher as a scorer to having a successful face-up shot. She became a confident spokeswoman, for both the WNBA and women's sports in general. And she has always been open to helping other players reach their goals.

Minnesota's Maya Moore, the past season's WNBA MVP, recalls watching as an 8-year-old when Catchings and Tennessee won at the 1998 Final Four. The two faced off in the WNBA Finals in 2012, and they're teammates on the U.S. national team.

"Catch has been such a model player for anyone of any age," said Moore, who will start for the West All-Stars on Saturday. "I remember in high school, I felt connected to her because people said I played like her, as far as how hard I played on both ends. She's always been about playing basketball with a love you can see."

Catchings is still an effective player. She iss averaging 12.8 points and 6.9 rebounds for the Fever, and her career numbers are 16.6 and 7.5. In her 11 playoff appearances with Indiana, her averages have been even a little better -- 16.9 and 9.1. But there's no way to fully measure her energy, which is a constant.

Seattle veteran guard Sue Bird, in her ninth All-Star game, is a year younger than Catchings. The two have played against each other since Bird was at UConn and Catchings at Tennessee, along with being U.S. teammates.

"It's definitely sentimental. This is my last All-Star. My playing career will be over next year, but hopefully the legacy I leave behind will keep going." Tamika Catchings on life after hoops

What does Bird say is the hardest part of facing Catchings -- and the best part of playing alongside her?

"It's the same thing, either way -- it's that she never stops," Bird said. "She's a mismatch, no matter who you put on her. You can do a laundry list of what she can do on the court. But more than anything, above all, she never stops.

"I've played against her when the game should be over, and somehow she makes these incredible hustle plays to get her team back in it. And with USA Basketball, like anytime we do a rebounding drill or whatever, I'm like, 'Please, I hope Catch is on my team' because she's just going to make it happen."

The time will come, though, when Catchings will stop -- playing basketball, that is. She has put a date on it. She announced it. She is preparing for it.

"It's definitely sentimental. This is my last All-Star," Catchings said. "My playing career will be over next year, but hopefully the legacy I leave behind will keep going. And I'll keep going.

"I will say this: I think what I've been able to do as a player is still nothing compared to what I can do in a lot of other areas in the future. And I'm excited about that."