<
>

Tamika Catchings was a one-of-a-kind competitor

play
Catchings' farewell (2:26)

Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings discusses her final year in the WNBA after an all-star career. (2:26)

INDIANAPOLIS -- It just makes sense that this is where the legend of Tamika Catchings will be rooted in forever: the capital city in the state that so adores basketball and where those who play it do so as if their lives depended on it.

That's how it has always looked for Catchings. Her play reflected every cliché ever uttered about competing. She brought vivid life to those words about making the most of every moment on the court.

Catchings has been relentless. Her competitiveness wore out foes who thought no one could outlast them.

But after 15 years in the WNBA, Catchings will retire when this season ends for her Indiana Fever, who close with home games Friday and Sunday before appearing in the playoffs.

Admittedly, it won't be easy for Catchings to step away from competition and the thing that has defined her to this point. But she has prepared for it, just as she has done for every game she has played.

So appreciate the short time we have left watching this force of nature on the court. Cry a little after her last game (hey, all of us will). Realize that you probably won't see anyone quite like her again.

But then smile, because you know Catch will stay busy, and she will be all right. The rest of her life's work is in front of her. There will be some challenging days as she finds her footing. But she will find it.

"I know what I'm passionate about: making a difference in people's lives," Catchings said, which is reflected in "Catch the Stars," her charitable foundation that helps young people achieve their goals through literacy, fitness and mentoring.

This WNBA season, Catchings has been on a "legacy tour," where her foundation has donated money in every WNBA city to an organization that has a similar purpose.

"She has a servant's heart, which is why people love to be around her," said Indiana coach Stephanie White, who previously played alongside Catchings with the Fever. "They respect that and admire her."

There is so much to do, so many children to inspire. There's also the fact that Catchings, who turned 37 in July and married Parnell Smith earlier this year, would like to have children of her own.

White said that no one should underestimate how much of Catchings' athletic personality she will take into the next phase of her life.

"Everything she does is a competition," White said, chuckling. "She wants to see how much money she can raise for her foundation, how much she can accomplish in helping people. She's always going to find ways to push herself."

"I think it's pretty incredible to look at the level she's playing at, and that she's been this productive for 15 consecutive years. I think it's a tribute to her mentality, that she somehow always finds another gear." Fever coach Stephanie White on Tamika Catchings

But it will be different, of course. Tamika is the daughter of an NBA player, Harvey Catchings. Her intensity as an athlete was so striking that even someone cut from the very same cloth, former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, was struck by it.

"Literally all my life, I've known I wanted to play basketball. I woke up every single day to do that," Catchings said. "Thank God that I had the opportunity to do it professionally.

"Now, it's that scary unknown. But being very faith-oriented, I've talked a lot to my pastor's wife; she's a big mentor for me. She says, 'You've got to let go.' But it's hard to let go."

It will be hard for us to let go, too, Catch.

An amazing career

Catchings, a 6-foot-1 forward, first became well-known to most women's basketball fans as a freshman at Tennessee in 1997. She was part of what was called the "Three Meeks," along with Chamique Holdsclaw and Semeka Randall. Those Lady Vols, among the most talented teams ever in women's college basketball, went 39-0 to win the 1998 NCAA title.

Catchings got one more trip to the Final Four, in 2000 when Tennessee lost the final to UConn. Her 2001 senior season was cut short because of a torn ACL, which is partly why she fell to the No. 3 pick in the WNBA draft that year. Indiana was smart enough to know Catchings was worth waiting a season for; she was rookie of the year in 2002 and will end her career as one of the most accomplished players in WNBA history.

She is already the WNBA's leader in career steals (1,071). With 3,305 rebounds, Catchings needs just three more to pass Los Angeles great Lisa Leslie as the league's all-time leader in that category. She is No. 2 in scoring at 7,353, trailing Tina Thompson's 7,488.

Catchings has won the WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year award five times, most recently in 2012, when the Fever won their WNBA title.

Indiana has appeared in the WNBA Finals two other times, and both went to five games: in 2009 and 2015. No player has been more singularly identified as the face of a WNBA franchise than Catchings is with the Fever.

"I think it's pretty incredible to look at the level she's playing at, and that she's been this productive for 15 consecutive years," White said. "I think it's a tribute to her mentality, that she somehow always finds another gear."

White also has enjoyed watching Catchings go from a shy kid outside of basketball to a confident and dynamic civic leader. To observe that Catchings is so eloquent is especially gratifying when you know what she has overcome.

In her book, "Catch a Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion," Catchings writes in detail about coping with her hearing problems as a child, how she was bullied for wearing a hearing aid and eventually threw it away in shame, and how Summitt encouraged her to become a role model for the hearing-impaired.

Countless athletes cite Summitt's influence as one of the most important in their lives, but there was a particularly special bond between Catchings and Summitt.

In July in Knoxville, Tennessee, Catchings spoke at the memorial service for Summitt, who died in June from the effects of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

"When I play, there's the reminder of her spirit; it's always within me," Catchings said. "I dedicated this season to her, with the Olympics and the Fever. Knowing she's watching me, it gives me comfort."

Former NFL star Peyton Manning, also a Tennessee grad, spoke at Summitt's service, too. He retired this year, and we now see the TV commercials of him lounging around in his robe looking to fill his Sundays watching games, instead of playing in them.

Catchings said she and Manning talked about the challenges of retirement, and how everyone has a suggestion to him about what to do next.

"He said that right now, 'I want to relax, I want to chill,'" Catchings said. "He asked me, 'What do you want to do?' and I said kind of the same thing: relax for a couple of months, and then in January 2017, start nailing it down. Because every day an opportunity comes up."

Wisdom gained

Catchings has long said she is not interested in coaching, although she could see herself working in the front office of a WNBA or NBA team. She has been very involved in the WNBA players' union and knows more than many players about the business of basketball.

White thinks Catchings can do whatever she puts her mind to, and says that despite Catchings' protests, she would be an excellent coach.

Catchings won her fourth Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro this summer, but her role was limited. She played the fewest minutes of anyone on the U.S. team -- 82 for an average of 10.3 per game -- as coach Geno Auriemma seemed focused on giving younger post players more time.

Catchings has started her entire WNBA career; being the last person off the bench was completely foreign to her. But it turned into yet another way for Catchings to show how much she has learned and what a leader she is.

"That was tough. I'm not going to lie and say it was great," Catchings said of her playing time in Rio. "But at the same time, on every team, there are more players that don't play than do play.

"I reminded myself, 'Just stay ready.' Because I knew that's something I would always tell my teammates with the Fever: 'Be ready! When you go in, you have that minute to make an impact. Make the best of it.' But it's easy to say that and not do it."

Catchings was enthusiastic about cheering on her Olympic teammates and then making an impact every second she was on the court. She lived up to the advice she had given to so many others.

"That's the way a team operates," Catchings said.

Heart of a champion

Marissa Coleman, who has played the past three seasons in Indiana, said that even before she joined the Fever, Catchings was friendly with encouragement. Minnesota's Seimone Augustus has credited Catchings with helping her reach the level of being a championship player. You hear stories like this all the time from WNBA players about Catchings. Her influence extends far beyond Indiana to the rest of the league.

But it is something very special to have played on a team with Catchings, and those who have done that, will always carry it with them.

"It starts with the respect you have for her," Coleman said. "You see her putting in the work, and it motivates you. You feed off her energy. You know she has your back and has confidence in you, and it elevates your game."

"That was tough. I'm not going to lie and say it was great ... I reminded myself, 'Just stay ready.' Because I knew that's something I would always tell my teammates with the Fever: 'Be ready! When you go in, you have that minute to make an impact. Make the best of it.'" Tamika Catchings, on her limited playing time at the Rio Games

Like any athlete who has competed this long, Catchings has played through all kinds of aches and pains and has made it back from serious knee and Achilles injuries, which took tedious rehabilitation.

So when you ask what has been the toughest part of her career, you assume she'll say it was those physical obstacles she has faced. Or maybe the two WNBA Finals that the Fever lost.

Then Catchings surprises you. Although when you stop and think about it and who she is as a human being, it's not really a surprise.

"Training camp has been the hardest thing for me," she said. "Because -- and I learned this early -- you have all these players who come in with their hopes and dreams and aspirations of, 'I want to be in the WNBA.'

"This is their opportunity, and they want to get to know me. And I like getting to know them. But it's so hard when some of them get cut. You develop those friendships, and when they don't make it, you can feel it -- the hurt that they have. I've been so blessed to have all these years to play."

So just as Catchings has played for her family, for her teammates and coaches, for the kids who look up to her, for the fans, for people who deal with hearing loss, for Tennessee and Summitt, for the Indiana Fever, for the WNBA, for Team USA, she also has played for those who wanted so much to do what she has done. She keeps them forever in her heart, too, as with everything else she cares about.

And when she stops playing, she'll know she maxed out with her physical and mental gifts, because she supplemented every one of them with enormous effort. She'll find joy in that.

"That's what you want to do: Know you've given everything you have, to where you're like, 'Whew, I'm tired,'" she said. "I love that feeling."