Tamika Catchings still chasing crown

Yes, Tamika Catchings is in her 30s now and still looking for her first WNBA championship. Her beloved college coach, Pat Summitt, went public this summer with the diagnosis of a serious illness, and Catchings has dedicated this season to her.

But Catchings really doesn't need any add-on motivators. She never has. You could say that is the case with most great athletes. It's just especially so with Catchings, who has done about all there is to do in her basketball career except these two things:

1. Win a WNBA title;
2. Find her "off " switch.

"There are days when maybe I'm more tired," Catchings acknowledged. "But one of the things I do live by is the phrase that to whom much is given, much is asked of. I know my teammates are always watching me. If I come in and go through practice like I'm lazy, it opens the door for everybody else to do the same.

"There are not many days that I'm like that. When I am, it's just a matter of pushing through it. Especially for the younger players, I want them -- when they get to where I'm at -- to remember that and know they need to make that same impact."

With all due respect to youngsters on the Fever and other teams, not too many players will really get to where Catchings has. She has produced another MVP-worthy season, finishing with averages of 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals, and will lead Indiana into the playoffs against New York.

Catchings has never won the season MVP award, and there are many contenders this year. But the fact that you could call Catchings a perpetual MVP candidate says a great deal.

So does the fact that Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird would take time for a conference call with media to stump for Catchings as MVP. The career and life of the NBA legend actually have more in common with Catchings' than one might initially think. Both are ferocious competitors fueled in part by childhood angst. Bird grew up in poverty and lost his father to suicide when he was a teenager. Catchings was born with a hearing disability and felt isolated much of the time from her peers.

Both poured their hearts into basketball, where they were able to play either forward position with equal ability. Bird won three NBA titles with Boston, spending his entire playing career in that city. Catchings, drafted in 2001 but unable to play that season due to injury, has been in Indianapolis for her entire WNBA career.

"I've watched Tamika for a lot of years play basketball," Bird said. "One thing I notice about her that you don't find in many players -- men or women -- is she never gives up on a play. She's always going after it, always trying to give her hands on the ball.

"She's so consistent. People do take that for granted, but coaches love that. She's what we call a gamer, and she wants to pull everybody else along with her. She's a franchise-maker, the reason that the Indiana Fever has done really well over the course of time."

Catchings, in her 10th season in Indiana, is now 32. But age has not really added any sense of urgency toward her pursuit of a championship.

"I don't think she's motivated any more now than ever, because that's always been her goal," Bird said. "But it's tough -- they don't give them things away. You've got to earn them. We've had lot of great players who've gone through the NBA and never won a championship. But I think this is the year. I think Tamika is going to lead them all the way."

If Catchings is able to help the Fever win it all, she'll do so with two other former Tennessee players. Nikki McCray was in Indiana for a couple of seasons when Catchings was beginning her WNBA career. Otherwise, Catchings hasn't had any Tennessee connection with the Fever until this season.

Indiana picked up former Lady Vols Shannon Bobbitt and Shyra Ely, neither of whom played in the WNBA in 2010. Both have filled important roles, though, for Indiana this year.

Bobbitt finished her Tennessee career in 2008, and Ely completed hers in 2005. None of the three ever played together in Knoxville. But they have that link of preparation through Summitt's system. And all Lady Vols who have finished their careers after Catchings are, of course, well aware of her legacy.

"Tamika Catchings plays harder than anybody in this league," Ely said. "When I was at Tennessee, she would sometimes come to practice, and Pat would love that. Because it always changed the dynamic of practice. She brings the best out of people."

The news last month that Summitt had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia was a shock to the whole sports world, but yet another unifying factor for Tennessee alums.

"It doesn't weigh heavily on my mind, because I know what great people she has around her," Catchings said. "But in my heart, I've totally dedicated this season to her. We get so caught up in our own lives. And the last couple of years I keep saying, 'I'm going to get down there, and spend more time with you guys.' I haven't done it recently. And I've thought, 'I should have made the time to go to Knoxville more and be there with her.'

"But now I know that I want to spend some time with her once this [WNBA] season is over. Pat always says, 'When you come in, we have some of our best practices.' It's so cool for me to be there and talk to those kids and say, 'This, right here, is an opportunity you should take advantage of, being at Tennessee. So many players would love to play for Pat and don't have that opportunity. You don't want to not appreciate every moment. You don't want to look back and say, I wish I would have done that.'"

There are few regrets in Catchings' career, which is so tied to those two places: Knoxville and Indianapolis. The latter is Ely's hometown -- "It's a dream come true to play here," she said -- and she can speak to how the Fever during Catchings' tenure there have grown to mean more and more to the community.

"They built a great team around Catch, and she's the cornerstone," Ely said. "I think with her visibility here has made a big difference.

"I missed her by a year in college, but I had teammates who played with her who always said how great she was and how she raised the level of intensity. I'm fortunate to have the chance to play with her now."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.