Last week I pulled out a box filled with nearly 10 years of Indiana Fever pictures. The earliest photos were small, the players far away. My point-and click-camera was unable to reach out to them and capture their athleticism. So the pictures invariably were of tiny figures warming up, standing in a huddle, being introduced to the audience—often obscured by the encroaching arm of a neighbor sitting below me. But even in this miniature state, in one picture I could still see Tamika Catchings holding her 2002 Rookie of the Year award high above her head.
Later years, with a borrowed camera, I’m able to get close to the players. I’m able to capture their effort, joy, pain. These are my favorite pictures: Catchings blocking a Stacey Dales shot, Sue Bird shouting out a play, Becky Hammon sitting on the court and arguing a call while the ball bounces beside her, Catchings standing beside Diana Taurasi during the UConn star’s first visit to the Fieldhouse. Catchings at center court, her first Olympic gold medal hanging from her neck.
It’s appropriate I find this last picture days before she will win her third gold medal.
I tried to scan the pictures to post online, but the photos—so clear in my hand—became faded digital ghosts once the scanner’s light passed over them.
Catchings and the Indiana Fever return to action tonight after a month-long break to accommodate the league’s many Olympians. Before the game, she will once again be honored at center court for her Olympic gold medal. I hope to be there taking a picture of the moment, perhaps the last for Catchings. She already said there would be no Rio 2016 for her. But in a post-game interview following Team USA’s victory over France, Diana Taurasi enthusiastically declared she wanted a fourth gold medal and tried to get Sue Bird and Catchings to commit as well. I hope Taurasi’s enthusiasm is infectious. I can’t picture a Team USA without Catchings.
More than an Olympic celebration awaits Catchings as the WNBA season returns. There’s one elusive achievement that has always remained beyond her reach: the WNBA championship. A lot of questions linger for the Indiana Fever as they restart their season. Rebounding has been a major issue for the team once again. Only two teams, Tulsa and Seattle, have rebounded worse than the Fever. However, both teams have been missing Australian Olympians—Liz Cambage and Lauren Jackson—who can dominate the boards. Their returns should propel their teams in rebounding. The Fever will continue to search for answers.
Defense has also been a concern for a team that thrives on defensive pressure. Opponents are scoring 76.1 ppg against Indiana, the most ever in franchise history. Some of this can be attributed to the increasingly improving offenses in the WNBA. In 2002, only four teams scored more than 70 ppg and the league high for the season was Los Angeles’s 76.6. In 2012, four teams are scoring in the 80s with Minnesota’s 86.6 ppg leading the way. The Washington Mystics are the only team still hovering in the 60s, with a 69.9 ppg average.
Rebounding also affects the defense. The Fever are giving up nearly 12 offensive rebounds a game, allowing their opponents a potential 24 extra points.
Another interesting question for the Fever is Erin Phillips. Phillips was thought to be an Australian Olympian as she was in 2008. But she failed to make the final cut. The dismissal felt more like a punishment for Phillips who, unlike her fellow Aussies, played in the first half of the WNBA season instead of training with the Australian national team. Will a pumped-up Phillips step onto the court with something to prove? She’s a ferocious competitor, and an inspired Phillips would be a boon to the Fever both on the offensive and defensive ends.
While the Fever have their own internal obstacles to overcome, of the 17 games remaining, 14 will feature Catchings’ Olympic teammates and rivals. The gauntlet begins Saturday, August 18, when Angel McCoughtry and the Atlanta Dream return to the Fieldhouse. From there the Fever will see each member of Team USA, as well as Lauren Jackson, Liz Cambage, Becky Hammon, and several other international Olympians.
The Fever currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference. They have the fifth overall best record. But the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky are creeping up behind them. Atlanta has twice rallied to reach the WNBA Finals, and an Olympic stint for McCoughtry means she’s spent a lot of time with perennial champions Taurasi, Bird, and Swin Cash learning how to win. She was already an offensive threat, but what might she have gleaned that might finally carry the Dream to a title? The Sky, on the other hand, have never been to the playoffs. Loaded with two Olympians in Sylvia Fowles and Cash, a scorer in Epiphany Prince, Indiana native Ruth Riley, and dazzling point guards Courtney Vandersloot and Ticha Penicheiro, the Sky have no excuse not to be competing in the offseason this year.
This could be the toughest battle for a WNBA championship the league has yet seen. Defending champion Minnesota Lynx will be favorites, but they have proven beatable in the first half of the season, and the Connecticut Sun appear their equals. But Tamika Catchings has shown time and again she can’t be counted out. If the Fever come back from the break clicking, they could be a legitimate title contender. Catchings has stood at center court with her Rookie of the Year award, Olympic medals, an MVP trophy. I still believe the window hasn’t closed on this team and Catch can stand front and center with a championship hoisted in the air. And that would be a picture I’d love to look back on some day.