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updated: 6/1/2012 7:47 PM

Fever star Catchings catches rare respite

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  • Tamika Catchings left, shown battling the Sky's Sylvia Fowles for a rebound in WNBA action last season, did not play overseas this winter in order to allow a foot injury to heal.

    Tamika Catchings left, shown battling the Sky's Sylvia Fowles for a rebound in WNBA action last season, did not play overseas this winter in order to allow a foot injury to heal.
    Associated Press


Six months without a paycheck would be a problem for most people.

For Tamika Catchings, it was a blessing.

The veteran Indiana Fever forward and former Stevenson High School star didn't play overseas this winter, like she usually does. She passed up a six-figure paycheck and instead stayed home.

Mostly, she needed the time to recover from the foot injury that shelved her during the 2011 WNBA playoffs. But she also needed a break. She rarely gets one of those.

No WNBA player does.

"I feel great and a lot more rested," the 32-year-old Catchings told me last weekend after leading the Fever to a win over the Chicago Sky at Allstate Arena. "I'm not getting tired as easily. When I'm out there, I just feel refreshed and I haven't felt like that in a long, long time. The whole overseas thing ... it's (grueling). It worked out well for me not going this time."

The "overseas thing" is a necessary evil in the WNBA, which has yet to become a one-stop shop for its players. Because WNBA salaries typically pale in comparison to overseas salaries, many players feel compelled to play year-round in order to maximize their earning power.

Summers are spent in the United States playing in the WNBA, but the minute (almost literally) the season ends, it's immediately off to Europe or Asia for the next six months. Then it's back to the WNBA, where training camp sometimes starts before the playoffs in some overseas leagues are even over.

It's not unheard of for WNBA players to be playing in a European championship game one night and running sprints in a WNBA training camp just days later.

The nonstop rat race isn't good for the health of the players, or for the health of the 15-year-old league in this country that they are so desperately trying to help succeed.

Many players often return to the WNBA banged up and run down before the season even starts. For example, the Sky is just three games into the season and already has two players sidelined with injuries: Ticha Penicheiro (leg) and Sonja Petrovic (hand).

NBA players and analysts have been lamenting in recent weeks about how the condensed, lockout-shortened season may have contributed to the injuries of players such as the Bulls' Derrick Rose and the Heat's Chris Bosh. The grind caught up with them, so to speak.

Frankly, until they walk in the high tops of a WNBA player, NBA players don't truly know what grind is.

Or hardship, for that matter.

The other problem that the WNBA faces is that, in a cost-saving measure, rosters are limited to just 11 players. And when a player gets injured, she may not be replaced by a new player unless she is waived. As in bye-bye, for good.

In Phoenix, superstar guard Diana Taurasi just went down with a hip injury and is out indefinitely. This comes on the heels of the Mercury's second-best player, Penny Taylor, blowing out her knee while playing, yep, overseas during the off-season.

The Mercury wouldn't dare waive either all-star simply to bring in temporary replacements, so the team must learn to limp along in the coming weeks with just nine active players.

It's a vicious cycle for the WNBA. Tired players equals injured players equals shorthanded teams.

Unfortunately, the only reprieve I see is a once-every-four-years proposition. And even then, it doesn't work for everyone.

Olympians like Sylvia Fowles and Swin Cash of the Sky, as well as Catchings, are out of luck. They'll get no bonus break this summer.

But for those WNBA players not playing in the Summer Games in London, the league's month-long hiatus from mid-July to mid-August to accommodate the Olympics can't come soon enough.

For once, they'll finally get a chance to catch their breath.

•Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Chicago Sky for the Daily Herald since its inaugural season in 2006. She is also the color analyst for all Sky television games, which are broadcast on CN100.

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