Amid Sky chaos, Fever star Catchings talks loyalty
There were times she thought about leaving.
Wanting to know if the grass really is greener is a common desire for most people.
When she saw her peers, and some of her good friends, winning WNBA championships with other teams, former Stevenson High School star Tamika Catchings used to wonder what it would be like to leave the Indiana Fever.
She was the franchise player, just as Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne were in Chicago. Just this week, Delle Donne forced the Sky to trade her to the Washington Mystics after threatening to sit out the 2017 season. Fowles did the same thing in 2015, and sat out before being sent to Minnesota in a trade.
"I can understand both sides," Catchings said. "You see others winning championships, and you want to be a part of that. I knew I could help some of those teams that were winning win even more."
But movement in the WNBA is difficult. Young players are under rookie contracts for their first three years and are under the restricted rule in their fourth year. Then, if your team designates you as its "franchise player," it can pay you the maximum salary and do what is called "coring a player" for each of the next four seasons. That means top players can be locked to one team for as many as eight seasons … unless they force a trade.
"With the WNBA, they want a face for each team," Catching said. "People need to be able to recognize the top players, they need to associate a face with each team. It's because we're still growing. Our league needs that.
"It can be tough for the players, especially if they want to move on. But I say take care of your players. Your franchise player should feel so good about playing there that they never want to leave."
That was the case for Catchings. Drafted third overall by Indiana in 2001, she finished her illustrious career last summer, retiring after 15 years in the league -- all with the Fever.
"One thing it always came back to with Indiana for me was that they took a chance on me," Catchings said. "Indiana wrapped its arms around me when I first got there and took a chance on me that I'd be able to reach the expectations that were being set for me."
Catchings, one of the best college players of her era, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee in January of her senior year at Tennessee. She was not fully healed by the draft. Then, as she attempted to make her comeback about halfway through her rookie season, she injured the knee again. And that shelved her until the following season.
"Indiana showed a lot of loyalty towards me," Catchings said. "I guess I felt a sense of loyalty to them, too. I think I thought about that every time I'd think about what it would be like to leave."
Catchings also thought about the intangibles.
"At Indiana, it's such a family feel," Catchings said. "That's a big thing that kept me there. It's an organization that does a lot of work in the community, that looks after its players. Little things … like I could get into the gym any time I wanted. I got to hang around the guys (from the Indiana Pacers) and learn from them. We were friends with all the guys from the (Indianapolis) Colts.
"When I looked at those things, I felt very blessed."
Then Indiana started winning, competing for conference and league titles and Catchings was hooked. The Fever had some near-misses before winning the WNBA championship in 2012, Catchings' 11th season. She was the MVP of the WNBA Finals.
It is the only league title the Fever has won.
"As I went along, I decided that I wanted to be a part of the first championship for the Indiana Fever," Catchings said. "I think that kept me (in Indiana), too. I became really hungry to do that. To be able to win something like that for our city, it was just so cool to me."
Delle Donne will never experience that with the Sky.
She was on the right track, too. The Sky had never been to the WNBA playoffs before Delle Donne arrived, and she guided the franchise there in each of her first four seasons, including a surprising run to the WNBA Finals in 2014.
Delle Donne said she wanted to be closer to her family in Delaware, which is why she targeted Washington for a trade. My guess is there were other factors as well.
In the span of essentially two seasons, Sky fans have lost two "franchise" players, not to mention the only head coach (Pokey Chatman) to take them to the playoffs.
"It's hard for fans because you don't know what is happening on the inside," Catchings said. "But it could be a situation where it might be best for both sides. All I know is that in sports, you want to be surrounded by people who want to be there.
"I wanted to be with teammates who wanted to go to war with me, and who knew I wanted to go to war with them. That's what I had in Indiana, and I always felt so blessed by that."