Time Is Running Out to Watch Tamika Catchings, the Greatest Women's Basketball Player Ever

Besides LeBron James, there is no active basketball player with a greater claim to a spot in the pantheon than Tamika Catchings. How is she still a secret?

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Oct 12 2015, 4:07pm

Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Tamika Catchings is the most valuable player in the history of the WNBA. There are statistics that prove this, and more than a decade of video evidence. To watch Catchings play is to witness an all-time great in real time.

Consider her career 89 Win Shares, the number of victories a player produces for her team, which is far and away the best in the league's 19-year history. The contest is not a close one: Lauren Jackson is second on the list with 73. Much of this owes to Catchings's versatile, efficient offensive game, but she is also the finest defensive player the WNBA has ever seen, and has five Defensive Player of the Year awards to prove it.

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More than that, though, she's contagious. Catchings's tenacity inspires and galvanizes her teammates, launching her Indiana Fever past better-known and more heralded teams into the WNBA Finals this season. It's not so much that the Fever play as one as it is that they all play like Catchings: they are infused with the spirit of the moment. Double teams are rushed toward like they are salvation; every shot and every pass is contested, always. There is a reason why Catchings's teams are 9-2 in elimination games following Sunday night's 75-69 win to force a decisive Game 5 in the WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx.

There simply are not active players in other professional leagues who have reached Catchings's level of dominance. Those who have come closest—Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth are reasonable comparisons here—did so amid thousands of popping flashbulbs, with millions watching their every move. But time is running out for America to see Tamika Catchings at all. She's set a deadline for herself: one more Olympics and one more WNBA season. Then she will leave the game for another set of challenges: marriage and a family.

Catchings understands that her legacy in this game is secured among those who have seen her—but she also knows that so many have not been watching. There won't be a Derek Jeter-style farewell via triumphant Gatorade ad, nor the unceasing stories cataloguing Catchings's final, well, everything. As Catchings sat courtside shortly before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, against the New York Liberty—a game she would eventually swing as she'd swung so many before, earning the Fever a spot in the WNBA Finals—I had two reporters waiting with me to talk to her, scores short of the crowd that routinely surrounds LeBron James before regular season games in New York.

It's only an elimination game if you lose. — Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It was a Tuesday night, and 10,120 people would show up to see her at Madison Square Garden; the game would be nationally televised, and Spike Lee would be on hand. This was as close as she'd come. Catchings recognizes that the opportunities are fleeting, and that she doesn't exercise control over her timetable for it all. She is trying to enjoy it all while she can, because she knows she will not be able to enjoy it forever.

"A lot of people lately have been talking about Reggie [Miller], his legacy," Catchings said as we sat together on the Fever bench. The Garden was filling up for an elimination game. "Not only here in New York but at home in Indiana. And it's almost the same thing. It's my last life. We don't know what's going to happen, going into the offseason. Lord willing, I'll be back and play next year, but if not, this could be the last stand."

That the Fever were even around for the game had everything to do with Catchings. This season, Catchings decided to step back on the offensive end of the floor, in what amounted to a kind of estate planning for the Indiana Fever franchise, the only professional team she's ever known—to ease the transition for once she's gone. She's mentored Marissa Coleman, a young, versatile player whom Catchings molded into an all-star this season. Coleman's talked about how her career lacked direction at previous stops in Washington and Los Angeles. That changed when she came to Indiana.

"When you play with Tamika," Coleman told me, "you want to win for her. Even if you can't find any other reason, you should want to do it for her. I've never played with a player whose team feeds off of her energy the way we do with her. Once it happens, it's pretty special. You can go back and watch film and see, 'Man, Catch really did bring us our energy.'"

After taking a thumping in Game 1 of the best-of-three series, the Fever were facing elimination in Game 2. At halftime, they were down by 18 to the Liberty, the most accomplished defensive team the WNBA had seen since 2007. Catchings sat in front of her locker at the half, and let her mind go there—this could be it, her final chance at another WNBA title.

"Yeah. Yeah, I did," Catchings said. "Yeah, take your shoes off, refocus a little bit, don't worry about what happened 20 minutes ago. I told my teammates, 'I'm gonna go. We're gonna go.' And once I got going, the passion was there, everybody moving the ball, our bench was scoring, it was a totally different atmosphere."

The overmatched party in this photo is not the bigger one with her back to you. — Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

That afternoon, Catchings took over offensively. She hoisted 21 shots, more than she'd put up in any game all season. She insinuated herself everywhere: as a help defender who anticipated the next pass, by absorbing contact on charges, as an unlikely yet devastatingly effective rebounder—she's just six feet tall, but ranked in the WNBA's top ten in defensive rebounding percentage this season.

Her teammates followed her lead, turning misses into easy baskets at the other end, defending arms out and up and disruptive, picking up steals and blocks and then converting them to layups and open threes. Briann January, the pugnacious point guard, pumped her fist, and Coleman, the Fever's Catchings-in-training, kept draining threes and dancing—she'd get text messages about it afterward, but it wasn't anything planned. It was spontaneous. The entire team had caught Catchings's spirit.

"That won't happen again," Catchings told Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer as the two passed each other in the bowels of the Garden before Game 3. Catchings made good on the promise—the Fever were up that half, 33-22.

The Liberty made one run, closing Indiana's lead to 49-45 early in the fourth quarter, but to no avail. Catchings snuffed out their season. A drive to the basket led to a pair of free throws. At the other end, an unexpected stab at the air with her hands forced the Liberty's Tina Charles into an errant pass. Another possession, and Catchings took a rebound from Charles, who has four inches on her, to start a transition opportunity for the Fever going the other way.

After each Catchings play, every Fever player on the floor moved with greater purpose, everyone pushing themselves to play a bit more like Tamika Catchings. Center Erlana Larkins, who played hurt for much of the season, delivered a perfect bounce pass to Catchings, behind the defense, in a bit of Pete Carril-inspired offense. Catchings set a perfect screen to create another layup. The Fever led by 14 at that point, but still it continued, basketball as release for the spiritual animation of playing with Tamika Catchings, for who knows how much longer. Five players as Catchings, seamless, all arms and legs and navy blue and gold, shutting off and smothering possessions. Coleman buried another three. New York called a timeout, their season already over, now just delaying the official end.

Somewhere in here, Tamika Catchings is saying something inspirational and smart. — Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Catchings's Fever have been the underdogs in the WNBA Finals, too, against Maya Moore and the collection of Olympians on the Minnesota Lynx. Catchings and the Fever have pushed their opponents to the brink yet again. They'll play for the WNBA Final in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

"I always say, 'Enjoy this moment,'" Catchings said she told her teammates. "'You'll never get it again. You'll never get it with these players, you'll never get it with this team, there'll be different people in the stands. So enjoy this.' And you could tell, as they were walking away, they were looking. And it is that feeling of, 'I don't know if I'm going to get back here. But I am going to enjoy it.' And they'll remember this for the rest of their lives."

It's a perspective that Catchings says she first learned from Dawn Staley, another name that rings out for those who saw her play, and is only faintly familiar to the many who missed her. Staley, like Catchings, helped define an era of women's basketball that hasn't yet reached that critical mass, where great performances happen in front of small audiences and are memorialized only in grainy videos, YouTube clips, and stories.

"It's not something I take lightly," Catchings said, wearing a gray Indiana Fever 2015 Eastern Conference Champions shirt, reflecting for a total of maybe a dozen reporters at Madison Square Garden. "Every time I come out, I want to play my best. Because there's always two or three or however many people who were here tonight who never saw me play. That have never been to a WNBA game. That don't know who the Indiana Fever are. But I want them to say when they leave, 'Man, I don't know her name, but I'll always remember her number. And that girl can flat-out play.'"