Date: 09/18/2016

Perfect finish for Tamika Catchings

INDIANAPOLIS — One by one, they clung to her, unwilling to let go. It was a hug-fest and a love-fest. But this was different, even for farewell.

For these weren’t Indiana Fever players hanging onto Tamika Catchings for dear life. These were Dallas Wings players. Catchings’ legacy transcends one team, one league or one sport.

In her last regular-season game, the Fever romped to an 83-60 victory Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. No one was spoiling this day.

In a postgame ceremony, Catchings reiterated her story: As a young girl with a hearing impairment and speech difficulties, she played basketball so no one would make fun of her.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d be here and doing this,” she said.

She is not done. Not yet.

The No. 5-seeded Fever (17-17) open the WNBA playoffs against Phoenix in a home game at 6 p.m. Wednesday. If the Fever lose, Catchings’ career is indeed over. If they win, they will play in the second round at No. 4 Chicago.

Game statistics for the 37-year-old Catchings were Tamika-like: 16 points, seven rebounds, one assist, two steals.

“She just did everything that she’s always done,” Fever coach Stephanie White said. “She does what needs to be done on the floor when it needs to be done.”

Everything? Everything.

Carol Callan, women’s national team director for USA Basketball, recounted an incident in which Catchings hand-washed uniforms for a junior team.

The ceremony climaxed with presentation of a $100,000 check to Catchings’ foundation by Jim Morris, vice president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, and a new Lexus for her that was driven to courtside.

Addresses were delivered by White and longtime teammate Briann January, both of whom ended in tears; former Fever coach Lin Dunn, who invoked the memory of Catchings’ college coach, the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee; Rick Fuson, president and CEO of PS&E; Fever executive Kelly Krauskopf; WNBA president Lisa Borders; Rep. Susan Brooks and Mayor Joe Hogsett.

Catchings can be volatile on the court – White remembered a seventh-grade Tamika erupting at a summer tournament and hurling a basketball against the wall – but she was composed throughout the game and afterward. Her tears were shed long ago, she said.

It wasn’t that way for teammates. Shenise Johnson said the Fever were weepy before tipoff. January conceded she has “been in denial this entire season.” She said she could not look at Erlana Larkins, who teared up at times on the court.

“You just want to make the most of all  these moments,” January said. “You know there are few. There’s not many left. So it’s tough. It was really tough today.”

Essentially, Hogsett, Krauskopf and Borders all offered jobs to Catchings. Dunn, a native Tennessean, wanted her to return to that state. Borders’ declaration that she wanted to bring the adopted Hoosier to the league’s New York office was greeted by boos.

“This is home,” Catchings assured the audience.

Catchings said more than 20 family members were in attendance. The Indiana Pacers were also represented, featuring Olympic gold medalists Reggie Miller and Paul George.

Fans wore white “#24 Forever” T-shirts in a white-out. Video tributes featured comments from some of the WNBA’s biggest stars, including former MVPs Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne.

Although the fieldhouse held less than the announced crowd of 17,704 – George purchased 5,000 balcony tickets for free distribution – the gathering resembled that for the WNBA Finals. Fans were not disappointed.

Catchings left the bench midway through the fourth quarter for a cameo, leaving soon thereafter to an ovation. She smiled, acknowledged the crowd and sat … then stood and waved some more.

Goodbye, as inevitable as it was, might have been easy for her. It was not for anyone else.