Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings walked to the podium after the All-Star Game this season, and said with the smile that never seems to leave her face, "My last press conference." There was a brief pause, and then Catchings, smiling even wider now, said, "...except when we win the Championship."
Fast forward to today. The Fever and the Minnesota Lynx are tied at a game apiece heading into a pivotal Game 3 of the 2015 WNBA Finals. Maybe Catchings knew something that we didn't at her last All-Star Game back in July. The ten-time All-Star announced she will retire after next season.
As if this WNBA Finals did not have enough drama already. The leader of the Fever, which now have home-court advantage in the Finals, is as big a reason as any why her team has had the success it has had over the past 14 years.
In recent history, Indiana has made it to five straight conference Finals, including a trip to the Finals back in 2012. The Fever beat the same franchise they're playing in this year's Finals, and Catchings was named Finals MVP.
Catchings is also tied with Taj McWilliams-Franklin for the most postseason games played in league history, and is set to hold that record outright when she steps on the court in Game 3. It is clear when Catchings is on the floor, Indiana is a much better team.
In the Fever's Game 1 win, Catchings did a little bit of everything, finishing with six rebounds, four assists, four steals, two blocks and 12 points in 35 minutes. Catchings played in only 24 minutes of Indiana's Game 2 loss due to foul trouble, but still filled the stat sheet: nine rebounds, five assists, one steal and 11 points.
I put the points last when going over Catching's stats because that is how she approaches the game. Catchings says impacting a game without necessarily scoring has been her focus since she played on the 2002 World Champion Olympic team.
"What did I have to do if I wanted to make that team?" Catchings said. "I had to rebound and defend. That's what I focused on and literally carried that over from the USA team to the WNBA. If you look out here, we have all kinds of scorers. That's what people choose to focus on sometimes, but you also need those players that are willing to do whatever it takes to help their team win."
The Fever's best chance of winning is when Catchings provides that spark for her team like she has done so many times in the past. Indiana will need Catchings doing what she does best if they are going to take a 2-1 series lead.
A win on Friday night would also be the franchise's 36th playoff win all-time, passing the Los Angeles Sparks. It's no coincidence that Catchings has been the one constant for the Fever during their eleven straight playoff appearances.
Win or lose in her final two seasons, Catchings knows her impact on the sport and the league goes far beyond what happens on the court. As the league celebrates its 20th season next year during what will also be Catchings' last, Catchings says she is blessed to have been a part of it.
"Looking at it from the beginning, everybody talked about Dawn (Staley) and Cheryl (Miller) and Rebecca Lobo," Catchings said. "You saw them everywhere, and I just remember I want to be like that one day. I wanted to be where they were. I want to be remembered like they'll be remembered. So now you fast forward, and I will be."