From the moment Catchings stepped onto the floor — her pro career delayed a season by a knee injury that prematurely ended her senior season at Tennessee — she was an elite performer. Only Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, as a 34-year-old in the W.N.B.A.’s first year, had more win shares as a rookie than Catchings did in 2002, with Catchings earning an All-Star selection and leading her team to the playoffs.
“I think the term relentless is a great, a great one to use with Tamika Catchings,” said Lin Dunn, who was the coach of the Fever team that won the title in 2012. “And the interesting thing about that is, there are a lot of players that were relentless in particular categories. But Tamika Catchings was relentless in every category, rebounding, assists, steals, hustle, energy, and in particular her defense.”
In the latter stages of Catchings’s career, the Fever had to lock her out of the gym, Dunn said, because otherwise she’d never rest.
“One thing my father always told me is that every single year you have these young players that are coming out, and they want to take your job, and they’re going to do whatever it takes,” said Catchings, whose father is the longtime N.B.A. forward Harvey Catchings. “So he always stressed the importance of every year, in the summer, figure out the things that you’re going to work on, figure out what you’re going to be better at.”
A quick survey of the W.N.B.A. career leader boards illustrates Catchings’s all-around impact. Her 93.65 win shares — a statistic assigning individual credit to team victories — are the most in league history, besting second-place Lauren Jackson by 20 points.
Catchings is first in career defensive win shares and second in offensive win shares, the only player in the top four of both lists.
Her defense earned the admiration of Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve, who charts deflections in all her games. Catchings’s 1,074 steals tops the career list, with the next two players, Ticha Penicheiro and the just-retired Alana Beard in the 700s. And despite being far from the tallest on the court at any time at 6-foot-1 and playing positions that took her away from the rim, Catchings is 12th in league history in blocked shots.
“There’s a collection of her patented plays that will always be burned in my memory and they are her high-post drives left and her pursuit of 50/50 balls,” said Reeve, who is also Minnesota’s general manager. “She no doubt set the record in winning the 50/50 ball.”
When Catchings envisions a Hall of Fame player, she said, she thinks of excellence on both ends of the court. Catchings had honed her defense during her time at Tennessee, she said, knowing that it was key to staying on the floor under Coach Pat Summitt.
But her love for the defensive end part of the game dated back to watching Alonzo Mourning, who was — besides her father — her favorite player.
“I would watch him and I was like man, whenever his team needed, he gave,” she said. “And I was most impressed with the defense and shot-blocking. Then everything else.story
Catchings was known to do everything for her team, too. Her Fever teams reached the playoffs every season from 2005 to 2016, including W.N.B.A. finals appearances in 2009, 2012 and 2015. They did so without the kind of supporting cast typically found on finalists, instead relying on Catchings to elevate the play of her teammates.
“Tamika Catchings was a cut above the rest because of her mental fortitude and competitive will,” Reeve said. “Her ability to drag her team to wins, especially come playoff time, was second to none. Because of Catch’s ability to lift her team competitively, you could never, ever count the Indiana Fever out.”
Reeve experienced this firsthand in 2012, a playoff run that meant, to Catchings, an affirmation of her greatness. The year before, she had been honored in San Antonio in 2011, as part of the top 15 W.N.B.A. players for the league’s first 15 seasons. She recalled being one of the few without a title as each player was announced.
“And I remember saying to myself in that moment, I hope and refuse to retire without a W.N.B.A. championship.”
And in 2012, she refused to lose — not to Angel McCoughtry and the Atlanta Dream in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and not to 2012 league Most Valuable Player Tina Charles and the Connecticut Sun on the road in a decisive Game 3, even after Indiana’s second-leading scorer, Katie Douglas, was lost to injury five minutes into the game.
And not to Reeve’s defending champions from Minnesota, the overwhelming favorites to repeat.
Catchings remembers the little battles well, the ebb and flow of all the games in that series. She remembers, too, what she described as a huge weight taken off her shoulders as the final buzzer sounded after one last defensive stop.
“We weren’t supposed to win,” Catchings said. “We were definitely David, and Minnesota was the Goliath. We just kept playing, we had our head down and just kept playing and swinging and everybody rose to the occasion.