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Fever Is Catching On With Tamika

Catchings, the WNBA's Rookie of the Year in 2002, works hard on and off the court to create a buzz and help establish Indianapolis franchise.

June 08, 2003|Dan Gelston | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Little girls and die-hard WNBA fans aren't the only ones looking up to Tamika Catchings.

The Indiana Fever player tilts her neck each time she passes an eye-catching billboard outside Conseco Fieldhouse.

"It's crazy," Catchings said. "I look up and say, 'Who's that girl?' It's a good feeling."

Girls wear her No. 24 jersey and basketball junkies and casual fans know her name. She is the face of the Fever, a one-woman advertisement whose likeness adorns everything from ticket brochures to newspaper ads to a banner hanging in Conseco's entrance that asks, "Got Tickets?"

"I'm trying to reach out to as many kids as I can," she said. "If you can make an impact on the kids, they're going to want to drag their parents to a game."

Catchings is the pitchwoman for a team finding its way in Indy's crowded sports market, and she's already accomplished something much harder than winning a championship in the often-ignored WNBA -- she's created a buzz.

"That's the one thing you have to do in this league," Coach Nell Fortner said. "She's done that here in Indiana."

Fans took an immediate liking to Catchings, the rookie of the year in 2002 who is considered one of the WNBA's best all-around players. She's personable and plays hard. Schools ask her to give motivational speeches, she runs a basketball camp and rarely turns down an interview request or a promotional appearance.

"She's a very marketable figure on and off the court," said Kelly Krauskopf, the chief operating officer for the Fever.

While many athletes shy away from fan interaction, Catchings willingly puts herself in a position to help the franchise and the league grow. She doesn't want Indianapolis to suffer the same problems that the WNBA has had with four franchises that were shut down or moved.

"I love being in the visible eye for our team and the organization," she said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure this team doesn't fold and stays in Indiana."

She's a feel-good story in a league still trying to find its place among second-tier sports.

WNBA general managers voted her the league's most intense player and the player they most enjoy watching. Last year, she won the WNBA Community Assist Award for her outreach efforts, visiting more than 20 Indianapolis public schools.

Catchings, a Texas native who won a national championship at Tennessee, made Indianapolis her home when she bought a house last September. She said she wanted to put down roots and prove her commitment.

Indiana, an expansion franchise that spent two seasons playing with other teams' castoffs, has found an identity with Catchings.

She's helped the Fever nearly double its victory total in one year while earning its first postseason appearance.

"We like to think of Tamika as our Michael [Jordan]," Krauskopf said. "Michael was drafted third by the way. We like to make that analogy."

The Fever's pocket schedule has a picture of Catchings with the caption, "See It For Yourself." Presumably, the "It" is the Fever, though it could easily substitute for Catchings' all-around game.

Fans are "attracted to her hard style of play," Fortner said. "She's just fun to watch. She plays with a smile on her face. When you hear about how nice she is and what a good person she is, it's the whole package."

Fortner said Catchings is the type of player that would draw the male fan who only follows male sports.

Fortner isn't concerned that Catchings is the star of the show while the rest of the Fever languish in the background.

"When people went to see the Chicago Bulls play, they went to see Michael Jordan and all the other Bulls benefited from that," Fortner said.

"That's how this is. It's not a negative thing at all. You just want people to come see you play. If they want to come see her, great. They've got to watch everybody else too."

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