By Matt Harris | Sept. 19, 2016, 12:49 a.m. (ET)
Tamika Catchings is celebrated at her final regular-season game on Sept. 18, 2016 in Indianapolis.


INDIANAPOLIS – Carol Callan has a story she wants to tell Tamika Catchings, one that neatly frames 20 years as a member of USA Basketball. It involves laundry. 

Before Catchings was a four-time gold medalist with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team and a 15-year WNBA veteran, she was a 17-year-old making her first forays into international play. And in 1997, the U.S. U-19 team schlepped to Slovakia for a qualifying tournament ahead of the FIBA Junior World Championship. The team’s accommodations were, to put it mildly, barebones.

The facility also lacked critical amenity: washing machines — a problem given the amount of sweaty garments generated by the team. So Callan, who remains the national team’s director, and Warren Brown, then the executive director of USA Basketball, improvised.

They used the showers, laying a jersey on the floor, dousing it with detergent and turning on the water — relying on a 3-inch lip to keep the sudsy waves contained. Next, they lifted out the soaking jerseys and shorts to work their wrists limp wringing them dry.

They had also an extra set of hands — those belonging to Catchings. For three nights, the future Olympian and WNBA legend put her teammates damp — but clean — uniforms on hangers and walked them to their rooms.

“It was an interesting way to get broken in to USA Basketball,” said Callan. “It showed that things won’t always be that great, and she just ran with it.” 

***

In August, Catchings’ illustrious international career ended with a two-decade run in Rio de Janeiro on another Olympic medal podium. A fourth gold medal hung around her neck after Team USA’s 29-point victory over Spain.

By all accounts, Catchings’ final go-around as a member of the team was a quiet one as a reserve behind a new generation of frontcourt players in Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne. Over eight games, she saw roughly 10 minutes of action each night, averaging 3.1 points and 2.5 rebounds.

“It’s always about being a great teammate,” Catchings said Sunday, ahead of her final regular-season game with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. “We’re all used to playing 30 minutes, but it’s a 40-minute game. All of us can’t do it. For me, with this Olympics in particular, it was really about setting a standard for what it means to be a bench player.”

On Sunday, though, Catchings capped her WNBA regular-season career with 16 points and seven rebounds in the Fever’s 83-60 victory over the Dallas Wings. The day, too, had all the trappings of a ritual departing for the franchise’s first and only face.

For a week, the Fever had been secure in knowing a postseason trip was secured. All that was left was determining their seeding. That certainty carved out more focus on Catchings, who arrived in Indianapolis as the No. 3 pick in the 2001 WNBA draft to what was then an expansion franchise.  

Her legacy on the floor is well documented. She’s firmly entrenched in the league’s top-10 for career points (7,380), rebounds (3,316), free throws (2,004), steals (1,074) and assists (1,488) over 456 games. There are five WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards, a league MVP, 10 WNBA All-Star appearances and the 2012 WNBA title.

In the run-up to her retirement, which she announced two years ago after signing her final deal with the Fever, there’s been a common question phrased a hundred different ways: What comes next? In all her responses, Catchings has left the door open. Yet it’s also conceivable USA Basketball will play a role.

***

For the past 12 years, she’s been a staple on the national team roster. At the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, she was a rookie — part of a new generation of players wedged in among legends such as Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley.

Then, as she would for most of her Olympic career, Catchings carved out a role as a defensive stopper and steady rebounder, never averaging more than seven points per game in Athens, Beijing or London. Rio, though, was as an exercise in transition and a farewell in a role that involved shelving whatever shred of ego she possesses.

“I had two options,” Catchings said. “One, be mad at everybody, and not want to be a good teammate and not want to practice. Or two, be the best teammate I could be.” 

Over two weeks in Rio, Catchings moved a little slower. She lingered on the floor longer after wins. She soaked in more of the atmosphere and pageantry. In the run-up to the Games, Catchings talked about seeing more events — beach volleyball and swimming — while getting off the Olympic team’s cruise-ship home base to squeeze in more trips to the Olympic Village.

To Callan, it was the natural byproduct of Catchings grasping the finality of her two-decade run with the program.

“You just move slower,” she said. “You take more in.”

No doubt that was the case Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Catchings quietly arrived around 1:30 p.m., slowly striding into the building in a navy blue dress patterned with white lilies. A camera crew from NBA Entertainment followed in tow. The shutter of camera from a backpedaling photographer breaking the silence.

Every moment was documented for posterity, and her importance to the franchise underscored. Outside the Fever’s locker room, more than 130 hand-written signs from the organization’s employees were tacked up on the cinderblock wall. During timeouts, short videos played on the Jumbotron overhanging the court. On chair backs in the lower bowl, white T-shirts emblazoned with #24Forever were carefully draped.

In Rio, Catchings could quietly loft shots after practice, staying sharp if called upon there, but at the very least know she could easily slide back into her familiar role for the Fever. But in her finale, even the most common pregame routine was a moment to capture. 

Standing before a floor-to-ceiling mirror, she worked on ball handling. Next, she worked through getting into her shot motion — from a cross-over to a jab-step into a power dribble — halting on the balls of her feet, elbow cocked and guide-hand fastened. In the corner, the film crew silently looked on.

“Before we even opened the game, we cracked a tear,” Fever forward Shenise Johnson said of the day. “At the same time, it’s bigger than basketball. Catch is just one of those amazing people where it just happens to be so.”

In Indianapolis, her retirement has been equated — to a degree — with that of former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Since arriving in Indianapolis, she’s become a pillar of the community, largely through the Catch the Stars Foundation, which helps children in fitness and literacy initiatives. In October 2014, she announced her retirement, and for the better part of two years has been asked to reflect on a career that was still in full swing.

“The weirdest part is, because I’ve been playing for so long, it’s hard to not live in the now,” Catchings said. “It’s hard to look back, because we have another game, we have another practice, we’re traveling. There’s so many other things going on. My reflection is going to come when I’m finished.”

The game itself played to the desired script. Catchings started quickly, scoring eight points and pulling down four rebounds in the first quarter. On a drive off the right wing, splitting the Wings’ pair of Karima Christmas and Odyssey Sims, she softly scooped a finger-roll over the rim for the game’s first basket.  

“You knew she was going to come out with a high energy level,” said Fever coach Stephanie White, who also played alongside Catchings for three seasons. “You knew that she was going to come out with an extra adrenaline rush. It was exactly the way you’d expect it to be with her. She competed. She did everything that’s she always done.”  

*** 

In her farewell game for the U.S. national team, Catchings played seven minutes. She entered the game midway through the third quarter and the lead sitting at 28 points. In that time, she snatched a lone defensive rebound. By then, the game wasn’t in doubt.

Yet the start had been sluggish, and Catchings implored and cajoled from the bench, leading as she always has in her time on the roster.

It’s what has left her credibility, on the floor and off, sterling. And it’s also emblematic of her commitment to the USA Basketball organization, one whose mission she thinks overlaps with Catch the Stars to bring opportunities to children.

“I know they do a lot of stuff, just like we do with our foundation, from a fitness component, really just trying to a good job teaching those skills earlier on,” Catchings said.

Callan says Catchings has freedom to choose how big of a role she wants to play, too. 

“She can really do whatever,” said Callan, who was in Indianapolis to take part in a postgame celebration of Catchings’ career.

Last February, USA Basketball launched a concerted youth development initiative and is working with its Youth Division to work on licensing coaches and accrediting organizations that meet standards set down by the organization. While Catchings’ focus is on the Fever’s potential playoff run, Callan said they’ve already had initial discussions about involving Catchings in that effort.

“I know we’ll have some things for her to do,” Callan said.

The credibility she would add is unquestioned at the national level after appearing in more than 100 international games, and becoming one of just three women to win FIBA world championships at the U-19 and national team levels.  

“Having been in the family, I know how important, especially earlier, it is to get (players) engaged and learn the skills that will help them later on,” Catchings said.  

By now, Catchings’ story is well known. How she grew up hearing-impaired and was mocked by other kids for bulky hearing aids adorning her head. How she dumped them and speech lessons, picked up a basketball and became the state of Illinois’ youngest Ms. Basketball. How she excelled in the crucible overseen by Pat Summitt at Tennessee. And the rookie year she missed when, 17 games into her senior season in Knoxville, she shredded her ACL.  

Yet Callan remembers a different snippet of Catchings’ ascent, when the small forward as a soft-spoken 16-year-old member of the U.S. roster at a tournament in Mexico was asking: “Am I good enough for this team?” At time, Callan was new on the job as national team director, but she answered Catchings easily. “Yes,” she told her, “you are.” 

“She’s the one athlete that’s been the constant,” Callan said Sunday. “I’m going to miss her.”

Matt Harris is a reporter from Indianapolis. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.