RIO DE JANEIRO – “What are you doing?’’ I asked Tamika Catchings.
She was alone, sitting on the edge of a press-conference room stage, having previously done interviews with Indianapolis-area media members like your humble correspondent.
After a short round of interviews – and Tamika is the only Indy athlete who insists on hugging all members of the local media – she was alone. No national media talking to her. No international media talking to her. In fact, the press-conference room, which was filled for the U.S. men’s basketball team just one day earlier, was maybe one-sixth filled.
“Just hanging,’’ she said. “Waiting to go back (to the boat where the basketball teams are staying).’’
This is nuts. And this is wrong. And this is completely expected. For one thing, women’s basketball doesn’t rate with men’s basketball in terms of interest, and anybody who argues otherwise is kidding themselves. Two, the U.S. women are the surest best in these Games, a sure thing to win another gold medal.
Do you know how good the U.S. Women’s Basketball Team is? Do you see all this talent, all the MVP’s, all the championships, the whole pedigree of this team that is surely headed toward yet another gold medal. We talk about Dream Teams. This is the Dream Team. These are the best of the best, although you’ll get some argument that Candace Parker should have been included on the team. The men? Let’s just say it’s a bit watered down. I mean, no disrespect to Harrison Barnes, but can you imagine a player like him on the original Dream Team in 1992?
“You know what’s sad?’’ head U.S. coach Geno Auriemma was saying. “It’s a bigger story if we lose than if we win. There’s something wrong with that.’’
That’s true, but that’s the reality. The American women have won gold medals in seven of nine Olympic competitions and five straight, the longest team streak since India’s field hockey teams and the U.S. men’s basketball teams. They’ve won nine FIBA world championships and didn’t lose an international match between 1994 and 2006. They’ve won 41 straight Olympic games and are 58-3 since the women’s game was introduced into the Olympics 40 years ago in Montreal.
So there’s Tamika, one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time, and she’s by herself, making chit-chat with me. Poor woman.
“What are your plans?’’ she asked me.
“I’m going to write and then I’m going to grab a beer,’’ I said. “The usual.’’
“That sounds like fun,’’ she said.
Can you imagine Kevin Durant sitting by himself the last 25 minutes of men’s basketball availability? Or Carmelo Anthony? Or Paul George, who was surrounded by reporters the entire session?
The U.S. women open play against Senegal Sunday night, and it’s hard to imagine anybody on the Olympic schedule will give them any kind of a challenge. How are you going to get beat when you’re roster features Seimone Augustas, Maya Moore, Elena Della Donne, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles, Tamika Catchings, and the list goes on. They have youth. They have experience. And unlike some of their male counterparts, they are here because they know how important it is for their sport.
“Can you imagine a day coming when some of the women would be like LeBron or Steph and say, `Nah, I’m tired; I’m going to blow off the Olympics this year?’ ‘’ I asked Catchings.
“I don’t,’’ she said. “For us, this is the biggest thing. It’s important winning the WNBA title, but this is the top of the mountain for us. And for all the success we’ve had in the women’s game, we’re still growing the game and still trying to sell the game. When we’re asked to play, there’s no hesitation.’’
For Catchings, this fourth and final Olympic experience is about two things – well, three, if you include winning another gold medal and adding to her collection. One, it’s about being a good teammate. Two, it’s about getting off the boat and actually experiencing the Olympics outside of her own games, something she’s been reticent to do her first three times. She desperately wants to make it out to Copacabana Beach to see women’s volleyball. She wants to watch Michael Phelps swim. She wants to catch some track and field, a sport she used to dabble at when she was younger; big surprise.
“This time around, I really want to get out and take in the whole experience,’’ she said. “So that I can walk away saying, `OK, I didn’t just play basketball at every single Olympics. I did other things too.’ ’’
The being-a-good-teammate part will surely come naturally to Catchings, who will be coming off the bench and playing limited minutes. Her job is to play defense. Bring energy. Bring direction. Provide experience.
“All these players, they get to a certain point in their careers, they think they’re the same players they were 10 years ago, but they’re not; believe me, they’re not,’’ U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. “But a player like Tamika, she understands her role here. She knows what’s expected of her. And she’s fine with that.’’
Catchings has been playing fewer minutes this season for a Fever team that is 12-12 heading into the Olympic break, but Catchings doesn’t need to be reminded: The last time she played in the Olympics, the Fever surged late in the season and ultimately won the WNBA title. If anybody not named Peyton Manning deserves to go out on top, it’s Tamika Catchings, not only one of the game’s greats, but one of the great citizens of our fair city. Nobody, and I mean nobody, gives back more to her sport and her city. She’s been a superstar in every sense of the term, and an underappreciated one at that.
“This is it, the grand finale,’’ she said. “I definitely want to go out with a bang. I’m so excited I’ve had the opportunity to play with this group of ladies. But the journey has to come to an end sometime.’’
A great one, one of the greatest ones, is set to say goodbye to the world stage. Just hope the world is paying attention when it happens.