As I walked across the empty court of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, just an hour after the Fever had raised the WNBA Championship trophy into the air, I reached down to the ground for a piece of memorabilia. Covered across the hardwood floor, having fallen from the ceiling once the 0:00 hit the clock and the buzzer sounded off an 87-78 game-four victory over Minnesota, the soft confetti I scrunched in my hand was the colors yellow and blue.
The sight of this confetti, along with the image of team-owner Herb Simon accepting the main prize of women's basketball, caught me off-guard for a split-second. It wasn't a team with Reggie Miller on it that will have the parade through town on Tuesday. It wasn't a Larry Bird-built team wearing the slick flat-billed ADIDAS hats fresh off the presses. It for sure wasn't Ron Artest giving speeches to a jam-packed crowd that filled in by the thousands, though I guess we all should be thankful Erin Phillips isn't thanking her psychiatrist on national television for her biggest basketball achievement.
Quite frankly, it wasn't one Indiana Pacer from over the years causing the biggest reason to celebrate Indiana-based professional hoops, stemmed here in the capital city of the state, since 1973. Three ABA titles in four years the Indiana Pacers won back then, etching their name into history of the greatest dynasty the red, white, and blue ball had ever seen. And now, thanks to Head Coach Lin Dunn and the Indiana Fever's 3-1 series win against the Lynx, Slick Leonard, Mel Daniels, and Roger Brown finally have some company high up in the rafters.
The Fever's place, not only in WNBA history but Indianapolis professional sports lore, couldn't be more well-deserved.
"History has been made today," said WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player Tamika Catchings.
"To be a part of history, and to do the things we have been able to do this year or over the past 12 years. In 2009 they were talking about this team possibly folding, and than we had a great team that made it to the championship. We lost to Phoenix in a game-five (in the Finals), and I had just been thinking back to that to where we were now. I kept on thinking not to be satisfied, every game don't get satisfied until we win. Here we are now, satisfied, and we can celebrate."
Catchings, who finished with a game-high 25 points and 8 assists in the clinching victory, was a stat-stuffer all series long but that should come to no surprise. If anything, the power forward gave the same physical contributions that Fever fans have seen year-in, year-out from the 33 year-old star.
Catchings earned the MVP rights with an average of 22.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists over the four games. A pretty good series for the 12-year veteran, one that in the past thirteen months has also won a Gold medal (her third), a Most Valuable Player award, a Defensive MVP award, and has also received All-Star accolades before finally reigning as a WNBA champion.
"It is just priceless," said guard Briann January on getting to share a championship with Catchings.
"The hours of work, the years of work that she has put into this organization, to see it all pay off for her. There is nothing else that we could have done for her that could amount to this. The tears that she is crying right now, they are just killing me. I am so happy because this is the last check, the last thing she needed to do."
Catchings without a shadow of a doubt, is both the face of the Indiana Fever and perhaps has now placed herself among the Mount Rushmore of Indianapolis sports icons. The title that alluded her, almost similar to fellow-Tennessee Volunteer and Indianapolis sports legend Peyton Manning, was finally attained. The pain of yesterday, the ACL-injury, the Achilles tendon rupturing, the early-exits of the playoffs, the heart-break of losing game-four of the 2009 Finals at home, and the thoughts of potentially never getting here have been completely whisked away.
Yet while most fans probably felt the most for Tamika, along the Fever's multiple story-lines that range from January's season-ending ACL-tear in 2011 early in the season, Coach Dunn's quest to finally win a championship as well, Erlana Larkins' journey from not being able to find a team to becoming the post potent rebounder in the playoffs, and each player seems to have their story to tell, perhaps the most heart-warming moment from Sunday night came for forward Katie Douglas.
In every sense of the theme of "Hoosier Hysteria", not the one-night celebration of Indiana University basketball but rather the idea that this very state is obsessed with lacing up the sneakers and putting a ball through the hoop, Douglas represents that. An Indiana All-Star at Perry Meridian High School, a National champion at Purdue University, and a multiple time WNBA All-Star during her eleven-year career, Douglas has been the lightning to Catchings' thunder over her five years in a Fever jersey. 2012 was no different for Douglas, averaging 16.5 points per game before spraining her ankle excruciatingly against in the deciding game-three victory over Connecticut.
You can only imagine how bad it hurt Douglas to stay in Indianapolis during the first two games of the series as the team traveled to Minnesota, ultimately splitting the series at 1-1. You can also believe the sense of relief she must have felt when the team rallied around both hers, and back-up forward Jeanette Pohlen's, injuries after the Fever won game three at home by the final of 76-59.
Yet just as much as Catchings' deserved her moment, so did Douglas too, but a walking boot on the left foot wasn't going to allow her to play this series. Or so, at least that is what everyone had expected. But before game-four, there was Douglas running through the lay-up line, smiling with her teammates once again, fully dressed to perhaps play at anytime despite her name missing from the starting line-up.
As the Fever battled throughout the game, ultimately seizing control late in the fourth quarter, there was Douglas on the sidelines screaming like a cheerleader for every possession of the game. You could sense the joy coming from off the bench, and perhaps that is what made the following so special.
When Briann January was shooting the games final free-throws with 3.2 seconds left as the Fever held an eight-point lead, Coach Dunn called number twenty-three's number in for the once-again stellar (15 points, four rebounds) Shavonte Zellous. It may not have the significance of Willis Reed hopping on one leg for the New York Knicks to clinch the NBA Finals, but there wasn't a single fan not-cheering at the top of their lungs for Douglas as she exchanged hugs with Zellous and walked onto the court.
I'm sure there were a few eyes that had watered as well.
"It means an awful lot," said Douglas as she teared up. "(Catchings) was texting me every day telling me just to keep my head up. She knew that I was struggling, as far as my ankle not being able to get back out there. But she was amazing in leading this team. I did all that I could verbally, just encouraging everybody. I'm just so proud, and so happy, to finally bring a championship to the city of Indianapolis.
Just as quick as Douglas entered the game, the 3.2 seconds clicked off the clock, and the final horn had buzzed and the Fever had officially eliminated the Lynx. The state of Indiana had finally once-again won a professional basketball championship, and the Fever, along with their two prominent members in Douglas and Catchings, finally had accomplished their dreams.
Then right there, right in the middle of thousands of screaming fans, they celebrated together as the confetti fell from the ceiling.