Tamecka Dixon knows what it's like to win a WNBA championship. She knows the overpowering emotion that takes over while walking onto the floor during the final moments of the deciding game. She knows the impact of triumphant teammates slamming together for a celebratory embrace. And she knows what its like to cry like a baby while raising a trophy high above her head. "When you are standing on a podium all the images and all the hard work comes into your mind and you have the mental pictures of the days you struggled and put it all on the line with your teammates," she says. "And to finally have the opportunity to hold the trophy above your head... it was a special feeling. And once I got that first one - you chase that feeling throughout your career. You chase it because there is nothing like that feeling ever."
Despite two championships with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002, Dixon, one of a dwindling number of WNBA originals, continues chasing the championship feeling. This past offseason, after the Houston Comets folded, she arrived in Indiana with the hope of sharing that moment with new teammates.
And as the WNBA playoffs tip off on Sept. 16, Dixon has helped the Indiana Fever position itself as one of the top teams in the league and a favorite to capture the championship. The Fever dominated the bulk of the season, securing home court advantage in the Eastern Conference. A recent slump has not deterred high expectations for post-season success, and Dixon sees many similarities between the 2009 Fever and her L.A. teams. "We share an ability to deal with adversity," she says. "We've had a number of injuries along the way. We dealt with losing two right off the bat and were able to rebound and win 11 straight. So I think our ability to control the adversity and make something positive happen, that's definitely a similarity. I can remember in my L.A. days we dealt with a lot of injuries. We dealt with some turmoil outside of what we were trying to do. We handled it like true champions and were able to come back and win two championships."
And injuries are a pressing concern as the Fever prepare for their first round match up. In recent weeks stress reactions, sprains, and back spasms have hampered the team. Starters Tammy Sutton-Brown and Katie Douglas - as well as Dixon, herself - have missed significant minutes. Dixon feels the team's ability to stay healthy during the playoffs will be the deciding factor in their championship success. "If we can do that, we'll be fine," she says.
But along with the injuries, a sort of complacency - or a willingness to play at the level of the competition - has hindered the team throughout the season. The Fever has made a habit of careless miscues, and in the last few weeks have allowed competition to open up double digit leads against them. "We dealt with some complacency issues," agrees Dixon. "We're one of the fortunate teams who are not battling to get in to the playoffs and we are facing teams who every night can significantly change where they are in the playoff hunt. We have to match other teams intensities and effort immediately. "
But the Fever's Eastern Conference opponents are deadly, despite records that hover around the .500 mark. A lackadaisical approach to any of these teams, and Indiana will face an early vacation. "The reason a lot of the teams have subpar records is because of the parity in the league," says Dixon. "Every team is really tough and we've seen that with Sacramento - the team with the worst record - who came in here and played us the toughest. Everybody poses a significant threat. Everybody."
Dixon credits that toughness to the changes made in WNBA rosters during the season. There was the loss of Houston's franchise - winner of the first four WNBA titles - and then the elimination of two roster spots on every team. To critics, these moves marked the beginning of the end for the league. Instead it produced the WNBA's most exciting season to date. Scoring is up around the league. The game is faster, more athletic, and more competitive. Four teams - Indiana, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Seattle - have legitimate shots at winning the title. The odds are equally high any one of these teams could be upset in the first round thanks to the fierce competition the WNBA produced all season long.
And what if, in the end, Indiana is facing Los Angeles in the WNBA Finals? What if, now with Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas at her side, Dixon looks across the court and sees former teammates Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson staring her down? "In the back of my mind, somewhere far away, there is a thought I may have the opportunity to knock off the team I won two championships with," she admits. "From a distance you think about it a little bit but right now we are so far away from that point it's not significant."
What is significant is chasing that championship feeling, sharing that moment and lifting another championship high above her head with a new group of teammates. But is this Fever team, one that has struggled the past few weeks, capable of regaining their dominant form and finally climbing to the top of the WNBA? "I'm shooting for it," Dixon says, an expectant smile sneaking onto her face. "I think as far as opportunity and chance, I have a really good chance with this team to experience that feeling again. I'm looking forward to it."
The Indiana Fever (22-12) begin the playoffs on the road against the Washington Mystics Thursday night with plenty of questions. At one point owning an 11 game win streak and the best record in the league, the Fever now limp into action tomorrow having won only three of its last 10 games, the worst 10 game stretch of the eight playoff teams. But those numbers could be deceptive. Myriad injuries and opportunities to rest players have accounted for numerous losses during the final two weeks of the season. The big question now is can the Fever step onto the court healthy while maintaining the chemistry that pushed them to the top seed in the East and the league's second best record?
The Fever swept the Mystics during the regular season in four tough battles with an average margin of victory of 8.8 ppg. Helmed by Julie Plank, who spent eight years as a Fever assistant coach, Washington has plenty of firepower and ability to shake up the playoffs if Indiana isn't ready.
Game one of the series begins Thursday, Sept. 17. ESPN2 will broadcast the game at 7 p.m. Game two follows on Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse with a tip time of 7 pm. If necessary, game three will be at home on Monday night. Tickets are currently available at the Conseco Fieldhouse box office. See www.wnba.com/fever.