Ten years ago ...
Indiana has always been a basketball state, but in the 1990s women's basketball began to reach the levels the men's game had decades earlier. The 1993 high school All Stars took their games around the state and nation, creating an immediate effect. Ft. Wayne Northrop High School's Leslie Johnson helped Purdue University reach their first Final Four in 1994, while Bloomington South High School's Beth Morgan would lead Notre Dame University to their first appearance in 1997.
At Tennessee, Charlestown's Abby Conklin played a role in three straight Lady Vol championships. Other players such as Stephanie White, Monica Maxwell, Ruth Riley and Katie Douglas played crucial roles in showcasing what Indiana's female athletes could do. In 1999, White and Douglas led Purdue to the state's first NCAA Women's National Championship.
So maybe it was no surprise that on June 7, 1999, the WNBA awarded Indiana an expansion franchise along with Seattle, Miami and Portland. David Letterman's mother, Dorothy Mengering, Indy 500 driver Lyn St. James, baseball star Tony Gwynn, gospel singer Sandi Patty, Larry Bird and former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh snatched up season tickets while the team's staff took shape.
Kelly Krauskopf, the WNBA's director of basketball operations, was hired as the team's chief operating officer. Nell Fortner, former Purdue women's basketball coach, was named head coach and general manager; however, a commitment to coaching the 2000 U.S. women's Olympic team in Sydney allowed for Anne Donovan, who had just been inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, to step in as interim coach for the inaugural season.
That December, the team took shape on the court, selecting Gordana Grubin with the first pick of the expansion draft. Trades brought Charlotte's Stephanie White and Washington's Monica Maxwell back home. Two days later, the team would unveil the Indiana Fever name and logo.
On June 1, 2000, the Indiana Fever began WNBA competition against the Miami Sol. The Fever won, 57-54, but two days later dropped their home opener to the Orlando Miracle. As it is for any new team in any league, the first season was a struggle and the Fever closed the campaign with a 9-23 record. As a result, they received the third pick in the 2001 draft.
On April 20, 2001, the Fever selected Tamika Catchings in the draft. The University of Tennessee standout was injured weeks earlier in the NCAA tournament, and it was questionable if she could play during the WNBA season. But her potential as a player was greater than any possible risks.
"My favorite memory is the first time I put on a Fever uniform," says Catchings, the Fever's All Star and Olympian forward. She flashes that smile, the one that radiates before and after games as she greets fans or when she is out in the Indianapolis community. The moment the referee tosses up the ball, though, that smile fades and Catchings turns into a battle-hardened leader, banging under the basket with the league's powerhouse players for rebounds and points, shutting down marquee scorers like Diana Taurasi.
"I think she reminds me of watching LeBron James," teammate Tully Bevilaqua says. "Watching LeBron, he's diving for the ball, he's falling out of bounds to deflect the ball back to a teammate. Catch is similar to him in that every possession is 100 percent."
Catchings stepped onto the court in 2002, winning the WNBA Rookie of the Year award while helping the Fever make their first playoff appearance. Since then, management has mixed and matched players with Catchings, creating competitive combinations but never able to find a championship blend. But Catchings' excitement as the 2009 season approaches suggests the Fever formula has finally been perfected. Issues such as low-post defense and point guard depth have been addressed. And the addition of center Yolanda Griffith and guard Tamecka Dixon, both WNBA champions, are also key points. "Dixon and Griffith both bring that veteran leadership and know how to win," Catchings says.
While Catchings leads on the court, her presence extends out into the community as well. Since arriving, she has been active with various charities and organizations and has established her own Catch the Stars foundation, which offers fitness and mentoring programs to Indianapolis youths. In June, she will receive the Rev. Charles Williams Award for her work with young people. "I had the opportunity to sit down with him before he passed away," she says. "He's done so much for the community and I'm excited to get an award as important as that one."
Despite countless league and community awards recognizing her accomplishments, Catchings is still waiting for a WNBA championship. With the arrival of Katie Douglas last year, high expectations abounded for the team. But injuries wracked the Fever all season long. Catchings missed nine games herself and only started in 17, and the team limped to a 17-17 record and a first round playoff exit against eventual champions Detroit. "There's a chip on our shoulder," Catchings says as the 2009 season draws near. But she is already noticing positive differences from last year's team. "From one day of practice the chemistry is better. It's just a matter now of what we do in practice - having more days to practice, having three preseason games to gel as a team - I think we will be really good this year."
Making the team
Indiana and Seattle started the 2003 season missing their expansion sisters, Portland and Miami, who folded after the 2002 season. The Fever added All Star and Olympian Natalie Williams and guard Kelly Miller to the lineup, but posted a losing record. After the season, Nell Fortner resigned from her positions with the team. Kelly Krauskopf became general manager.
"I still get chills thinking about walking out of the tunnel into the arena for the first time in 2000 and seeing the upper deck filled," Krauskopf says. "Before the game we honored Birch Bayh, who had purchased 5,500 season tickets allowing the team to reach the league's requirements. He was so important in getting us here with the Title IX legislation he helped create. I remember talking to him before the game and I said, 'Look what you've done,' and he had tears in his eyes."
Krauskopf is one of only three people - play-by-play announcer Chris Denari and former ball kid turned administrative assistant Ashley Floyd, being the others - who has been with the franchise from the very start. In 1999, Krauskopf was invited to interview for a position with the Fever.
"My name came to Donnie Walsh as a good candidate to put the team together," she says. The Texas native made her first trip to Indiana and met with Walsh in his Market Square Arena office. "I could tell right away this was a well-run organization. They were going to treat the Fever the right way."
Krauskopf was hired and became the highest-ranking female in the Indiana professional sports landscape. She gained a reputation for intuitive moves, giving the Fever an increasingly positive future on the court. 2009 is no exception. "On paper we look pretty darn good," she says. "I feel we answered a lot of the questions from last season: point guard depth, the low post, scoring. But I'm smart enough to know everyone else got better, too."
At the end of ESPN's 2009 WNBA draft coverage, women's basketball legend and commentator Nancy Leiberman praised the Fever for their draft day and post season moves. The praise came off sounding like a warning to the rest of the league. Krauskopf is proud of the recognition the franchise receives for its transactions, but knows the changes need to translate into wins on the court and a positive environment in the locker room.
"Great teams are more than individual talent," she says. "You can have 11 great players but if they don't play as a team ... we've all seen teams stacked with talent implode. Your team has to be together."
This season, Krauskopf may see the Fever organization's hard work come to fruition. "We feel this is our baby," she says, thinking back to all the people past and present who have helped build the team. "A 10-year-old child we nurtured." Now, the Fever have the potential to begin their second decade with a championship, and Krauskopf hopes Indianapolis will support the team as much now as the city did in the beginning. "The city really stepped up and showed they wanted the franchise," she says. "Now the challenge is to make people understand we still need that support."
With the arrival of Tully Bevilaqua, the 2005 campaign under head coach Brian Winters was one of the Fever's most successful. They went 21-13, recorded their first victory against the L.A. Sparks and made their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals. The Fever swept New York in the first round and was swept in turn by the Connecticut Sun. The loss would bring Natalie Williams' career to a close.
Bevilaqua's favorite Fever memory dates back to her arrival in Indianapolis. "My first year here was very memorable," the team's Aussie road warrior point guard says. "I had switched from the Seattle Storm after winning a championship with them. It's hard to leave a club after such a high. So I was a bit nervous coming here. But from day one the fans and my teammates made it feel like I had been playing here for years."
After traveling around the league for six seasons, Bevilaqua arrived in Indiana and blossomed into one of the league's deadliest defenders. Her tenacity towards opponents has the potential of drawing louder cheers than a Tamika Catchings three-pointer and she's become one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
But as the 2009 season begins, Bevilaqua's role with the team is one of the big questions heading into opening day. Will Bevilaqua remain the team's starting point guard, or will the Fever go with a youth movement and elevate Erika White or rookie Briann January?
Whatever the decision, Bevilaqua welcomes competition at the guard spot. "I'm excited we have a good rotation of guards and we can keep a revolving door going so we are maintaining constant up-tempo full court pressure for 40 minutes," she says. "For myself, it's all about playing in spurts, whether it's starting or coming off the bench. It's about whoever is out there at the time playing at 100 percent and we're not holding back any energy. I see myself as a veteran leader helping out the young players we brought in and a mentor to them as well and bringing it to the floor when I get out there."
Bevilaqua feels the current team is "the best lineup we've had." She credits Fever management for putting them in the position to again compete for a championship by keeping up with the other top teams in the league when it comes to grabbing key free agents. "Definitely we feel very good about the group management has put together," she says. "The addition of Yolanda Griffith with her experience and her competitiveness is going to elevate everyone else. I've had a break to physically and mentally get ready and freshen up a bit. Now I'm rarin' to go."
Lin Dunn replaced Winters as head coach last season. Dunn, a former Purdue women's basketball coach, had been with the Fever since leaving the Seattle Storm in 2002. Working with Krauskopf, she helped orchestrate one of the franchise's defining moments: bringing Katie Douglas back to Indianapolis.
Douglas can recall a tough battle between the Fever and her Connecticut Sun in the 2006 Eastern Conference finals. With under a minute to go and the Sun up by three, the Fever amped up their defense for one last stand. As the shot clock ran down, it looked like they would have one more opportunity to tie the game. But then Douglas got the ball. "I banked a three-pointer to seal the game," she remembers. "It was a pretty big moment and definitely a lucky shot."
On a cold February day last year, the Fever made a dramatic announcement. They had traded All Star forward Tamika Whitmore to the Sun in order to bring Douglas back to Indiana, where she had starred at Perry Meridian High School, helped Purdue win the 1999 NCAA championship and then led the Boilermakers to the 2001 championship game.
For Douglas, the 2008 season was not the homecoming she wanted. So many injuries and a month-long break for the Olympics left the team playing inconsistent basketball all season. But now Douglas and her teammates are feeling refreshed and healthy. "It's an interesting year with a break between the European season and the WNBA season," Douglas says.
Most WNBA players compete in international leagues during the winter. Since the WNBA's inception, the league's schedule has meant many players competing overseas miss training camp or arrive after the season begins. The league finally made changes, pushing the schedule back and allowing all players to arrive on time with a little rest between seasons. For Douglas, this is a welcomed change.
"Last year, I showed up the day before the first game and played the next day. To be able to unwind and get a little bit of vacation and then get up here and feel re-energized is different but a really good feeling."
Besides the needed rest, Douglas says the break helps a basketball team trying to find itself. "All the people are here. All the veterans are here," she says. "You would hope we could build a little team chemistry without trying to build that in a game. It's hard to find out what every player's strengths and weaknesses are out on the court during a game."
Now, in her second season with the Fever, Douglas has her sights set on a championship. And despite playing with some strong Connecticut teams, this year's Indiana ballclub looks like one of the league's best ever lineups. "The Indiana Fever always set their goals extremely high and it's not just getting into the playoffs. It's winning the Eastern Conference and then getting a shot at the championship," she says. "We are going to prepare ourselves to be in a position to win a championship in the end."
The veterans and the rookie
On June 7, 2009, 10 years to the day after being awarded their WNBA franchise, the Fever will play their first home game of the season against the Minnesota Lynx. "As we approach the start of the 10th season, I am very excited about the talent level we have," head coach Lin Dunn says. "This is the most talented group we have ever had and training camp is going to be a very competitive situation with very good players fighting for spots."
The addition of Yolanda Griffith and Tamecka Dixon are key elements to this year's potential success. Both won WNBA championships and are multi-time All Stars while Griffith is a former league MVP. "Both are blue collar workers," Dunn says. "They are extremely competitive and play to win. Those types of attitudes are very beneficial to have on a team."
"This is a great team with a lot of potential," adds Griffith, who recently announced she would retire at season's end. "There are a lot of feisty people on the team, and it's a hard working team."
Along with bringing veterans in, Dunn is excited about eight quality guards competing for roster spots. "I like the way that sounds," she says. Among those is the Fever's first round draft pick, Briann January.
January is a two-time Pac-10 defensive player of the year from Arizona State with great court vision and a long-range shot. She led the Sun Devils to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champions Connecticut in this year's NCAA tournament. "From the first day of camp I've learned this game is faster and more physical. There is a lot more going on than in the college game," she says. "I'm here to add whatever this team needs to reach the next level - whether it's a fresh pair of legs or pushing and taking care of the ball."
Making new memories
With the pieces assembled, the players healthy and ready to compete, all that's left is seeing what happens on the court. It won't be an easy ride to a championship. As always, the Fever will battle Detroit and Connecticut for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the WNBA finals.
The young Chicago Sky and the revamped Washington Mystics could interfere with their longstanding rivals' ambitions. And should the Fever reach the championship series, a determined Lisa Leslie, in her final year in the WNBA, may have her L.A. Sparks waiting. The Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury are always Western Conference wild cards, capable of taking the title.
Fever head coach Dunn has been around the organization since 2003, first as a scout then as an assistant coach. She has seen its highs and lows, and counts Indiana's comeback victory from a 22-point deficit against Connecticut in game three of their 2007 first round playoff series as her favorite Fever memory. But changes made during the off season and the promise the Fever hold on the court could eclipse that memory by season's end.
After 10 years of work, the team is right where they want to be and a championship is a realistic expectation. "Looking back, Ann and Nell did a great job laying the foundation for the team," Dunn says. "They made smart draft picks and brought in quality people. Brian Winters had the team competing at a high level. I've seen the team grow from not being able to get into the postseason to being 10 minutes away from a trip to the finals. The team has been fashioned to challenge for a championship and make an impact in the community."
And, if that championship trophy is raised, it will be the greatest Fever memory of all.