WASHINGTON - After she was fined by the WNBA for griping about the officiating of the last Indiana-Detroit game, Tamika Catchings got a call from home.
It was the sort of consequence that nearly everyone dreads.
But the message from her mother turned out to be more supportive than chiding.
"My mom called and left a message and said, `I'm going to support you no matter what you do or say,' " said Catchings with a sheepish grin last week. "Of course, she's my mom and she wants to see that her baby is safe. That's what she said."
Catchings was fined $250 for publicly complaining about a perceived failure to curtail chippiness on the floor, as well as asserting that her Indiana Fever team was being targeted. Her remarks came after a close loss to division-leading Detroit, which the second-place Fever (13-10) visits tonight.
Her outburst was one of the few times that Catchings, an otherwise model citizen, has done anything controversial.
There are plenty of times when Nell Fortner, Catchings' coach with the Fever, has gotten after the 6-foot-1 forward to be a little more aggressive, to take control of the team she so clearly leads.
"That's what she has to do," said Fortner. "She wants to involve her teammates, because she is a really selfless player. She tries to get them involved and wants to get them involved, because then it takes some of the pressure off her. It opens some things up for her. If she feels the game getting out of hand, she'll just step up and nail a big shot or do what we need."
Tuesday night at MCI Center, Catchings banked in a baseline runner at the overtime buzzer to give the Fever a 92-91 win over the Mystics. She finished with 30 points, two off her career high.
It was the second time in less than a week that Catchings helped Indiana erase a double-digit second half deficit against Washington. The previous Thursday, Catchings converted a layup with a minute to go for two of her 29 points. The basket took the Indiana lead back to three from one, and the Mystics would get no closer.
"That's one of the things that I feel that I have to do," said Catchings. "Every day I go out, I want to help myself and improve my game and pick my game up. So, being more assertive and becoming more aggressive is going to help me and overall is going to help the team. It will funnel down and that's what I am focusing on."
There aren't many areas that Catchings, the reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year, needs to improve. The daughter of Harvey Catchings, a former NBA center, the forward placed third in last season's Most Valuable Player voting, behind Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie of Los Angeles. She was also the runner-up to Swoopes in Defensive Player of the Year balloting .
This season Catchings is second in the league in steals (2.04), fourth in scoring (19.6) and sixth in rebounding (7.9).
Catchings, 24, may already be the league's best all-around player, and she's slowly embracing the notion that her name belongs in conversation with Leslie and Swoopes and Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw, her former teammate at Tennessee.
"I give myself a couple more years in the league to really develop myself as a player," said Catchings. "There are certain defenses that I am not effective against, and to be the best player, you have to be able to go in night after night. When you think about [Michael] Jordan, no matter what people threw at him, he was able to overcome that. That's the kind of player that I know I can be and that I will be."
She has already conquered a profound hearing loss that requires her to wear a barely visible hearing aid. Though initially reluctant to wear the hearing aid and then to talk about it, Catchings has become a highly sought-after speaker as a symbol of achievement over difficult circumstances.
"If I didn't play basketball, a lot of people wouldn't know what I've gone through," said Catchings. "There are a lot of people who are like me who don't play professional basketball or football or soccer or whatever. They never get to a national level to share their story. They can do it in their community, but not nationally."
It's enough to make a mom proud, provided you don't sass your elders.