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SPORTS: Talent-heavy Fever shoot for a championship

May 14, 2007

But that's not close to being the case. The Fever are loaded.

And maybe-just maybe-they can help whet this town's appetite for professional basketball again.

But at a time when we're all looking for some feel-good to come out of the fieldhouse and for some local love to flow back in, well, this could be that time.

A team that has gone 21-13 and reached the playoffs each of the last two seasons returns all five starters. That group includes Tamika Catchings, merely one of the best female players on the planet.

"All she does," says Winters, "is fill up box scores and guard the other team's best player."

Well, that's not quite all. Off the floor, Catchings is involved in almost as many good community works as the United Way.

Also returning is another Tamika, last name Whitmore, who was the team's second-leading scorer last year, and shooting guard Anna DeForge, the best three-point shooter. Then there's the talkative and tough-as-nails point guard, Aussie Tully Bevilaqua.

The Fever, however, operate in the same conference as defending champion Detroit, which eliminated the locals last year in the playoffs. Standing pat was not an option.

During the off-season, General Manager Kelly Krauskopf worked her magic. She enticed all-star Tammy Sutton-Brown to sign as a free agent, thus filling this doughnut team's hole at center. When Charlotte folded, the dispersal draft yielded the unexpected bonus of Sheri Sam, a veteran swing player who was available primarily because no one else but the Fever could afford her, thanks to Krauskopf's judicious use of the purse strings. And then, in the college draft, another surprise: 6-7 Alison Bales from Duke.

Says Winters, "We've improved dramatically."

The proof of that improvement begins May 19, when Minnesota comes to the fieldhouse to open the 34-game regular season.

Winters has had to prepare his team on the fly. As late as a week or so before the opener, five of the Fever had yet to arrive because of their involvement in various European leagues. "It's a pain in the neck," he said. "But it's the same for almost everybody."

This season also represents an opportunity for Winters, the former Milwaukee Bucks star. His NBA head-coaching career consists of starting an expansion team (the Vancouver Grizzlies) and a stint as an interim coach at Golden State. Winters-beginning his fourth season with the Fever-has not had a team with the championship potential this one has.

He's also been on a steady learning curve. When he came to the Fever, he had only casual knowledge of WNBA talent and teams.

"It was like learning a whole new pool of players," he said. Assistants Lin Dunn (the former Purdue coach) and Julie Plank (who has been with the Fever in each of its eight seasons) helped him bridge that gap. He also had to learn how to coach women, but those changes were mostly positive. He said women are better listeners and more coachable than their NBA counterparts. "They're also more talkative," he said. Take from that what you will. The Fever's quest, though, will be to become the talk of the town, not easily accomplished in a season that begins in concert with the Indianapolis 500 and ends just as the Colts will be gearing up to defend their Super Bowl championship.

They've also not yet penetrated the market to reach the general (read: mostly male) basketball fan. To many, they're still like a novelty act even in their eighth season.

"The WNBA is still making its way," Winters said. "We would like to expose it to people who have never seen us play, who would enjoy how hard we play and the way we play. Winning attracts people. If you win games at a high level, people will come."

And maybe some will turn out just to experience some good fieldhouse vibes again.

"We want to put out a championship-caliber product that people can be proud of, the Pacers can be proud of, that Donnie Walsh, the Simons and everybody around here can be proud of," he said.

And if it happens, well, there's sure plenty of room in that office for a trophy.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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