SPORTS Bill Benner: The city’s ‘next’ Reggie is already in our midst

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Steve Alford and Stephanie White were the quintessential Indiana high school and college basketball stars. They were hardwood heroes who emerged from small towns and led their respective universities, Indiana and Purdue, to national championships.

For many Hoosiers, the storybook ending would have been for that success to carry on to the professional level, with Alford and White leading the NBA Pacers and WNBA Fever to championships and street parades.

Reality intruded.

Alford, as we have been reminded recently, was bypassed by the Pacers in the 1987 NBA draft in favor of a skinny guard from UCLA named Reggie Miller.

We all know the rest of that story.

Miller went on to become the greatest Pacer ever, and is destined for the Hall of Fame. Alford, who played only a short time in the NBA, went into coaching and is now at the University of Iowa.

Unlike Alford, White did end up with the local pro team, the Fever. But her career was dogged by injuries, and the dominance she displayed at Purdue never materialized at the next level. Recently, ironically on the day after Miller played his final regular-season game with the Pacers, White announced her retirement … to go into coaching.

But just as Miller supplanted Alford as an Indiana legend, there is a player-as well as a person and a professional-who can become to the Fever what Miller was to the Pacers, and what White might have been to the professional legacy.

Her name is Tamika Catchings.

And hers is the face-no, make that the Mount Rushmore-of the Fever franchise.

If you have not taken the time to watch Catchings perform, you have denied yourself the opportunity to witness what all Hoosiers enjoy.

And that is someone who can really play.

Catchings is a 6-foot-1-inch forward with guard skills. She can dribble-drive, post up or hit the jump shot. She is a tenacious rebounder, an excellent passer and a shotblocking defender. In just three seasons, Catchings leads the franchise in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

Like Miller, she is an Olympic gold medalist. Like Miller, she overcame childhood obstacles (he, pronated hips that had him in leg braces; her, a hearing disability). Like Miller, she has made a determined effort to become involved in the community, especially with youth, through her Catch The Stars Foundation.

But unlike Reggie, Catchings hasn’t delivered those defining moments on the court and in the heat of the postseason. Not yet. To be blunt, good works need to be augmented by great, attention-demanding performances, and that is what Catchings in particular and the Fever in general have yet to deliver.

In other words, Catchings’ profile in the community has to be accompanied by the Fever’s profile in the community, and it won’t happen until the Fever command attention by their success on the floor.

No one is more aware of that than Catchings, whose status as a top-five WNBA player has been diminished by the Fever’s inability to make a postseason statement.

“This is [the franchise’s] sixth season, so we’re over that five-season, get-your-feetwet thing,” Catchings says. “Now it’s time to move forward. We have a great opportunity being in Indiana, in a basketball town, and people have supported us. Now it’s up to us, the coaches and the organization to put together a winning team.”

Catchings and Fever Coach Brian Winters also know she can’t shoulder the load alone, no matter her skill level.

“Tamika is our best player and our most experienced player,” Winters says. “She has to be a leader. Having said that, she also needs help.”

Nonetheless, Catchings remains the team’s star, its signature player, the one most likely to draw fans and to carry it up the standings.

“Every franchise in pro sports needs someone to be the face of the franchise,” Winters says. “Reggie Miller was that for the Pacers for years.”

And Catchings is aware of Miller’s profile, both on and off the floor. She says she would like to have a similar impact.

“He’s done so much for the game, so much for the Pacers, so much for the community,” she says. “He wanted to build something with this franchise and I think that’s important. You see the loyalty he’s gained with this team and this city. As long as my body’s willing, I’d like to have [a career] like Reggie.”

Including, we hope, some postseason moments like Reggie’s.

Benner is 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

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