- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Fever don't know this, but symbolically they could tie a green ribbon around their 2012 WNBA championship.
During the second game of the Eastern Conference finals on Oct. 8 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a WNBA official discreetly handed out some armbands made of green-ribbon material to reporters and photographers. Just to be prepared.
The armbands would allow media to get into the room where Connecticut -- leading the Fever by five points with just more than four minutes left -- would receive the East champions' trophy, should the Sun hold on to win that game. The WNBA didn't want to have the ceremony on the Fever's home court in front of their disappointed fans.
Of course, it turned out that the armbands weren't needed. The Fever won that game 78-76 on Shavonte Zellous' buzzer-beater.
That's when things really started to become fairy tale-like for Indiana. What happened over the course of the next two weeks definitely was not what most people expected. Indiana not only beat the team that finished first in the East, Connecticut, but also West winner Minnesota, the league's defending champion.
And the Fever's triumph in those series came after Indiana beat the team that knocked it out of the playoffs last year, Atlanta. The Fever won that series with the Dream despite losing the first game at home.
Overall, the Fever went 7-3 in the playoffs, becoming the first Eastern Conference team to win the WNBA title since Detroit in 2008. Technically, Indiana is the third team from the East to be champion -- only because Houston was in the East during the WNBA's first season in 1997. Houston is now defunct; the Shock moved from Detroit to Tulsa and the Western Conference in 2010.
The East has been the conference that is considered "not quite as good" over the years. But the Fever struck a winning blow for the East, and in so doing became what is -- it's fair to say -- one of the more unlikely champions in the WNBA's 16-season history.
Not because the Fever aren't talented. They definitely are. Nor because they were undeserving in any way. After all, the Fever have made it to the postseason eight years in row and had veterans such as Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas and Tammy Sutton-Brown, who between them have 150 games of postseason experience.
Until Sunday, though, all that time spent in the playoffs hadn't equaled a title. The closest Indiana had come was a 3-2 series loss to Phoenix in 2009, when the Fever had a chance to close out the title at home in Game 4 but lost to the Mercury.
In Douglas' case, 2012 was her fourth trip to the WNBA Finals -- but the first in which she didn't actually get to play. Yes, she'll show up in the box score for Game 4, as she took the court to a rousing ovation with three seconds left and the Fever firmly in grasp of the victory.
But Douglas did not actually get to compete in the Fever's last five games, starting with the Eastern Conference finals Game 3, when she injured her ankle just five minutes into the competition.
It's both because of Douglas' absence and the fact that Minnesota seemed to be the more talented team -- the Lynx had the best regular-season record at 27-7 -- that we suggest Indiana might even be the most unlikely WNBA champion. Or perhaps a better term is "most unexpected."
Because who really did expect that this would be the year the Fever finally won it all? Indiana's regular-season record of 22-12 was second in the East and fourth-best in the league.
Minnesota was the title-holder and had three Olympians anchoring the team. Los Angeles had a healthy Candace Parker back and the rookie of the year in Nneka Ogwumike. Connecticut had the season MVP in Tina Charles.
So why would this be the Fever's year? What would make this different than the other seasons when Indiana was thought of as good enough to be in contention but not quite good enough to be a champion?
Taking advantage of time together
Several factors worked together to finally give the Fever their happy ending. But an important one was the Summer Olympics. The month-long break for the London Games affected different teams different ways; it definitely helped the Fever.
The only player gone from the squad during that time was Catchings, who won a gold medal with the U.S. team. While she was gone, Erlana Larkins got a chance to practice a lot more with Indiana's first team. Larkins, who had been out of the WNBA for two seasons, really started to click with her teammates during the break, and that paid off, as she became a starter in the playoffs.
Larkins averaged 9.9 points and 10.9 rebounds in the postseason. Asked what Indy's odds of winning the title without Larkins would have been, Lin Dunn answered, "Slim and none. I've coached 42 years, and one of the best coaching adjustments I ever have made in my life was when I inserted Erlana Larkins into the starting lineup in the Atlanta series."
Fever guard Erin Phillips, who was very disappointed to be cut from the Australian Olympic team, ended up making the best of it. She was a ball of energy throughout the playoffs -- and you have to wonder if she'd have had quite as much in the tank if she had played in London.
Meanwhile, the Lynx had three players -- Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen -- who won gold with the Americans. That's three key starters who, frankly, did look a little gassed at times during the postseason.
Augustus -- last year's MVP of the Finals -- struggled a lot in the last two games of this year's Finals. She was 3-of-9 for six points in the Lynx's blowout loss in Game 3, and then an almost-unthinkable 3-of-21 for eight points in the finale.
"I feel terrible for Seimone," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "Give Indiana credit, [they] made everything hard for her."
Reeve seemed tense even before the start of the Finals -- despite the fact that to most outsiders, it was the Fever who appeared to be at a big disadvantage because of Douglas' injury. In retrospect, it seems clearer now that Reeve actually was worried that her squad was slowing down instead of speeding up as the Lynx entered the series with Indiana.
Furthermore, her jacket-tossing tantrum in Game 2 was not just directed at the officials. She was trying to light a fire with her team. Some might say it backfired with how passive the Lynx subsequently seemed in Game 3, but it's possible the Lynx actually wouldn't have won the second game without Reeve's going ballistic.
Sunday, Reeve came back to the thing that concerned her from the beginning of this season: How would the Lynx handle being the hunted instead of the hunter? Actually, they didn't do badly with that -- making the WNBA Finals again -- but once again, the league did not get a repeat champion.
The last team to do that was Los Angeles in 2001-02. Reeve was an assistant on Detroit teams that tried to repeat, so she has experienced this before.
"I really felt like if there was a team that could do it, it was our team," Reeve said of the Lynx's chances to repeat. "Because we have tremendous resolve and great people that are unselfish, and those are all really key ingredients."
The final two
Indeed, in a WNBA season with some negative-energy drama, the Fever and the Lynx stood out as being two of the more even-keel teams.
Atlanta, which made the WNBA Finals in both 2010 and '11, had issues with star Angel McCoughtry that ended up in coach/general manager Marynell Meadors losing her job. Washington coach/GM Trudi Lacey was fired after following a 6-28 season in 2011 with a 5-29 mark this year. Then the Mystics improbably finished fourth in the lottery for a draft that has three big-name players. Washington currently doesn't have a coach or a GM or much to feel hopeful about.
Chicago missed the postseason again; the Sky have yet to make the playoffs in the franchise's seven-year existence. The good news is that they have the No. 2 draft pick, meaning it's likely either Delaware's Elena Delle Donne or Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins headed to the Windy City next season.
Phoenix dealt with several injuries and finished last in the West at 7-27 but had critics around the league who felt the Mercury tanked to improve their draft status. That ire toward the Mercury got even stronger when they ended up with the No. 1 overall pick for 2013, which is expected to be Baylor center Brittney Griner. For several WNBA fans, the league already has its "villain" team for next season.
"Villain" has never been a term attached to the Fever, in part because of the popularity of Catchings. She is a free agent after this season, and Fever general manager Kelly Krauskopf said she hopes the organization and Catchings will reach an agreement to keep things as is.
"But I never want Tamika Catchings to feel like we just take her for granted," Krauskopf said. "Like, 'She's been here a long time, so she'll always be here.' We do not think that way."
Catchings, who is going overseas to China to play for the winter, didn't commit one way or another about her future WNBA plans, but she clearly is entrenched and beloved in the Indiana community.
The only Fever fixture who has been here longer is Krauskopf, who started building the franchise in 1999 before its first season in 2000. Her signing of Larkins -- who'd been out of the WNBA for two years prior to this season -- and highly beneficial deals to get Phillips and Zellous were big keys to this title.
The sideline leader
During the Fever's time in the WNBA, they've always seemed more like the spunky underdogs going against teams with seemingly edgier personalities. Including Detroit, which ended the Fever's playoff run three years in a row: 2006, '07 and '08.
Dunn took over from coach Brian Winters for the 2008 season. Dunn turned 65 in May of this year, the so-called "standard" age of retirement. But she's still going strong, and just as folks congratulated veterans such as Catchings, Douglas and Sutton-Brown for finally getting their title, the same goes for Dunn.
She is now in her fifth decade of coaching women's basketball, so when you talk about someone who has seen it all in regard to the growth, challenges and triumphs of this sport, Dunn should be high on your list.
Dunn is a native of Tennessee who played for UT-Martin in the 1960s before there was really a varsity program or scholarships. The school dedicated a statue earlier this fall honoring former women's athletic director Bettye Giles, former coach Nadine Gearin and the school's most famous women's hoops alum, legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
But Giles will tell you that the student who "pestered" her the most about seeking equality for women's athletics was Dunn, who graduated in 1969. Maybe the school could use another statue.
There is symmetry in the fact that Catchings won her NCAA title playing for Summitt and her WNBA title playing for Dunn. Summitt followed Dunn as a player at UT-Martin, from 1970-74.
Summitt went on to win eight NCAA titles at Tennessee before illness led to her stepping into an emeritus role after this past season. She was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday to see Catchings' finest moment as a WNBA player.
Meanwhile, Dunn has had her ups and downs as both a college and pro coach. Some of that happened right here in Indiana before she joined the Fever. At Purdue, she took her team to the 1994 Women's Final Four but also was let go after the 1996 season. But through it, Dunn has persevered, and she has won at every level.
"This is as significant moment in my career," Dunn said Sunday. "You know, I've finished second a lot of times."
Actually, several of the Fever players know what it's like to not quite grab the brass ring, too.
In college, Briann January (Arizona State), Zellous (Pittsburgh), Jessica Davenport (Ohio State), Karima Christmas (Duke) and Sasha Goodlett (Georgia Tech) never made it to a Final Four.
Sutton-Brown made the Final Four with Rutgers, and Larkins did it twice with North Carolina. Their teams lost in the semifinals. Jeanette Pohlen went to the Final Four all four seasons she was at Stanford but didn't win the NCAA title. In fact, her college career ended in the 2011 national semifinals at the very same arena where she and the Fever celebrated on Sunday night.
Pohlen is dealing with an ACL injury that occurred during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, but she was still buoyant about winning a title. Her injury was just one more of the twists and turns the Fever had to navigate for safe passage to a destination they had never reached before.
Douglas, who was born here in Indianapolis and won an NCAA title in 1999 while at Purdue, also was all smiles Sunday. She spent the first seven years of her WNBA career in Orlando and Connecticut before asking in 2008 to be traded back home. But in 2009, there was a cloud hovering over the franchise because owners Herb and Mel Simon -- also owners of the Pacers -- indicated they were not sure the Fever would continue past that season.
The Fever's advancing to the WNBA Finals in 2009 definitely helped solidify the franchise, which on Friday announced the company Finish Line as its jersey sponsor for next year. And speaking to the crowd Sunday, Herb Simon noted the Fever won the title on what would have been his brother's 86th birthday; Mel Simon died in September 2009.
Douglas didn't get to play in these WNBA Finals as she hoped she would, but Indiana never would have gotten this far without her this season. We'll let her have the last words.
"We're relieved, because we put the expectations so high every season," Douglas said. "To finally get that championship feels great."
When the playoffs opened, not many were picking Indiana to knock off the top team from each division en route to the WNBA championship. But odds were beaten, twists and turns were navigated, and in the end, the Fever got their fairy tale ending.