- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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On May 31, the Indiana Fever will unveil their WNBA championship banner and receive their rings. There were some times over the winter months when Fever president and general manager Kelly Krauskopf checked the WNBA website and once again had a feeling of amazement that these things were going to happen.
"I'd see, 'Get your Fever 2012 WNBA championship gear here.' And I'd think, 'Wow, that's us,'" Krauskopf said. "Then you start reflecting on the journey it is to get there -- all the years, tweaking the roster, everything the team went through. When we started the playoffs badly against Atlanta, when Katie [Douglas] went down in Connecticut. That whole journey makes it more special."
It's a lengthy path that, for Krauskopf, reaches way back to 1999, when she was named chief operating officer of the expansion Fever. The team began play in 2000. Indiana drafted Tamika Catchings -- who would become the face of the franchise -- in 2001, even thought she was injured and couldn't play until the 2002 season.
At the start of 2009, the Fever had been to the playoffs five times in their nine-season history, yet still faced the potential threat of being jettisoned by Pacers ownership if they didn't have a successful season.
Despite that pressure -- heck, maybe in part because of it -- the Fever made their first trip to the WNBA Finals that year.
"When we went five games in '09 and lost to Phoenix, we had a chance to win it here, and we blew it," coach Lin Dunn said of Indiana's Game 4 loss in Indianapolis that year. "We learned a lot from that. We knew if we got another chance, we were going to win it."
That opportunity didn't come in 2010 (Eastern Conference semifinal loss to New York) or 2011, when Catchings suffered an injury in the East finals and Indiana lost the series to Atlanta.
Then in 2012, nobody was predicting that it would, at last, be the breakthrough year for a Fever title. But they beat defending champion Minnesota to win it.
Every step of the way, Krauskopf has been there. So when Dunn's team put the full puzzle together -- somehow even without key piece Douglas, who missed the WNBA Finals with an ankle injury -- Krauskopf had reached a career goal.
Soon after the season, though, she had to make sure the Fever were able to keep the puzzle together.
"What Kelly did was really amazing," said Dunn, who is now in her sixth year as the Fever's head coach and 10th overall with the organization. "She was able to figure out how to keep our core intact, re-sign the key people we wanted, and still stay under a hard salary cap. Kelly is really, really good at that -- managing that budget and understanding all the ins and outs."
Catchings, fellow forward Erlana Larkins and guards Briann January and Shavonte Zellous agreed to new deals in February. Krauskopf wanted to make sure Catchings didn't feel "taken for granted" -- as if she would re-sign with Indiana no matter what.
"Just because someone has played their entire career here doesn't mean that's where they are always going to want to stay," Krauskopf said. "But all the things Tamika does as a community-minded person weigh into her decisions.
"And winning a championship solidified her legacy here in Indiana. I've told her that, 'I want you to retire in a Fever uniform.' She's become part of the fabric of the community in Indianapolis. The CEOs in this city are on a first-name basis with her the way they would be with someone like Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck."
The bottom-line impact of a championship has been felt since the Fever got their trophy last October. Actually, even before then: They already had gained a jersey sponsor, athletic-apparel retailer Finish Line, in a deal that was announced during the 2012 WNBA Finals. More have come since the title.
"Our corporate-sponsor base is up 20 percent, our season-ticket revenue base is up 65 percent," Krauskopf said. "It absolutely affected our business, and all the metrics of how we evaluate the business have all trended in a very positive way.
"You go from a lot of people talking about your team and wishing it well, to now wanting to be involved in your team. I can't tell you how many people have told me, 'I've been watching you all these years, and it's time for me to invest in your team.' Winning a championship raises your profile and brand."
That is also seen -- and heard -- by Krauskopf in subtle, and yet noticeable ways. Now she'll run into everyone from a custodian in a Bankers Life Fieldhouse hallway to a bigwig in a Pacers luxury suite, and they'll ask, "How are we going to do this summer?"
Yes … "we." That word alone makes a big difference.
"It's like, 'OK, they're in,'" Krauskopf said. "It really permeates throughout the organization. This is Indiana. We don't have an ocean; we don't have hiking in the mountains. But there's a lot of pride in sports teams here."
The Fever are one of the WNBA teams that is still under the same ownership as the NBA franchise, and that has helped offseason visibility, too. Especially with the Pacers' success; they're facing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. The Fever were honored during a recent East semifinal playoff game.
The Fever still get to experience two big perks of winning a title: the championship celebration at their home opener, and then visiting President Obama later this season.
"I try to stay in the moment, because we have the upcoming season," Dunn said. "But I think when we go to the White House, that's going to really be something that will make everything flash back to me about last season. That's just a really neat thing to happen."
As for what's next, though, Dunn will have to deal with injury issues, just like she did during the Finals last year. Indiana starts the season with three players -- Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen -- all unable to play. And Dunn is also aware of trying not to use her stalwarts -- Catchings and Douglas -- too much, as they both turn 34 this year.
Still, what a way to begin the new season -- with the title "defending champions."
"It was so unexpected by so many people," Dunn said. "Everything we did was a surprise to everybody but us. We always thought we were good enough, that we were tough enough. And when adversity struck, we really rose to the occasion."
After finally winning their first championship in 2012, all the key pieces are back as the Indiana Fever open their title defense.