The hardest part about being a fan of a niche sport is not having anyone to celebrate with when something big happens.
When a championship is decided in a major sport—whether the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Final Four, or BCS Championship Game—it’s the lead story on every mainstream sports website; every news broadcast (even those that don’t normally cover sports) covers it; it trends on Twitter; and you know that people will be chatting about it in cubicles and conference rooms the following day.
The most casual of fans know the big storylines—a superstar looking for his first ring, a rematch of a classic title game, a long-suffering team looking for its first championship—and understand the historical significance of the outcome.
The WNBA championship (like the MLS Cup Final or the deciding Indy Racing League race) gets only passing mention on SportsCenter and little coverage elsewhere. The casual sports fan doesn’t even notice.
As much as I’d like to see second- and third-tier (in terms of popularity) sports get more coverage, I understand why they don’t.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve watched the Indiana Fever write a great story, one that reached its climax Sunday night in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.
And since I’m among the minority of sports bloggers who pay attention to the WNBA, I feel obligated to tell the story.
2012 Indiana Fever Author Amazing Story
Before last week, the Indiana Fever looked like a team whose time had passed.
Indiana had been among the league’s best teams for the better part of a decade but, in that time, had advanced to the Finals only once (losing in five games to the Phoenix Mercurcy in 2009).
Core players Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, and Tammy Sutton-Brown were well into their thirties. Catchings—a seven-time All-Star, three-time Olympic gold medalist, five-time Defensive Player of the Year, and 2011 MVP—had become the WNBA’s version of Dan Marino or Charles Barkley, the all-time great with no rings.
The Fever were the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, a solid veteran team but one that few expected to advance to the Finals, let alone win.
Indiana finished second in the East in the regular season, behind the Connecticut Sun and league MVP Tina Charles. After losing three straight late in the season to the Sun and the Lynx, Coach Lin Dunn tinkered with the starting lineup going into the Playoffs, inserting point guard Erin Phillips (fresh off being snubbed by the Australian Olympic team) and power forward Erlana Larkins, who had been out of the league for two years before joining the Fever in the Spring.
Douglas Goes Down, Fever Overcome
The Fever opened the 2012 Playoffs with a home loss to the two-time defending Eastern Conference Champion Atlanta Dream (who upset the top-seeded Fever last year). Indiana won Game 2 in Atlanta, then held serve at home to win the best-of-three series 2-1.
Indiana also dropped the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals, this time to heavily favored Connecticut. Indiana needed a last-second shot by Shavonte Zellous to win at home in Game 2 and force a deciding third game.
Five minutes into Game 3, Douglas, a five-time All-Star and Indianapolis native (full disclosure: we went to the same high school) who had been the Fever’s leading scorer in the Connecticut series, went down with a sprained ankle.
In Douglas’ absence, Indiana went on to a 16-point upset win. But they would head into the WNBA Finals without their second-best player.
Lynx No Match in WNBA Finals
The Western Conference representative in the Finals, the Minnesota Lynx, was making a case for being one of the best teams in WNBA history. Behind its trio of Olympians—Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen—the Lynx had won the 2011 WNBA title and put together a league-best 27-7 record in 2012.
Thanks to 16 points and 15 rebounds from Larkins, the Fever eked out a road win in Game 1. But Minnesota won Game 2 to tie the series at one game each.
In the second quarter Fever sharpshooter Jeanette Pohlen, who had been playing big minutes in Douglas’s absence, went down. Considering how Minnesota dominated the second half of Game 2, no one would have been surprised to see the Lynx close out the series by taking both games in Indianapolis against the depleted Fever.
Indiana, now without any depth at shooting guard, nonetheless took an early lead in Game 3.
Augustus, who had been the Lynx’s best player all season and during their 2011 championship run, went cold, and the Fever made things ugly in the third quarter, at one point leading 70-33. Minnesota made a bit of a comeback in the fourth but still ended up losing by 17.
Douglas dressed for Game 4, but she was far from 100 percent and would only enter the game if it was absolutely necessary. It wasn’t.
The Fever never built a big lead, but they controlled the game from the beginning. Whenever the Lynx went on a run, the Fever had an answer. Minnesota kept it close, even tying the game at 40 late in the first half, but never took the lead.
Phillips, who had spent much of her time in a Fever uniform as a role player and only recently cracked the starting lineup, scored 18, grabbed 8 boards, and made a big play every time the Lynx threatened to take over the game.
With three seconds on the clock and the game in hand, Douglas finally took the floor in the WNBA Finals, if only to celebrate with the teammates who had excelled in her absence.
A Great Story That Deserves To Be Told
Catchings, the obvious choice for Finals MVP, can finally fill the empty spot on her trophy shelf; Dunn, who has more than 600 wins in college, the ABL, and the WNBA, finally won her first title at any level; and Indiana won its first pro basketball title since the Pacers third and final ABA championship in 1973.
I understand that there won’t be a lot of people talking about the Fever around the proverbial water cooler over the next couple days, and the number of tired “The WNBA is still around? Who knew?” tweets and comments I’ve read since Sunday evening has been disheartening (if not unexpected).
But the Fever were a great story, and a story that deserves to be told.
For those of you who live in Indianapolis, there will be a parade today at noon.