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Tamika Catchings on Caitlin Clark: 'There is a lot of weight on her shoulders.'

Basketball Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings, one of the legends of her game, has seen it all in the WNBA. She played for the Indiana Fever for 15 seasons, leading the team to the 2012 league title as finals MVP. A 10-time WNBA all-star, she also won four Olympic gold medals with Team USA from 2004-2016.

So when Catchings calls something “unprecedented,” as she did in a phone interview Monday to describe this moment in the WNBA — with its epicenter right where she is, in Indianapolis — we can safely say that it’s something the league has never seen before.

At this crucial moment early in the 2024 season, with historic TV ratings, attendance, interest and now controversy, Catchings spoke with USA TODAY Sports on a variety of subjects, including Chennedy Carter’s blindside hit on Caitlin Clark in Indiana’s victory over Chicago on Saturday, Angel Reese’s reaction to the foul, which was later upgraded to a Flagrant 1, and the way Clark has adjusted to the WNBA, and vice versa.

Catchings said she was in attendance at the Fever-Sky game Saturday where the controversial hit occurred.

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“The cheap shot, I don’t agree with that, I don’t agree with that, especially that’s where injuries happen,” she said. “The play itself was wrong. As a whole, we all have a responsibility to make sure that things like that don’t happen, for anybody to get hit like that.

“From the league standpoint, you have to protect your players. The fact that the referees didn’t take the time within the game to go and look at it, I was really surprised. I was at the game. I was really surprised that they didn’t look at it and that they just kept it moving. That’s not a basketball play.”

Catchings said she too was a target of cheap shots in her career.

“I remember the cheap shots, I remember getting held,” she said. “It happens. So the reaction as far as some of the players goes is, ‘We’ve been playing too, she and the other rookies have to still come in and prove themselves’ — but not with cheap shots.”

Angel Reese’s reaction to her teammate Carter’s hit on Clark was captured by ESPN’s cameras. Reese immediately stood and applauded, then hugged Carter when she came to the bench.

“I have not talked to Angel,” Catchings said. “I am 100% sure as a team within the organization they are talking about how they are going to handle it and what they need to do internally.

“From Angel’s standpoint, same as Caitlin, all eyes are watching you. … Angel has got to be herself but there’s got to be a maturity level from all of our rookies, as you grow in this game and as you become more mature, you understand what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable. And you learn from the mistakes that you make.

“Angel hopefully has the right people around her that are like, hey, you know what, not cool right there. And how do you adjust and how do you learn from the situation.”

Catchings, who says she had told Clark, “If you need me, I’m here,” talks to her now and then.

“Obviously Caitlin is a tremendous player, she comes in with a lot of success in the college game, I love her personality, love who she is and definitely happy to have her here in Indianapolis and I think she’ll have a great career here and in the WNBA,” Catchings said. “There is a lot of weight on her shoulders and she’s handling it very well.”

She has watched as the 22-year-old superstar has faced the most interesting welcome to the WNBA.

“Every single night, the opponent’s game plan is structured around Caitlin Clark,” she said. “It’s huge. They’re guarding her at the half-court line because of the fact she makes the logo 3s. They’re face-guarding her, they are picking her up on the free-throw line on the defensive end. Every single night she’s going to get single-teamed, double-teamed, triple-teamed, quadruple-teamed. That is a huge compliment.”

With a talent the likes of Clark, it makes sense, said Catchings, who five times was named the WNBA defensive player of the year.

“Anytime a great player is coming in, or anybody that’s getting the attention, even for me, the competitor in me came out where it’s like every single night when I went up against Diana (Taurasi), when I went up against Sue (Bird), my job and my mind and my responsibility was to make sure I limit touches and they’re not going to score as many points as whatever their average was. My goal was to make sure they scored half of what their average was. That was my only goal, my mindset. Well, that’s going to be the same goal of the players Caitlin is going up against every day.”

Highs and lows are to be expected

Although Indiana is 2-9 after a murderers’ row start of 11 games in 20 days, six of which were against the league’s top three teams — by far the most grueling opening schedule of any team in the league — Catchings sees bright spots for Clark and the team.

In her first 10 games, Clark scored more than 150 points and had more than 50 rebounds and 50 assists, a feat previously accomplished only by Sabrina Ionescu in WNBA history. She also became the first rookie and only the fourth player ever in the league to record 30 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks in a game, joining Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Breanna Stewart. On Monday, she was named WNBA Rookie of the Month for May.

Clark currently is fourth in the league in assists per game, 18th in points per game and tied for second in three-pointers. She also leads the league in turnovers.

“She has been so comfortable with her college teammates so now Caitlin and her new teammates are trying to figure out how to play together,” Catchings said. “It’s the adjustment of coming into a totally different system, totally different coach and coaching staff. The only thing that is consistent is basketball. She knows how to play the game of basketball. A lot of the turnovers are adjusting to playing with her teammates and they are adjusting to her. She had a 30-point game and she has had single-digit games. She has had her highs and lows, but that’s to be expected.”

Learning to play as a team

The Fever players’ relative unfamiliarity with each other also might be the reason the “enforcer” that social media so desperately wants Indiana to have to protect Clark has yet to materialize, Catchings said.

“I’m on the outside looking in, but I would just say this: There have been injuries and very few practices and they are still trying to learn with each other and they are still trying to learn how to play for each other so when you talk about an enforcer, you enforce because you’re a team and you know and understand how to protect each other. None of this happens without a team effort. I think they’re still trying to get to that point.”

But there is no doubt that Clark and the team are already a complete success at the box office. In just five 2024 home games, Indiana already has surpassed its entire 2023 home attendance.

“People are saying, let me see what this hype is all about,” Catchings said. “When you get in the arena, in Gainbridge, all the way to the top of the stadium is packed. We’re talking regular-season games, it’s crazy right now. You used to be able to pull up right before a game. Now you can’t do that, the parking lots are full. All these Iowa license plates, Illinois, even Tennessee: they heard about Caitlin Clark and now they want to see her.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Tamika Catchings talks Caitlin Clark cheap shot, WNBA pressure