INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Tamika Catchings looks around Bankers Life Fieldhouse these days and sees a completely different world.
The 2011 league MVP is surrounded by new teammates, younger players and a familiar face playing an unfamiliar role. Yes, Stephanie White is calling the shots from the bench.
At times, the thought of playing for an ex-teammate makes Catchings chuckle, but the seamless transition White has made from WNBA player to broadcaster to assistant coach and now to successful head coach also has the 13-year veteran taking notes.
“It’s fun to see her put her own twist on this team and the expectations she has,” Catchings said. “I don’t want to coach, but the steps she has taken to put herself in position to be successful, those are the things you take away from it and try to make your own.”
White has surprised many by turning what was expected to be a rebuilding team into a playoff-bound team for a WNBA-record 11th consecutive season.
Sure, there were reasons to doubt White & Co.
Four key players opened the season battling injuries. Longtime stalwarts such as Catchings and point guard Briann January tried to get acclimated to playing with newcomers such as Shenise Johnson and Natalie Achonwa. The 36-year-old Catchings had to accept spending more time on the bench, and everyone had to buy into White’s revamped up-tempo style.
Even during a rugged start, White stayed true to her principles. The woman who left high school as the highest-scoring girl in Indiana history and who left Purdue with a national championship stuck to her plan. Now, she’s in contention for the coach of the year award, but not yet satisfied.
“I think we can get better, be more efficient at both ends of the floor,” she said. “We’ve put together a stretch that’s pretty good because of our sheer will. But there are areas we can be better in and we want to be better in.”
White also realizes she’s still growing as a coach.
She constantly seeks advice from her predecessor, Hall of Famer Lin Dunn, Pacers coach Frank Vogel or even outsiders. She often breaks down game tape to see where she can improve.
White brings a different perspective to the game. After four seasons as a college assistant, four years on the staff of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and five years as a broadcaster, she returned to her home state as one of Dunn’s assistants in time to celebrate the Fever’s 2012 championship run. So when Dunn announced she would retire at the end of last season, White was the obvious replacement and players – including a certain former teammate – quickly jumped on board.
“As a player, she was always like `I’m tired of her (the coach) harping on me about this stuff.’ Now, it’s like `I’m tired of telling you about this stuff,” Catchings said, laughing. “But when you look at our team and a lot of teams that have coaching changes, drastic changes like we have, a lot of people didn’t think we’d be very good. I think a lot of people dismissed her and dismissed us, as a team.”
Opponents that dared to discount White and the Fever in May now realize they made a big mistake. Indiana turned around its season with a six-game winning streak in August, a span that included a franchise record four straight wins on the road.
Those in the locker room aren’t surprised.
“She’s a total player’s coach. She wants everyone to be successful and she does a great job of holding us accountable,” January said. “She understands because she’s been on both sides of it and she wants to communicate.”
Catchings is not about to disagree.
“I think she’s the best coach in the league right now,” Catchings said.