Front & Center: Indiana Fever on a Fast Break

Why the WNBA champs didn’t get a vacation.

Tamika Catchings has more Olympic bling than Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Roy Hibbert would think twice about throwing an elbow at Briann January, who has a black belt in karate. And Perry Meridian High School product Katie Douglas has made opponents look foolish in more countries than the Harlem Globetrotters. Yes, the women of the Indiana Fever are prolific—and as Indy’s first professional-basketball champions in 30 years, they’ll have a banner raised in their honor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this month. But unlike their NBA counterparts, their post-title offseason was less than glamorous.

Nearly 100,000 households in Central Indiana tuned in to watch the Fever clinch the title against the defending-champion Minnesota Lynx last October. But just as team merchandise started to fly off the shelves, nearly all of the players left the country, and not on holiday. Some boarded planes just hours after the championship-night celebration at downtown’s 6 Lounge, hustling to spend their “offseason” on a court far away.

“Playing overseas is our money-making opportunity,” explains Douglas, a Purdue grad who has taken her talents to Spain, Greece, Russia, Turkey, and Lithuania over the years.

ESPN reported last year that marquee female ballers can earn up to $600,000 playing overseas, though it means working until April and sacrificing the offseason that athletes usually use to heal injuries or work on improvements—or savor a first championship. But the paychecks dwarf what the women make in the WNBA, which caps salaries at $107,000 per person. By contrast, while playing in Indy in February, LeBron James complained that his $17.5 million base salary was below his full market value. The entire Fever roster will make less than $913,000 this season.

Adjusting to life overseas can be difficult, but the players say they find something to like wherever they go. Catchings discovered McDonald’s pineapple pies while playing for the Guangdong Dolphins in China. Douglas learned how to say “I like chicken” in Russian to avoid going hungry.

The team re-signed all of its key players in the off-season and will be a good bet to make the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year. But the Fever will be the hunted when the season kicks off May 24 in San Antonio (with the Fever’s home opener on May 31), and the players know it won’t be easy to become the first team in a decade to repeat as WNBA champs.

“Whenever you win a championship, it puts a huge target on your back,” says January, who is still saving to buy her dream house in Indy. “But we’re so lucky to play in Indiana because people love basketball. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women.”

Photos courtesy Indiana Fever

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue.