Catchings, Beard far from home -- and loving it

Updated: January 24, 2006, 12:42 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Tamika Catchings knows super freshman Candace Parker is doing well … but otherwise feels out of the loop with Tennessee women's basketball. She says she hopes to catch up with everything at the Final Four in Boston.

Tamika Catchings
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesFormer Lady Vols star Tamika Catchings has become a perennial MVP candidate in the WNBA with the Indiana Fever.

Alana Beard uses instant messaging with her former coaches and teammates at Duke to try to keep track of what's going on with the Blue Devils.

It isn't easy for either Catchings or Beard to really be in touch with something they used to live and breathe every day. The Tennessee-Duke showdown on Monday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) will be news from a distant land for these two legends of those programs. They are now living the pro basketball life, both playing in Korea.

Indiana's Catchings and Washington's Beard are among the nearly 100 players from the WNBA who are competing in other countries during the winter months. As we're at about the halfway point of the college hoops season, it seemed like a good time to check in at what's more or less the halfway point of the WNBA offseason.

The free-agent negotiating period began this past week, and players can start signing with teams on Feb. 1. Seattle's Anne Donovan was recently named coach of the U.S. women's national team.

And probably almost every day, somewhere in the world, a WNBA player is competing.

Through the WNBA's media-relations staff, I e-mailed some questions to Catchings and Beard about their experiences overseas. Both had the same response to playing in Korea: They love it.

"The games are very competitive, even with each team only having one American," Catchings said. "Along with me, Alana, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Kayte Christensen, Tangela Smith and Katie Feenstra are over here right now. I think the presence of WNBA players definitely makes for an even better league here in Korea.

"The fans are wonderful! We play our games at either 2 or 4:30 p.m., and it seems like no matter what, the stands are always full. A full house with a lot of noise makes for a great game. My teammates are a lot of fun. Even though there is the language barrier, it seems that we all try to make the best of it. We support one another, and we truly bond both on and off the court."

Beard said she has also found that the language barrier is hardly insurmountable.

"My teammates are pretty cool; I love them to death," she said. "The way that I relate to them without speaking their language makes this experience all worth it. I can say I have friends for life over here."

It's worth keeping those sentiments in mind as the league prepares to celebrate its 10-year anniversary season this summer. There's still some debate about the concept of WNBA players going to other nations to compete during the offseason. Over the years, the biggest objection -- and I've certainly been in the chorus that voiced it -- was about players not getting back to participate in much, if any, of their training camps. Which could result in a lack of chemistry and a ragged beginning to the WNBA season.

Alana Beard
The Mystics' Alana Beard led Duke to two Final Four appearances.

It seems that problem has been addressed to a degree by some overseas leagues. It's perhaps naive and simplistic on my part to keep wishing for some universally coordinated world women's basketball schedule that works for everyone.

Two other questions always come up: Do players ask too much of themselves physically to be competing for that many months of the year? And if WNBA salaries were higher across the board, would fewer players -- particularly the Americans -- go overseas?

I don't think there's an easy answer to either. Being a pro athlete in virtually any sport turned into a full-time, all-year job in the last 20-30 years. Sure, at one time baseball's spring training or NFL training camps used to be for athletes getting themselves back in competitive shape in preparation for their upcoming seasons.

When the money got big, that changed. Now, those time periods are for integrating with teammates and fine-tuning skills. You better not show up out of shape -- or you will stand out embarrassingly and might even lose your job.

That doesn't mean that all WNBA players have to go abroad and compete to stay in shape or be able to play well here. But many of them find that "offseason" competitive basketball is good for their games.

"As a player and a person, I have learned something new every single day I've walked into a gym," Beard said. "I feel I am coming into my own each year in different ways."

As to whether playing games so many months of the year pushes players too much physically, that's something they have to determine individually.

Would they still go abroad if they were paid more for their WNBA season? Certainly, some would. Will WNBA salaries get substantially bigger in the near future? I have to say I doubt it. I don't want to get sidetracked too much discussing salaries right now -- that's a complicated and multifaceted issue to be dissected another day. Suffice it to say, with what we know of the WNBA's finances -- if what we know is accurate -- salaries are probably pretty much in line with market value.

Which brings me to this: There's something else important going on when WNBA players compete in other countries. What Catchings and Beard said shows that.

This is not just about them making more money and maintaining or improving their skills. It's about spreading international goodwill and empowerment for women and girls in other cultures.

These are not overblown clichés. In fact, nothing could be more real. The United States is still a standard-bearer for what women -- given means and opportunity -- can accomplish in any field of endeavor. The representatives of a pro women's basketball league based in the United States -- including those who are not Americans -- don't even have to voice that concept. They show it being physically fit, confident, independent and happy with their lives.

Whether Catchings and Beard and other WNBA players actually think of themselves as ambassadors of that or not, they certainly are. American players are also carrying another banner -- for our country -- along with the banners for women, for education, for athletics. The majority of WNBA players are products of our collegiate system and most have their degrees.

By going to different countries, they keep learning. They're giving and getting things that can't be duplicated without the actual experience of living them.

Catchings sums it up this way: "Overall, the best thing is just being able to see how different cultures are and how you have to adapt."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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