%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:INJH106-052102; AUDIO:%)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Tamika Catchings has waited 17 months for her baskets to count and to swap a practice jersey for a uniform with her name on the back.

She's cried, prayed and been operated on twice, enduring countless hours of rehabilitation for a knee that always seemed to hurt.

Now Catchings is able to run effortlessly and without pain for the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in January 2001, while an All-American at Tennessee.

The only signs that Catchings was ever injured are two small scars on her right knee, serving as reminders of what cost her half of her senior season with the Vols and all of her rookie season with the Indiana Fever in the WNBA.

The focus is no longer on mending but on once again becoming one of the elite players in women's basketball.

``I'm not really nervous about my knee, just making my WNBA debut,'' Catchings said.

Catchings gets her first regular season action June 1 against Detroit, more than a year after she was drafted by the Fever with the third overall pick in the draft. Catchings is ready to prove she was worth the wait.

``I have a brand new knee and I'm ready to play,'' she said.

Catchings first injured the knee when she crashed to the floor 17 games into her senior season with the Vols. Catchings finished her career as only the second Lady Vols player _ after Chamique Holdsclaw _ to reach 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.

The Fever picked her anyway in the April draft, and both parties were looking toward a late-season WNBA debut.

``I thought we could play her for a few games at the end of last season,'' Indiana coach Nell Fortner said. ``It we did, great. If we didn't, it was OK.''

The return date kept getting pushed back as Catchings' knee failed to heal as quickly as hoped.

``Before I left Tennessee, they said I'd be back by June,'' she said. ``That's what I was aiming for. As I got closer and closer to June, and I realized I wasn't playing, they pushed the date up to July. When I got hurt in July, that was just devastating.''

The 6-foot-1 forward reinjured her knee during a Fever practice in Houston on July 5. Catchings was running sprints when she heard a pop in her right knee.

Team trainers told her it was scar tissue that was breaking but when she couldn't straighten her leg or walk without pain she went for an MRI. She had torn cartilage. Surgery and months of difficult rehabilitation _ six hours a day, seven days a week _ followed.

The emotional toll was damaging, especially since Catchings lacked the close-knit support she felt with the Vols.

``I had never played with any of these people here,'' she said. ``It's not like I could give my input in and really feel like I was making a difference because I was sitting on the sidelines. That was really hard for me.''

Catchings embarked on a strenuous but monotonous routine of rehabilitation, watching practice and more rehab. She wanted to flee Indy and head back to Knoxville, but team officials wanted Catchings to familiarize herself with the playbook and her teammates.

``I always came here smiling, I was always happy to see everybody. That's the kind of person I am,'' she said. ``But inside, at times, it was like I don't want to be here. I wanted to do my rehab somewhere else. I was sick of coming here and sitting on the sidelines watching everybody else do something I want to do.''

Fortner said she was happy with how Catchings dealt with her injury.

``I think every athlete struggles when they have to go through such an intense rehab,'' she said. ``You're so far from your eventual goal of being healthy. She always maintained a good attitude. She just had to push herself through the rehab.''

Catchings said it was difficult to put the thought of another injury out of her head.

``Getting over the mental hurdle is harder than getting over it physically,'' she said.

The Fever went 10-22 a year ago, one game better than their inaugural season in 2000. Catchings said she didn't feel the pressure of turning Indiana into a playoff contender.

``I know it takes time,'' she said. ``I get frustrated with myself quite a bit because I try to do things that I used to do. I sit back and think, `You're finally here. Take your time. Do what you can do to help your team and go from there.'''