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Put it in Ink

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Tattoos are addictive. So says Shavonte Zellous, who by having been inked some 40 times is the Indiana Fever’s resident authority on the subject.

Among the visible needlings endured by the hard-nosed 5-foot-10 guard/forward are an “S” on the back of her left leg and a “Z” on her right. Behind her right ear are two miniature Tar Heels, a “just because” out of respect for one her best friends, Fever center Erlana Larkins, who played at the University of North Carolina.

Asked which tattoo came first, Zellous immediately extended an index finger to the right side of her right leg. Large letters spell out “Thelma,” the name of the great-grandmother who, along with Zellous’ mother, helped raise the budding hoops talent in Orlando, Fla.

That initial inking occurred nearly 12 years ago. Zellous was 15.

If tattoos are a language of the streets geared to project an image of toughness, Zellous, outgoing and engaging, obliterates all negative stereotypes.

Following a recent Fever practice, Zellous stood near midcourt rehearsing her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Teammates, including perennial All-Star forward Tamika Catchings, winced. Never mind that Zellous isn’t scheduled to sing the song before any of Indiana’s remaining home games this season. Or at any time in the immediate future.

Then there’s the time she set foot inside a local television station for the first time. A guest on that evening’s sports segment, Zellous couldn’t resist trying her hand at forecasting the weather.

All of it done with a smile.

“That was my first time, and I was just in there having fun,” she said. “Life is too short to be serious all the time. I’m just a funny person who is laid back. I mean ... just live a little.”

Zellous’ hobbies when the Fever don’t practice or play include shopping both in person and online. Shoes are her admitted weakness. Teammates Larkins and 6-5 reserve post Shasha Goodlett live in the same downtown building no more than a mile from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, so it’s common for the three to be seen hanging out together.

Indiana’s third-leading scorer sees a career in law enforcement as a distinct possibility once her playing days are over. Perhaps as a detective. Zellous, after all, was a criminal justice major at the University of Pittsburgh.

Her laid-back approach off the court contrasts with her game on it. Anyone with knowledge of the WNBA is aware of her penchant for driving in among taller and stronger players in an effort to draw contact.

She’s already toed the free-throw stripe 42 times this season, second only on the Fever to Catchings’ 48. It’s an aggressiveness engrained in Zellous by hooping against her younger brother, Jeremy, and assorted male cousins and friends on the concrete courts of Orlando while growing up.

Averaging 16.5 points and 3.5 rebounds, Zellous is off to a career start in this, her fifth WNBA season and third full season with Indiana. She’s started all 11 games and produced a double-figure point total every time, with the high being 29 in an 82-67 home loss to Phoenix on June 8.

Zellous’ consistency also comes in the form of court time, having played between 31 and 36 minutes every game this season.

She broke into the league in 2009 after being selected by the Detroit (now Tulsa) Shock with the 11th overall pick. Zellous ranked second among rookies that season in scoring (11.9 ppg), was second in the WNBA in free throws converted (155) and made the league’s All-Rookie Team.

She admits to not being surprised at now being regarded as one of the WNBA’s elite talents.

“Not at all. I say that because I’ve always had veteran players around me who have put me in the position I’m in now,” Zellous said. “Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan when I was with Detroit. They never let me take a day off. Then I get here, and there’s Tamika.”

Turning 27 in August, Zellous along with Larkins, 27; point guard Briann January, 26; guard Erin Phillips, 28; and forward Karima Christmas, 23, help form the nucleus primed to carry the franchise into the future. It’s a responsibility she relishes now that Catchings and Katie Douglas, both 34, are in the home stretch of their respective professional basketball careers.

“Me and Bri, we’re kind of the young guns, but right now we’re just following their footsteps,” Zellous said. “I wouldn’t see it as pressure. It’s more of an opportunity.”

Have that put on a tattoo. Shavonte Zellous just might.

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