Tamika Catchings captures the essence of the WNBA.
by Ben York
All too often, the term ‘heart’ is thrown around in professional sports to describe an athlete’s personality and demeanor. In doing so, perhaps, the phrase has lost a bit of its luster and prestige.
It’s quite unfortunate, really, because there is simply no better term to describe Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings.
In terms of her basketball prowess, her resume speaks for itself; NCAA All-American and National Champion, six-time WNBA All-Star, seven-time All-WNBA team, three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, finished in the top 3 in MVP voting in five of her eight seasons in the WNBA, and led the Fever in points, rebounds, assists and steals in all of her first six seasons in the league.
But the road to her already legendary career was far from smooth.
Growing up, Tamika faced the daunting task of overcoming a hearing disability that first showed up in a standard preschool test. This eventually led to hearing aids, speech therapy, and at times the need to read lips. Tamika wore braces and had glasses to accompany the large hearing aid she had to wear at the time. She was a straight A student in the classroom but, unfortunately, Tamika was teased relentlessly by fellow classmates and had a difficult time fitting in socially. “Growing up I was in speech therapy, had a hearing aid, braces, glasses and my story really starts with dealing with all that — wanting to fit in and be normal,” Tamika said. “I didn’t understand why I was made fun of so much. Whether it was my difficulties hearing or the way I talked, getting pulled out of class for speech therapy, or other constant things kids made fun of me for. Sometimes I wanted to give up but my parents wouldn’t let me.”
For Catchings, these obstacles growing up provided the motivation to work even harder on the basketball court. For her, playing basketball was a way to attain a whole new level of respect and acceptance. “Not only did it make me resilient, but more than anything it made me motivated,” said Catchings. “Through all the things I’ve had to overcome like injuries, hearing, my speech, glasses, braces, etc. — it motivated me to be the best I can be on the court. You want to make fun of me? That’s fine but let’s head to the basketball court. That was really the thing that kept me sane and motivated.”
This motivation and resilience was on full display in 2009, as the Indiana Fever had a dream-like season advancing to the WNBA Finals. Perhaps more amazing, they created a phenomenal atmosphere for women’s basketball in the state of Indiana that was unprecedented –- all while unsure if their franchise would continue beyond the season due to lack of funding and sales. “Throughout the season everyone in the media would ask about the state of the team,” Catchings said. “One thing I told my teammates is just not to worry about all that, just worry about what you can do on the court and the rest of the stuff will work itself out. I think we took a big step as a team to just go out, have fun, and play hard.”
Although she’ll continually deflect credit and recognition to her teammates, which is just one of the myriad of qualities that make Tamika so easy to root for, Catchings had a phenomenal WNBA Finals averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in the 5 game series. The result wasn’t exactly ideal for Tamika and the Fever, but it’s evident that Catchings still feels fortunate and grateful just to be part of the greatest Finals in WNBA history. “I think it was the greatest Finals ever, and not just because we were in it,” Tamika said. “It was the best offensive team versus the best defensive team. The type of players and caliber of teams it featured was amazing as far as who you know. If you never watched a WNBA game before, you got excited in this series. Every game was down to the wire.”
It becomes difficult to articulate the importance the 2009 WNBA Finals will have on the future of the league. Quite simply, the out-pouring of love and adoration was unprecedented for the WNBA. In addition, creating such buzz and exhilaration for the women’s game in one of the basketball Mecca’s of the world is remarkable and absolutely worth nothing. “2009 was definitely a season that helped get us more support,” Catchings stated. “In Indiana, everywhere I went I was recognized and even in more areas that I wasn’t before. But it’s also the notoriety we received as an entire team. Ebony [Hoffman] and Briann [January] got that recognition along with others. When I start to look back on the season from the beginning and what we did for the future of women’s basketball, I just feel fortunate to be a part of that.”
For Catchings, the greater good outweighs the pain of losing. Though the WNBA has grown leaps and bounds, it still is a ways away from attaining the same level of respect and reverence of the NBA. “I know for a fact that just about 10 years ago girls were playing ball but the sole goal wasn’t just to make it into the league,” Catchings said about the WNBA. “Now, the WNBA is something you can shoot for. I think we are right there in terms of taking off. We are a young league. Would it have been nice to start the league with 20,000 fans at games every night? Sure, but it didn’t happen.”
But the WNBA is closer than ever to hitting that mainstream success, and it’s directly correlated with players like Tamika. The WNBA needs players like Catchings who set a high standard on and off the court. Without players of her caliber, the WNBA runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. Though, it would seem as if the pool of talent continues in the WNBA. “The most important thing is the talent level,” Tamika said. “That goes with anything –- if it’s a good game you’re going to watch it. We want people to be excited about that next game. When Larry Bird bought those seats for us in Indiana that really sparked us. For people that haven’t come out and supported us in the past they got to see and feel the atmosphere which made them want to buy tickets for the next game. We have to keep this going next year.”
What needs to be done to advance the WNBA? “We’re on the right path and heading in the right direction,” Tamika said. “The playoff series in 2009 will set the tone we need to match in 2010. We only play in America for five months and we’re off for the other seven months overseas. Something should be done to generate interest during those months and it’s definitely a challenge marketing wise since we’re somewhat invisible during those months. We need to have faces around during the offseason and be more visible whether it be through appearances, commercials, etc.”
Catchings has done an impeccable job of staying in touch with the community and fans during the offseason. Her foundation, Catch the Stars, mirrors Tamika’s vision for motivating youth to become the best they can be. “The Foundation has really been my biggest accomplishment so far,” Tamika said. “Sure it’s exciting to win championships and gold medals but when I look at the things that the things the Foundation has done in my life it’s all about servant-hood and building others. It’s never been about me or the money –- it’s about helping others who are less fortunate be the best they can be. It’s something I would do regardless if I were a professional athlete or not.”
We’ve heard what her motivation was coming to the WNBA, but as someone who has already attained as much as she has in her young career, how does Tamika want to be remembered when all is said and done? “The biggest thing for me is just my heart,” Catchings said without hesitation. “It goes back to my resilience, my work ethic, and the love I have for the game. Every game I play I imagine there is one person out there who has never been to a WNBA game or every seen women play first hand. I want them to be like ‘Man, that No. 24 is relentless and gives it her all!’”
Notice how Tamika never mentions being known as the best player ever, or to win multiple championships, or any individual accolades. All Catchings wants to be remembered for is her heart.
She certainly will be remembered for her heart, but unequivocally for much more –- as one of the greatest female basketball players of all-time.