When she was a little girl, Tamika Catchings hated her hearing aids so much she threw them away and pretended she lost them.
She was saddled with hearing loss and a speech impediment, felt insecure because of parental divorce and was bullied by classmates for being different.
Yet none of it was a roadblock to achievement. A lifetime later — and one still in progress — the vice president of basketball operations for the Indiana Fever of the WNBA is one of the most decorated females in the history of the sport.
Sometimes, government officials declare a special day to recognize athletic figures. The month of May in Indiana could have been named after Catchings. Within one week, she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and was honored by a Tamika Catchings Tribute Day at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during a Fever home game. It was like having your birthday on Christmas.
Catchings, more so than most athletes, is a testament to triumph of the spirit. This is a woman who wrote a blog called “Dreams Do Come True” after conquering so many worlds in a world that seemed initially to reject her.
The daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings, Tamika’s life is an adventure story within the game during which she matured into a role model for black women on the court, in front offices and for youths.
During a speech, delivered with a seemingly natural poise she did not possess in her youth, and in writing, she has said, “Basketball chose me.”
Recently, Catchings’ life has been a whirlwind of speeches and Zoom press conferences, of praise and honors. She is an adopted Hoosier, living in the state since being drafted No. 1 by the Fever in 2001 out of the University of Tennessee, where she played for the legendary Pat Summitt, her chief mentor.
A few days before her Hall of Fame induction in Connecticut, Catchings was all smiles and enthusiasm, although that seems to be her natural state these days.
“My heart is beating really fast,” she said of the impending event that would officially label her an immortal of the game. “Hall of Famer. It sounds weird to say.”
Did it all on the court
Readers of her overstuffed resume might think Catchings’ middle name is “Inspirational.” She doesn’t call herself that even when seeking to give children a head start in life, but she just lives that way.
Catchings, the 6-foot-1 multi-skilled basketball star, led the Fever to a WNBA crown in 2012. She was part of high school state championship teams in Illinois and Texas. She was a member of an NCAA championship team at Tennessee and owns four Olympic gold medals for representing the United States.
Deep breath. Catchings was a 10-time WNBA All-Star, won a most valuable player award, was named MVP of the Finals, was selected for the WNBA All-Defensive Team 10 times and was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year five times. Catchings says one of her favorite characteristics is grit. Defense is all about grit and determination.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago when Tennessee journeyed to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Northern Lights Invitational women’s tournament when Catchings was a freshman, Summitt said, “Isn’t she something? She’s really special in a lot of ways because of her versatility.”
Oh, she could score, too, more than 16 points a game for her career with the Volunteers. That same Alaska trip season, Tennessee finished 39-0 as likely one of the greatest teams in NCAA women’s hoops history. She averaged roughly the same number of points in the WNBA when she wasn’t rebounding between seven and nine balls a game or passing off for three-plus assists a game.
At Tennessee, Summitt once told Catchings, “Tamika … no one in America can stop you.”
Summitt, who passed away from Alzheimer’s effects in 2016, was talking about basketball, but even at that early date with Catchings still in her late teens, the analysis was accurate off of the court. Catchings had plenty of practice being unstoppable by then.
Overcoming all obstacles
In many ways, Catchings’ story is a prime-time network movie if people are willing to swallow the plot.
Catchings was 3 when her parents realized she had a hearing problem. Older brother Kenyon, who had other health problems, had just gone through extensive hearing tests.
Catchings said Kenyon would have accomplished big things in the sport if healthy. Sister Tauja was a top player but wanted other things out of life. Catchings said her father, who played 11 years in the NBA and then overseas, and her mother, Lisa, passed on a basketball gene to the three kids.
For a time, the Catchings family lived in Italy, where another American, Joe Bryant, also was wrapping up his hoops career with his family along, including a young son named Kobe. Tamika and Kobe were elementary school playmates. Decades later, after the tragic death of Kobe in a helicopter accident, the duo were inducted into the Hall of Fame together.
When still quite young and before there was a WNBA, Catchings announced her goal was to play in the NBA — against the men. She brought a fierceness to the sport, even before a growth spurt and when she slouched to avoid being noticed in her shyness when disabilities seemed to be all that other schoolchildren saw in her.
Wearing glasses, hearing aids, taking speech therapy classes, despised being taunted and hated her life, she cried often. One day, out of frustration, she tore the boxy hearing aids off and hurled them into a field. It was liberating.
Tamika and Tauja won a high school championship together in Illinois, but when Lisa chose to move home to Texas after her divorce, Tamika followed and won another crown in Duncanville.
Then came Tennessee, where the Volunteers were the queens of the college game and Catchings learned from Summitt.
“Pat was my rock,” Catchings said.
Being hard of hearing in the everyday world, Catchings became an expert at reading body language in classrooms and elsewhere. Some deaf individuals communicate in sign language, and one day, Catchings realized basketball was a kind of sign language itself because there was so much silent movement to anticipate.
She began thinking of basketball as her escape and safe place and where she could best express herself. She put that in one of two books she has written about her career, “Catch A Star,” with Ken Petersen.
Catchings seemed to innately comprehend if she sought greatness on the court, it would be a demanding journey. But Harvey Catchings was also in her ear, sometimes to the point where his hard-to-please outlook bugged her. He wanted the same thing for her but to tell he was just Dad.
“I could always see it in her eyes,” Harvey said. “She worked so hard. I told her, ‘You’re going to be great at something.” She had to be all in. “There’s no in between.”
That was one message Tamika understood.
Helping young people
It may not be fair to call them handicaps since Catchings overcame her original height deprivation and shy stature, moving across the country, being hard of hearing and a speech impediment that sometimes comes through as a minor lisp.
But she viewed them that way herself before growing up and knows firsthand how difficult being called “different” can be for youngsters. That is one reason she began her Catch the Stars Foundation in Indiana in 2004 along with Tauja.
“My goal was to inspire and uplift youth,” Catchings said of the nonprofit organization that helps kids improve fitness, sharpen literacy and give them confidence to achieve their aspirations.
Hundreds of volunteers have donated time, and many thousands of dollars have been raised for scholarships to give jump-start opportunity for kids ages 7 to 18. And yes, there are basketball clinics.
When Catchings interacts with the youngsters, she boosts egos. Sometimes, she addresses older people, too. In 2018, Catchings, dressed in the traditional cap and gown, spoke to the Franklin College graduating class.
She talked of the listeners going out into the world to expand their life circles from small hometown ponds, to a lake-sized college and after obtaining diplomas, to the wide, wide world, to the equivalent of an ocean.
“As I look at you guys, I can only imagine when you set your goals,” Catchings said. “But you’ve dedicated and committed your life to excellence, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Catchings has sailed in several oceans. While Alaska — where the team went sledding — may have been the most exotic American locale basketball took her, Catchings said playing professionally in South Korea, China, Turkey and Poland was culturally different.
She feels a kinship with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the school for the deaf that fields an NCAA Division III athletic program and where she has presided over a basketball clinic.
“They represent me,” Catchings said of her identification with the hearing-impaired athletes.
Catchings has fans at Gallaudet.
“It is fantastic to see Tamika Catchings get inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame,” said the school’s associate athletic director for communications, Sam Atkinson. “She has an amazing career in the WNBA and at the University of Tennessee. Catchings has demonstrated she can do anything and her hearing loss wouldn’t stop her from chasing her dreams.”
Catchings has fans everywhere and reaches out to them. A handful of years ago, she appeared at Seymour Christian Church and while there signed autographs.
Tributes and fame
Catchings wrestled with her Hall of Fame acceptance speech. She said she was told she had 5 to 7 minutes to speak and worried that wouldn’t give her enough time to thank everyone she was grateful to for her success.
As always, she adapted. In front of an audience that included parents, siblings and husband Parnell Smith, who is a former University of Buffalo basketball player who won state titles at Pike High School in Indianapolis, Catchings talked for 13 minutes. Her presenter, Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, told her it was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and that everyone runs long, so go for it.
Catchings previously joked she had to get her hair done (much longer than during her playing days) and nails, and she wore black evening wear, so perhaps she went shopping.
Catchings didn’t leave out the hard parts of her journey, the potholes she had to dodge. She thanked her father as her first true coach and said her mother is “my favorite superwoman.” She mentioned her foundation, and Catchings choked up briefly mentioning Kobe Bryant. But mostly, she smiled so hard, the wattage could have lit a city.
A week later, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, Catchings did it all over again. She was the halftime show for a Fever-Washington Mystics game.
Her No. 24 Fever jersey number was already retired, but her banner was remodeled. New stitching was added, noting her ascension to the Hall of Fame, and the banner was raised a second time. It lives in the rafters near one honoring the late Bob “Slick” Leonard, the one-time Indiana Pacers’ American Basketball Association championship coach and longtime broadcaster who recently passed away.
Leonard’s signature radio call for a Pacers three-pointer was “Boom, Baby!” When Catchings spoke of this recognition day, she promptly shouted “Boom, Baby!” in homage to Leonard.
In the East, Catchings had her Hall of Fame orange blazer slipped on by her father and was presented with a Hall of Fame ring, too. She hadn’t come down from the rafters herself yet as she watched her banner go up in the rafters in the Midwest a second time. A spotlight was trained on it.
“It was amazing,” she said of the first experience, “and today is a little surreal.”
The team advertised Tamika Catchings Hall of Fame T-shirts and on the overhead scoreboard ran taped congratulations from Fever players and other notables during timeouts.
It was a mini-version of the old “This Is Your Life” television show.
After the final buzzer sounded with the Fever victorious and fans filed out, the spotlight still shone on the No. 24 banner high above courtside, illuminating Tamika Catchings’ name.