[GOAL ORIENTED] Indiana Fever’s Tamika Catchings’ Fast Break Into Giving

[GOAL ORIENTED] Indiana Fever’s Tamika Catchings’ Fast Break Into Giving

WNBA superstar talks overcoming the stigma of a disability, importance of giving back, and preparing for life after basketball

by Christopher Harris, March 21, 2016

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[GOAL ORIENTED] Indiana Fever’s Tamika Catchings’ Fast Break Into Giving

Photo Courtesy of Tandem Sports + Entertainment

Editor's Note: This is the first in EBONY.com's series entitled "Goal Oriented," which celebrates and uplifts current and former athletes who are creating meaningful change  in their communities.

There’s a basketball court located in Thatcher Park on the west side of Indianapolis with Tamika Catchings’ name on it. The cement is teal and the lines that enclose the inbounds area are freshly painted. The hoops are barely broken in. Two years ago, the city of Indianapolis ceremoniously opened the court dedicating it to the WNBA legend for her outstanding commitment to service within the community. Her foundation, Catch the Stars, empowers local youth to achieve their dreams by providing goal setting programs that promote literacy, fitness and mentoring. The first set of basketballs that bounced around on the blacktop that bears Catchings’ name, belonged to kids participating in a mini-clinic organized by Catch the Stars.

Catchings’ court is just one of the locations the organization uses for its basketball camps, and fitness programs. It's just 10 minutes away from her home in Northwest Indy and several miles away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Fever, her team for the last 15 seasons.

On the eve of her final season in the WNBA, Catchings has decided to release a book, co-written with Ken Peterson, and aptly titled, Catch a Star: Overcoming Adversity to Become a Champion. Within the pages of her motivational memoir, she delves into her past including several hardships she’s faced, tracing back to her hearing loss at four-years-old. “It’s more of an inspirational story,” said Catchings moments after practice ended with her Fever team. “Because I’m a basketball player, everyone assumes it’s a basketball book. While basketball has been a huge part of my life, it’s not all of me. I was born with a hearing problem, a speech problem, had to wear a hearing aid, and still do. I got made fun of a lot growing up.”

In May, as the WNBA’s 20th season tips off, Catchings will embark on a “legacy tour.” After 15 straight years suiting up for the Indiana Fever (a WNBA record), the 37-year-old shooting guard plans to bid farewell to the game with fundraising parties in each of the 12 cities she visits. Whether she wins or loses, her Catch the Stars Foundation will issue a $2,000 grant to a local community partner that aligns with its mission. 

Facing obstacles and adversity in her childhood pushed Catchings into finding solace in playing basketball. “Sports for me was an avenue where I could practice and get really, really good at something and people couldn’t make fun of me because if they did, I’d be like, ‘ok, let’s go to the courts and play.’ You might have got me once but by the time I got done, I was going to end up beating you.”

By age 12, Catchings dreamed of playing basketball professionally in the NBA, just like her father, Harvey Catchings. “I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps because the WNBA didn’t exist,” she said. “My freshman year in college, once the WNBA came around I wanted to be one of the stars in that league. I felt like it was a place just for me.”

During her freshman year at Tennessee, the Lady Volunteers head coach Pat Summitt sat Catchings down in her office one day after practice. She explained to Catchings, who was one of her highly touted recruits on an undefeated, championship bound team, that she should consider wearing her hearing aids again and appreciate herself and her differences. Catchings had chucked the devices after school one day in the second grade and hadn’t worn them since. Summitt explained that Catchings had the rare opportunity to help people understand what it’s like to live with a disability.

After four successful seasons at UT (’97-’01) where Catchings earned four consecutive All-American honors, despite suffering a devastating ACL injury during her senior year, she and Coach Summitt have remained close. Summit, the author of three books of her own, inspired Catchings to write and release her auto-biography.

This isn’t Catchings’ first foray as a storyteller. Each chapter in To Catch a Star begins with a poem. She has been writing poetry for years as a means to cope with her tribulations. She altered several of the personal pieces to fit this narrative. Each lyric offers an additional glimpse into her private life, unfolding the faith that Catchings says is “intertwined into every aspect of her life.”

The accolades for Catchings continue to pile on. By now, solely listing her awards could fill up the pages of another book. Collegiate and professional championships, Kodak NCAA All-American and WNBA MVP honors, a ten-time all-star, five-time defensive player of the year, three-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time sportsmanship award winner, a member of the WNBA’s top 15 players ever and her number 24 jersey hangs in the rafters at the University of Tennessee’s Thompson Boling Arena.

Off the court, Catchings has been recognized on numerous occasions for her philanthropy. Earlier this year, she became the first female recipient of the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award. She’s a National Ambassador for the Allstate WBCA Good Works Team. Her foundation has been honored by Indianapolis City-County Council and alongside former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy (who penned the book’s foreword) Catchings received the Mayor Taylor award, which annually recognizes top African-American coaches, athletes and administrators for outstanding community service. Catchings has been commended by three consecutive U.S. Presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Still, humbly speaking, Catchings says she feels blessed just to have the opportunity to do what she wants to do. “Every award that comes is just like, ‘ahh, it’s amazing and it really is cool,” said Catchings.

Aside from all of her plaques, trophies, and medals, Catchings said the connection she’s established with a young lady who attended one of Catch the Stars’ first programs is truly her most gratifying accomplishment. As a WNBA rookie, Catchings hosted a clinic where she met a girl who was facing a similar challenge that Catchings had recently overcome.  “Her mom came up to me after the clinic and said ‘my daughter has a problem, she hates to wear her hearing aids but she does now because of you. She knows your story and she watches you, she wants to be you when she plays basketball. Her motivation is you, her inspiration is you,’” Catchings recalled.

“We actually worked it out through Big Brother Big Sister where I got paired with her. It’s been really cool to watch her grow. It’s been fun to kind of be her mentor, be her big sister. That’s one of the moments that are just kind of like ‘gahh.’ It’s easier to do for yourself but when you can do for others and the smile that you can put on other people’s faces it’s so rewarding.”

Nowadays, she laughs each time she’s asked, ‘why is she retiring now?’ “Because it’s time,” she sighs, recalling an excruciating back injury in 2014. “We had a good year [2014], we made it to the playoffs but I just felt from a personal level, I was losing it. I was doubting myself. What am I going to do? What’s next? I was like 2016 will be the perfect year with the Olympics coming up, and another WNBA season. I didn’t even realize at that point that it’d be the 20th season but we’re just at the perfect moment… Fast forward to now, I’m so happy that I made that decision.

“I’m ready to move on,” she continued. “I’m ready to figure out what’s next in my life. There’s so many things that I’m passionate about. I don’t know what I’m going to do but whatever I do will be giving back, my foundation of course, and really helping others.” 

Keep up with Tamika Catching’s Legacy Tour and Purchase ‘Catch a Star: Overcoming Adversity to Become a Champion’ here.

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