You may know Tamika Catchings as the record-breaking star of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, as the league’s 2011 Most Valuable Player, or as an Olympic gold medal winner in women’s basketball. But off the court, the daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings is shooting for a higher goal: ending diabetes.

A staggering nineteen percent of African Americans over twenty years old suffer with diabetes. And millions of Americans are completely unaware that they have the potentially fatal disease.  To raise diabetes awareness and prevention, the NBA and WNBA have partnered with the American Diabetes Association and Sanofi US to launch Dribble to Stop Diabetes. Tamika chatted with EBONY on why her decision to serve as a campaign ambassador for this initiative is extremely personal for her.

TAMIKA CATCHINGS: Both my aunt and my little nephew have diabetes, so that’s why I got involved. This is [a disease] that affects young and old and anything I can do to help children, I want to be a part of.

I want to encourage our fans and young people to live an active lifestyle and be aware that there are ways to prevent diabetes and stop diabetes and that’s what we do through this initiative. We host clinics across the country to connect people to information.

EBONY:  You’re very active in the community in other ways, as well.  You also have your own youth empowerment foundation [Catch the Stars]. What sparked your dedication to community service and particularly your work with children?

TC: I believe for me it started with my father [Harvey Catchings]. His last year in the NBA was 1985 and I was born in 1979, so I remember his last few years in the league. Every Thanksgiving and every Christmas, he would take us out and we would give away some of our toys and food to less fortunate families and that just stuck with me.  Also, [my alma mater] the University of Tennessee instilled in us that being a great ambassador means performing on and off the court and giving back to the community.  And I just love kids and working with kids so those are things I’m always going to do since as an athlete I have a platform to do that and raise awareness for important causes like stopping diabetes.

EBONY: You almost didn’t have this platform. Even though you were drafted in the WNBA, you had to sit out your first year due to an injury. What was that year like for you?

TC: It was hard. I tore my ACL my senior year in college so going into the draft I thought nobody would want me. It was one of my dreams to play in the WNBA and then it finally came around I tear my ACL. So it was disappointing, it was scary.

EBONY: Did you think you’d never play again?

TC: I thought about that, but I also knew God only gives us what He knows we can handle. It was one of those situations where it was just a road block. But it gave me a chance to be involved in the community and different events like Dribble to Stop Diabetes and my foundation where I do clinics and give out scholarships to kids. And I got through that roadblock and now here I am going into my 12th year with the WNBA.

The average span for a WNBA athlete is three to four years and so in order to qualify for the league, you have to be over 21 and be a college graduate so you have something to fall back on. But I’m really blessed to have stayed in the game for so long.

EBONY: What do you think it is that separates you from other players who only make it three to four years in the game?

TC: I can’t speak for everybody else, but I just try to work hard and continue to get better.  I’ve won a gold medal but I’ve yet to win a WNBA championship, so I’m always asking, “What can I do to get better?” I just try to work hard and stay positive and stay active.

I remember watching the 1996 Olympic team; that was the first time I really knew I wanted to compete in the Olympics. I was watching Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes and I remember thinking if I ever get the opportunity to play with them that would be the best thing ever.  Then I did get the chance in 2002 and I got to move up to the Olympic team in 2004 and 2008. All of that has definitely been a blessing it’s allowed me to be involved in things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. So I just try to keep aiming high and keep working hard.

You can watch Tamika compete in London in her third Olympic games this summer and find out when Dribble to Stop Diabetes clinics are coming to your city here.

Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog Follow her on Twitter @DCDistrictDiva.