Throughout childhood, we all pondered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The average grade-schooler had a handful of rotating answers that changed on a daily basis: fire fighter, veterinarian, teacher, singer, astronaut, sports star—the list goes on. For most of us, those fanciful dreams were soon replaced with more practical career paths. Tamika Catchings, however, is an exception.
Raised in a family known for their love of sports, Tamika decided in the 7th grade that she was going to play in the NBA. It’s worth noting that professional women’s basketball didn’t even exist when she first scribbled that goal on her bathroom mirror. Tamika had a vision for her life, and she pursued it ruthlessly from a very young age.
In college, Tamika played for arguably the best basketball coach of all time, Pat Summit, who eventually became a friend and mentor. It was Pat who encouraged Tamika to accept and acknowledge the hearing disability she’d been dealing with since birth—a life changing decision that would make Tamika a role model for more than just her athletic abilities. Going on to win a national championship title in the WNBA, Tamika can honestly say that her childhood dreams have come true. However, it doesn’t surprise us that she’s still hungry for more. Today, Tamika shares her unique story about how faith, hard work, passion, and sacrifice got her to the top of her game.
Full name: Tamika Catchings
Current title/company: Pro Basketball Player for the Indiana Fever; Owner/Founder of Catch The Stars Foundation
Educational background: University of Tennessee; undergraduate degree in Sports Management with a minor in Business (2001); Master’s in Sports Studies (2005)
What was your first job out of college, and how did you land it?
I became a professional basketball player when I was drafted by the Indiana Fever in the 2001 WNBA Draft.
Prior to joining the WNBA with the Indiana Fever, you played college basketball for the legendary University of Tennessee Lady Vols, and before that you played high school basketball. When did your love of sports, specifically basketball, begin?
I was raised in a sports family. My father, Harvey Catchings, played in the NBA. With us moving around when I was young as he went to different teams, sports was introduced very early. I was also born with a hearing and speech problem, which created a need for hearing aids. As a child, I was always the one that got teased for the way I looked, the way I talked, or the hearing aids in my ears. That’s how sports became so important to me. On the playing field, I knew that if I practiced and got really good, that no one could make fun of me for any of my disabilities. I used sports and faith as the two outlets that could keep me “safe.” That has shaped me into the person that I am today because my faith, basketball, and my family are my top three priorities. I love giving back to the community, and I love what I do as far as basketball goes, but God and my family have been there for me when nothing else has been.
The best advice our dad gave us was regarding pursuing our passions. He always said, “Play the game as long as you enjoy playing it. Once you don’t enjoy it, it’s time to move on and find out what your next passion is.” I still live by that and love what I’m doing on and off the court.
What was it like to play for University of Tennessee’s Pat Summit, the all-time wins leader in men or women’s college basketball? What role have Pat (and other mentors) played in your career?
It was an amazing experience that I am so thankful for. When you’re playing at the University of Tennessee for a lady like Pat, her record speaks for itself. You don’t go into a program like that without knowing that it will take a lot of hard work. I was thankful that I could play for Pat because she pushed me to be able to be better each and every day.
Pat and my other mentors have encouraged me to not only be a great basketball player on the court, but to be an even a better person off the court in the community and, while I was in school, to focus on my academics. The underlying character that each of them has shown along the way is how much their faith has played a role in their success. I’m still in contact with Pat; it’s important to me to get perspective from those I respect and feel I can learn from.
In college, you began to speak publicly about your hearing disability. We can only imagine that this must have been difficult for you growing up. Tell us what that was like. What was it that prompted you to start talking about it?
I was born with a hearing deficiency, and I grew up with hearing aids, glasses, braces—the whole nine yards. I remember going to school when I was younger, and I was made fun of every day—whether it was about the way I looked because I wore big, clunky hearing aids or the way I talked. I just wanted to be normal. I just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want people to notice me. I wasn’t comfortable talking because people made fun of me. I just wanted to be invisible.
One day, I’d just finally had enough. I was walking home from school with my sister, crying. Walking past a field of grass near my home, I tore off my hearing aids and threw them as far as I could. These weren’t like the hearing aids we have now. These were like the first-edition hearing aids—big and clunky, and they hung behind your ear. That night we went to softball practice. After practice, my mom looked at me and said, “Tamika, you look different. Something looks different about you. Wait, your hearing aids—where are your hearing aids?” I played dumb and pretended they were probably lost during practice. We went back to the softball field and retraced our steps to and from school, and we never found them. My parents told me, “Tamika, we can’t afford to buy these all the time if you’re going to lose them like this.” So I learned to live without them and started paying extra close attention in school just to compensate for not having them.
Over time, I accepted myself for being different. Eventually, Pat Summitt broke it down for me the best when she said, “When people can’t see, they wear glasses; when their teeth need correction, they wear braces; and when people can’t hear, they wear hearing aids.” Having the support of Pat and our trainer Jenny Moshak meant a lot. They sat down with me and showed me how much I could impact the world and change lives just by being able to hear, continuing to be the best that I could be and being able to share my differences with other people. So, ever since then, I’ve embraced that deficiency and I try to help kids who maybe felt the same as I did.
Once I made the decision to get back into wearing the hearing aids, it’s like the floodgates of media opened up. Up until that point I was very ashamed about having a hearing problem and being different. But once Pat and Jenny helped me realize how many people I could help, it’s been the driving force behind me opening up. I want the whole world to know and not be ashamed at how God made each of us.
What would you say to someone reading this who is struggling with feeling “different”?
I know it’s easier said than done, but find something that you can become passionate about. While my differences brought struggles, being able to play different sports allowed me to not dwell on the negativity.
In 2001, you tore your ACL just prior to the WNBA draft. What went through your mind when you became injured in terms of your career? How were you able to get through it?
I questioned “why at this time?” We were having a great year, and it seemed like it was an opportunity to go out with a bang and win another championship. But, God had other plans. As far as the draft, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to play in the WNBA at all. I didn’t think that anyone would want to draft an “injured” player.
I knew that I would have to work super hard to get myself back and to have an opportunity to fulfill my dreams. Rehab literally started the day after surgery to get me back up and going, and I ended up getting drafted number three in the first round to the Indiana Fever. What an emotional, but amazing, day being out in New Jersey for the draft and hearing my name called. I didn’t know if anyone would want me because of my injury, and there was so much uncertainty about the future. But, the Fever took a chance on me, and while I had to sit out the first year, I’m now in my 13th season with them.
What was it like to transition from being a college athlete to professional? Did your feelings about the sport change at all when it became your livelihood?
I think the difference from college to professional sports/the real world is having to truly “be on your own.” In college, you have a schedule, but with practice, study hall and games mandated by the team, you have a set schedule. In the real world, you have to figure out your way a bit. Yes, we still have games, practices and shoot around. But, there’s no school to fill in all of the down time, and on the road you truly do have to figure it out. No more pre-game; no more meetings that the coaches call you in for; no more structure. We basically have to put together a model that works for us that allows us to get the best performance out there on the court.
I love what I do! My passion for basketball has only gotten stronger as I transitioned to being a professional because my platform is now bigger. This bigger platform allows me to showcase the skills that God has blessed me with and to make a bigger impact on the community.
The WNBA wasn’t established until you were 17 years old. Prior to that time, how did you envision your life? What were your career goals?
My first goal as a 7th grader was to follow in my father, Harvey Catchings, footsteps and be in the NBA. I didn’t know women’s basketball would become a professional sport, and I had it in my head that I was going to be in the NBA no matter what. I remember writing down my goals and posting it on my mirror. I told my Dad, too, and from that point forward, our workouts were more fine-tuned to “getting better” instead of just having fun. I wanted to be a professional, and I knew that I would have to work extra hard to get there.
In 2004, you started your own foundation, Catch the Stars, which “empowers youth to achieve their dreams” by focusing on literacy, fitness, and mentoring. Tell us about why you started your foundation. What have been the greatest challenges in running a charity? Greatest rewards?
I love being able to make a difference in the community. We started the Catch The Stars Foundation (CTSF) to be able to provide opportunities for the youth in our community to achieve their dreams. I knew that I wanted to have my own basketball camp, and that was the first thing we started. Then, from there, we just kept adding programs until we put everything under the Catch the Stars Foundation umbrella in 2004. Growing up, I had a lot of people that stepped in and helped me get to where I am today, and I aim to provide that same guidance for these kids.
The greatest challenge in running CTSF has been not having enough. I wish that I could help every child in the world, but sometimes you have to look at the budget and realize that unfortunately, you can’t touch everyone. The greatest reward is definitely the smiles on these kids’ faces. It makes everything we do worthwhile.
With twelve teams in the WNBA, capped at 11 players each, a career in professional women’s basketball is, frankly, a long shot. Aside from incredible talent, what did it take for you to make it into the league? What advice would you give to girls who have a lofty dream like you did?
You have to work hard and be willing to make a lot of sacrifices. I knew that I wanted an opportunity to be a professional basketball player and that it would take a lot of hard work. My advice to any young person looking to make it into the professional sports world would be to always believe that you can do it. But, realize that you are going to have to make some sacrifices and put in a lot of extra work. If you can dream it, you can achieve it!
You’ve been in the WNBA for 11 years now and have surely seen your share of players join and leave the league. In your opinion, what is the difference between a player who sticks around and one washes out after a year or so?
Professionalism. Players don’t realize how important being professional is. Whether you play or not, you still have to work on your game at ALL times—I think that’s the difference. Being responsible for your time, always being on time, and always making sure to do the things that really are necessary to improve your game—not just being satisfied with doing the minimum. It’s also important to remember the details; details matter when you are a professional. Every year there are players coming into the league trying to get a spot. I think it’s important that we all come in with something different added to our game.
From an off the court standpoint, you have to build your brand, too. However, what you do off the court still affects what you do on the court, your image, the team’s image, and your family. Social media has taken off, and while it’s cool to be able to follow your favorite athletes and have people that want to follow you, we have to be careful about what we post. Some things are better left unsaid.
Walk us through a day in the life of Tamika Catchings.
During season, the schedule is pretty much wake up, eat breakfast, head to the gym early so I can get shots up or work on something (weights, etc.) Then we go through practice, and afterwards I’ll stay and take more shots. I finish my workouts in the cold/hot tub with intervals. After I leave the gym, most of the time I have meetings for my Catch the Stars Foundation or an appearance. I always end my night hanging with my family before I head home.
During the off-season, I always take a few months off to just relax for a bit. With the way that I play, my body, mind, soul, and spirit just need to recuperate. Once I get back into my workouts, I do a variety of things to make sure that I get fit, but don’t put too much pressure on my body. Right now my regular workouts consist of on-court workouts along with Buda Khi and swimming classes. It’s a great mix for my body and allows for me to enjoy other activities while getting ready for the season.
You have had an incredibly successful career, including countless awards, an NCAA championship, three Olympic gold medals, and just last fall, a WNBA title. What motivates you to keep pushing when you’ve already achieved so much?
Not trying to be greedy, but I want to win again. The thing that motivates me is that I know I can be better. My motivation is that by the end of my playing days I will retire as the best that Tamika Catchings can be.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Continue to strive to be the best you can be, but don’t forget to enjoy the process while you’re going through it. And, let the past be the past.