Tamika Catchings is retiring after this last W.N.B.A. season, but she finished as the league’s career leader in rebounds and steals and as its second-highest scorer. She was selected to 11 All-Star teams and seven All-W.N.B.A. first teams, was a five-time defensive player of the year, and was recognized in June as one of the league’s 20 greatest players.
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 although professional women’s basketball didn’t even exist back then. See, Tamika had a vision for her life, and she pursued it.
In college, she played for arguably the best basketball coach of all time, Pat Summit, who eventually became a friend and mentor. And soon she became a role model for more than just her athletic abilities. Yes, it was hard work, passion, and sacrifice that got her to the top of her game.
A beautiful, very tall woman, who loves pink, shoots hoops like Michael Jordan, has an incredible sense of humor, can play the baryton. A woman who also loves French fries and a good Shirley Temple. And can’t imagine life without her Nike soft fleece sweatshirts (she has one in every possible color).
When I first met her in the hotel lobby, we were both worn out, after an incredibly long day spent at the UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia, Cyprus, with LAUREUS SPORTS FOR GOOD Foundation and a bunch of bold and talented kids who love sports and play without boarders or limits. It was a day filled with balls (literally and metaphorically).
And it was almost like time had stopped. She was proudly wearing her IWC Schaffhausen Portofino watch – Automatic Moon Phase 37 Edition “Laureus Sport for Good Foundation”. An extraordinairy watch with a special engraving on the back by 16-year-old Eleni Partakki from Cyprus, showing girls and boys playing with a ball. A hint to the PeacePlayers International Cyprus (PPI), a project that actively encourages Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot boys and girls living in the divided Cyprus to play basketball together. Which was the very reason we were both there in Nicosia.
But not once did Tamika look at the time. And neither did I. Instead, although tired, she couldn’t wait to talk about everything, to dive right back into her world. And I couldn’t get enough of that glow, that magic surrounding her. That made even time stand still.
You have had an incredible career, with countless awards, an NCAA championship, four Olympic gold medals, and a WNBA title. What kept you motivated?
I’m not greedy, never have been. I just wanted to win again, every time. The thing that motivates me is that I always know I can be better. I want to retire as the best that Tamika Catchings can be.
The WNBA wasn’t established until you were 17 years old. But when did your love for basketball begin? How did you know that this would be your profession?
My first goal as a 7th grader was to follow in my father’s footsteps and be in the NBA. Of course, I didn’t know women’s basketball would become a professional sport, but I still had it in my head that I was going to be in the NBA – no matter what. And I remember, when I told my parents about this, they both supported me endlessly. «Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there is something you want but can’t do», that’s what they told me. And from that point forward, our workouts with my dad were more fine-tuned to “getting better” instead of just having fun.
What was it like to be Harvey Catchings daughter?
He was the sweetest dad. And a tough coach. He wanted the best for me. And he knew I was capable to achieve a lot. Sometimes we bumped heads, but I wouldn’t call it «pressure». He would tell me «as long as you are passionate about basketball, continue to play. But if you ever feel that shift then it is time to move on. And you’ll figure out what you want to do next».
What advice would you give to your younger self, if you were again at the starting line of your career?
Continue to strive to be the best you can be. Work hard. Don’t ever forget to enjoy the process not even for a single minute. And keep dreaming big. Big goals, is what you need. To be honest, every goal that I have once set, I have also achieved. And this makes me real proud. And I am still hungry for more: I want to impact lives globally.
Where would you see yourself in, say, 20 years from now?
I see myself as a great wife and mom, I want to have kids, and adopt too. Spend time with them. I see myself enjoying every transition of every kid we have already helped or will have helped by then – with the Foundation. I see myself welcoming them all back, still being a part of the Foundation’s family, being proud of them. I see myself continuing to expand our reach.
Admittedly, a career in professional women’s basketball is a tough, unsafe bet. Aside from talent, what else did it take? What advice would you give to girls who dream of it?
You have to work hard and be willing to make a lot of sacrifices. 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. And to 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! Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. As simple as that.
It was in college, when you began to publicly speak about your hearing disability. Why?
Indeed, I was born with a hearing deficiency, and I grew up with hearing aids (plus glasses and braces). And I was made fun of every day – about the way I looked or the way I talked. I just wanted to be normal. I just wanted to fit in, and because I didn’t, I wanted to be invisible.
One day, I was walking home from school with my sister, crying. Walking past a field of grass, I tore off my hearing aids and threw them as far as I could. That night my mom looked at me and said, “Tamika, where are your hearing aids?” I played dumb and pretended they were probably lost during practice. 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.
And then it was Pat Summitt, my mentor who told me this: “When people can’t see, they wear glasses; and when people can’t hear, they wear hearing aids.” She toled 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. “This is who you are”, she said. And so, I have finally embraced that deficiency and ever since I try to help kids who maybe felt the same as I did. If I could do it, they can too.
Once I made the decision to get back into wearing the hearing aids, I just wanted the whole world to know and not be ashamed at how God made each of us.
Was sports your “safe place”?
Exactly. And basketball was my heaven.
What would you tell a kid struggling with a disability, being different or having low self esteem?
Find the one thing you are really passionate about. Just like I found sports, and after many attempts I realized I loved all sports, but was only passionate about basketball. Figure it out. And once you do, don’t let go. That will help shape who you are. And give you confidence. And find the strength to speak up, and change your life. And the life of others around you.
In 2004 you started your own foundation, “Catch the Stars”, which “empowers youth to achieve their dreams” by focusing on literacy, fitness, and mentoring. Why?
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 biggest challenge?
Not having enough budget. I wish that I could help every child in the world, but sometimes you realize that unfortunately, you can’t touch everyone.
And the greatest reward?
Definitely the smiles on these kids’ faces.
How important is time to you?
Time is everything. My whole life was (and still is) scheduled to the minute. And timing, oh that has always been extremely important too. Over time though (oh the irony), I have learned that time is the single most important thing you can give and invest into those that matter the most. Ultimately, it is the most valuable currency. No, not currency. It is the greatest luxury of all. Although you already have it. But, see, it’s how you choose to use it, that defines it. Just like talent.
No wonder IWC Schaffhausen, a global partner of LAUREUS SPORT FOR GOOD Foundation, is constantly reinventing timeless beauty, addressing heroes of men and women. That inspire us all. To make every second count.