It is safe to say that no basketball player has seen a final professional season quite like Tamika Catchings has had this summer.
The 15-year Indiana Fever forward is preparing to retire and say goodbye to the only franchise and pro fan base she has ever known. Game stops in each WNBA team city have had “last time” overtones, and all the emotions that go with that.
A few weeks ago Catchings helped the USA win an unprecedented sixth consecutive gold medal at the Olympic Games, while adding a fourth and final gold medal of her own.
Before the year began, Catchings decided to turn her last WNBA pass across the country into a charity drive, “The Legacy Tour,” to benefit both her non-profit Catch the Stars Foundation and organizations in the cities she visits. This has meant a lot of planning and preparation, including media teleconferences on road game days.
In late June, Catchings’ former coach and mentor at Tennessee, Pat Summitt, took a turn for the worst in her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Catchings was one of several former players of the coaching icon to get on a plane to Knoxville after playing a game, to go see her one last time.
Summitt passed away June 28, the day before the Fever were to play in Chicago. Catchings was asked to speak at Summitt’s memorial service two weeks later – a decision that not only seemed natural, but expected, as Catchings has always personified the Lady Vol philosophy that her coach built.
But as Catchings enters the final month of her WNBA career, something else has also become clear: she is the living legacy of Summitt. No other former Tennessee player better represents Summitt’s values and spirit than Catchings, who is all about relentlessness on the court, and giving back off of it.
Now, in stepping away from a game she has played her entire life, Catchings will take Summitt’s legacy to a new place, outside of basketball.
If there is one hallmark of Catchings’ pro career, it is the improbable run the Fever made in 2012 to capture the WNBA title. They dropped the first games of both the semifinals and finals in the playoffs, were without injured star shooter Katie Douglas, played most of the two series away from home, and faced the defending champion Minnesota Lynx for the trophy.
But Catchings wouldn’t let Indiana lose. She dove to the floor, drove to the basket, and did whatever else it took in guiding her team to claw out the final win. It was vintage Catchings, who has made intensity in every play and refusal to give up her calling cards.
That strong drive began as soon as she picked up a basketball as a child, and the competitiveness grew as she played against older sister Tauja, under the tutelage of their father, NBA player Harvey Catchings.
Fever coach Stephanie White remembers the raw Catchings well.
“She was in seventh grade and I was in high school, and we played against each other in an AAU tournament,” White said. “She was fiery, wild and competitive. The first time I saw her she didn’t like a call, and threw the ball against the wall and I said, ‘I love this kid.'”
Catchings learned to channel, focus and discipline her energy during her four years with Summitt, who preached relentlessness in every play. In her first year in the WNBA, Catchings easily collected the Rookie of the Year award. She has been Defensive Player of the Year a league record five times, was WNBA MVP, Finals MVP, and has never shown any indications of slowing. In last year’s Championship Finals series, at age 36, Catchings was still diving for the basketball.
“It’s awe-inspiring,” White said. “She’s not your typical player in that she’s been able to do it at a high level, at an intensity level in rebounding, offense, defense, all those things – for her to be doing it in year 15 is really incredible.”
Truth be told, Catchings would likely have been named league MVP several times if she wasn’t such a complete player. She is the WNBA’s all-time steals leader, ranks second in both scoring and rebounds, and has the sixth-most assists and the eighth-most rebounds in league history. Her statistics are a tribute to Summitt’s philosophy on well-rounded play.
It is that spirit and style of play that fans are going to miss most when Catchings leaves the game. For Fever ticket holders, her departure will be grueling.
“The group I sit near – they can’t even talk about it,” said Jennifer Bridges, Licensed Massage Therapist for the Fever. “It became very real (Friday night) knowing she just came back from her last Olympics and we only have a few more home games.”
Indiana season ticket holder Sienne Ransom grew up watching Catchings play, and is now a high school basketball coach who models her style after Catchings. Ransom is preparing for her retirement with gratitude in mind.
“A big part of my basketball life involves her. To think that she will be gone from it soon is heartbreaking,” Ransom said. “I shed a tear when I got the news.”
“But at the same time, the impact she has left on the Fever organization, my city and me personally is something I’ll never forget and will forever be grateful to her for.”
Catchings’ teammates have been grappling with her impending exit all season long.
When asked about Catchings’ impact on her, point guard Briann January’s eyes immediately filled with tears. Drafted by Indiana eight years ago, January said she has been shocked at the numerous ways in which Catchings has helped her grow.
“It’s been unbelievable, and a godsend to me. She’s made me tougher, she’s challenged me, she’s lifted me up, she’s supported me. She’s given me both a pat on the back and a kick in the butt – which ever one I needed,” January said.
“She’s the consummate leader, and she’d taught me a ton. I’ve been so grateful to soak up everything she brings to this game for the last eight years. Hopefully I can bring a little bit of what she brings and continue to shine her light, because it’s beautiful.”
Forward Erlana Larkins’ voice lowered a bit when Catchings’ name was mentioned.
“It’s meant a lot to play with her,” Larkins said. “She’s helped me grow into the player that I am in my seventh season. I’m constantly learning from her. It’s going to be a sad day when she puts the jersey down.”
Forward Jeanette Pohlen said Fever players have had mixed feelings about this year because it is Catchings’ last.
“We really don’t want this season to end,” Pohlen said. “She’s set the tone for myself and has lead on and off the court. She’s done so much for our community in Indiana, and for the league. She’s constantly making time for everyone else. On the court, she’s such a huge competitor.”
White, who played alongside Catchings with the Fever and was an assistant coach before taking the head spot, conceded that “it is a very weird thought to have a league without Tamika.”
Catchings herself is still getting used to the idea of leaving the WNBA, but is committed fulfilling another Summitt tenant, to finish strong.
“Before it was like, there’s always next year. Now it’s like, if we don’t win there’s no next year for me,” Catchings said. “But I’m motivated because I want to be the best that I can be. It’s not like I want to average a certain amount of points or rebounds; I want to know at the end of the day that I gave everything I had. And I will.”
It is hard to imagine Catchings not playing basketball. But she is ready to move on to the next phase of her life.
At the Los Angeles stop of her fundraising farewell “Legacy Tour” in July, she told the crowd that she never thought she’d find anything she was as passionate about as basketball until she formed her Catch the Stars Foundation for youth in 2004. Now she is ready to take on running the organization as her full time career.
“I’m definitely over what I do on the court,” Catchings said.
The Foundation provides programs for young people in Indianapolis that promotes literacy and fitness, and which include a strong mentoring program. Through the Legacy Tour, Catchings is assessing where she’d like to expand the organization. This winter, she’ll return to each WNBA city to conduct a youth fitness clinic.
Former Fever coach Lin Dunn said that though Catchings has always believed in giving back to communities, her efforts with the Legacy Tour are special.
“Catch has always been a giver. You can’t talk about her without talking about what she does off the court as well,” Dunn said. “Few players give back on such a consistent basis. She is always giving back and having a positive impact. What’s surprising to me is that she finds ways to give back in her last year.”
Catchings has always been intimately involved in running the programs at Catch the Stars, despite an often year-round basketball playing schedule. She does everything from planning to organizing to helping run clinics and events. It is her hands-on approach that has not only made the organization successful, but has fostered deep, longtime ties.
Jolyn Green, now a senior in college, first attended an event at Catch the Stars when she was nine years old. Green had so much fun at the basketball clinic that day that she kept returning. Pretty soon her mother began volunteering there, and when Green was in high school, she too began to donate her time.
Green said Catchings makes every event warm with her presence.
“Tamika’s always there to be involved in camps, and she gets to know kids one-on-one,” Green said. “Usually during basketball clinics, she’s on the floor doing drills with the kids. She’s extremely personable.”
Green volunteers at Catch the Stars when she is home from school, and her mother plans to even step up her volunteer work when Catchings retires.
“She is willing to do anything to make that place work,” Green said of Catchings. “She gets it done.”
Tauja Catchings said her sister’s motivation to help young people stems from her own difficulties as a child, when she was bullied for her hearing loss and speech challenges.
“I think she’s always been drawn to giving back to kids because she struggled throughout her childhood, and wants to show them that with hard work, big goals and dreams can come true,” Tauja Catchings said. “She’s always been a genuine and caring person and has always looked for ways to help out however she can.”
If that drumbeat of hard work and service that Catchings has been living sounds familiar, it’s because it was who Pat Summitt was, and it was what she taught. The similarities between the two women are not lost on those who were there from the beginning.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick became an assistant coach for the program in 1985, when Catchings was six years old. Warlick said Catchings embodies Summitt’s legacy like no other.
“She embraces everything this program is about: hard work, discipline,” Warlick said. “She wasn’t the most talented, but she was the hardest-working. She has all the intangibles that make a great player. She plays with such passion, and she’s got such a great plan with her foundation. That’s her culture – that’s her brand. That’s who she is.”
“If I had to pick any player who is as close to perfection on Pat’s vision, it would be Tamika.”
Dunn, who was a friend of Summitt’s for 40 years, is in full agreement with Warlick.
“Pat Summitt and Tennessee saw a lot of great players come through the program, but the one who embodies Pat’s character, spirit, core values, relentless work ethic, competitive spirit and commitment to defense is Tamika,” Dunn said.
“Tamika has always bought into those concepts. I can’t think of any (former Tennessee) player who has such similar core values to Pat.”
In retiring, Catchings will do one thing Summitt was not able to because of her illness, and that is to carry on Summitt-like principles outside of basketball. Pohlen thinks Catchings stepping off the court is just a beginning.
“I see bigger and better things for her in her future, if you can believe that,” Pohlen said. “The sky is the limit for her.”
White sees that too.
“Tamika is a prime example of Pat’s legacy in the way she lives her life – it’s much more than basketball,” White said. “She’s given back to the community and demanded excellence from herself.”
“I think about her legacy, and her legacy on the court is a small piece in general. For her is the kids she’s worked with in her foundation who are going to come back and be leaders and communicate with young scholars. This breeds future leaders, and they pay it forward. They’re embodying her spirit, and it’s really incredible.”
In some ways, the Catchings who is about to leave basketball is the same person she’s always been. In other respects, she has evolved personally at a staggering pace.
Catchings is still the efficient multi-tasker who has pulled off the Legacy Tour without a hitch.
“She’s high-strung,” Dunn said. “Her motor is going all the time.”
She is also a woman of great Christian faith and belief. Parents Wanda and Harvey Catchings made sure their children were actively involved in the church growing up. Tauja Catchings said her sister’s faith grew even more in college, and after overcoming each of her various injuries and obstacles.
Bridges said Catchings’ faith in God carries over to other people, and on to the basketball court.
“She plays with great belief. Belief in herself, belief in the fact that her dedication to practice makes her better, her belief in her teammates, the staff around her, and her belief in God,” Bridges said. “It’s a huge part of how she stays strong, and how she carries everyone. I think she has more belief in others than they have in themselves.”
Taunted as she was in her childhood, it would have been easy for someone in Catchings’ position to become even a little bitter. But Tauja Catchings said her sister turned the mistreatment upside down.
“Tamika has used the negativity to fuel her fire and passion for playing basketball,” she said. “She leaned how to tune out voices and channel her energy in a positive way.”
Warlick acknowledged what Summitt wrote about in her book “Raise the Roof,” that Catchings had a hard time accepting criticism when she first got to Tennessee. But Summitt helped her work through that.
“As Tamika kept playing, she became more mature, and as she gotten older she has listened more and learned more,” Warlick said.
That helped Catchings become a strong leader.
“She always had leadership qualities, but her approach to being a leader has changed,” Warlick said. “She now has an understanding that players come from different backgrounds with the game.”
Dunn said that with wisdom has come more patience for Catchings.
“She’s grown most in the way she is more patient with herself, and more patient with her teammates,” Dunn said. “It’s something she really had to work on.”
Personally, Catchings has also worked to put her past fully behind her.
“She’s also grown in her ability to trust others,” Dunn said. “With all the adversity she faced as a kid, it’s hard for her trust.”
White is amazed at the changes she’s seen in her friend over 25 years.
“To see her come in as this shy, competitive rookie and leave as this community leader, as this legacy-builder, as this woman who has grown more comfortable in public speaking, to understand what it means to pay it forward, to understand how to use the platform that she has, and who at the end of the day wants to make everyone around her better – that’s really unique,” White said. “Not many people have those qualities. I’m grateful to have been a part of her journey.”
White said Catchings gives even when she’s not trying to do so.
“She is one of the all time most gracious human beings I’ve ever been around,” White said. “She approaches her life every day the way she does on the floor; she’s self-made. I learn something from her every day.”
Bridges said she continues to think about all the player colleagues and young people Catchings has touched over the years.
“I can’t say enough good things about her,” Bridges said. “It’s hard to believe what a huge impact and influence she’s had on so many people.”
For Catchings, however, her focus is on ending her career as strongly as she started it. She found extra motivation to do so when Summitt died, after which Catchings dedicated her season to her.
Bombarded with emotions the day Summitt passed away, Catchings took cues from the woman herself.
“It was tough because you find yourself having to make a decision: ‘Do I play, or do I mourn? Do I do both?'” Catchings said. “In a situation with Pat and thinking what would she want, she would have wanted us to take care of our business and play. She always put in us to be strong.”
“Even for me now, I constantly think about her, but I don’t want to let her down, especially in my last year. I want to finish strong.”
Catchings said she is savoring every moment of every game she has left to play this season.
“I love what I do,” she said. “Now the motivation is playing for Pat and finishing strong, going out there and enjoying everything I do. Knowing that, this is it. I’m motivated because people are coming to see me play.”
Warlick knows Summitt would approve.
“Pat watched her develop and grow, and she was so proud of her,” Warlick said. “She loved Tamika, and loved what she stood for.”
“It’s hard not to like Catchings.”