In Good Hands

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My goal was to play in the NBA.

Problem: When I was growing up, the WNBA didn’t exist. The only league I could look to — to aspire to — was the NBA.

So, that’s what I was going to do.

My father, Harvey Catchings, played in the league for 11 years across four teams: the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers. My goal was to follow in his footsteps, and to conquer the league as a female. I remember that day when I was in 7th grade that I ran downstairs and told my parents about my plan. They looked at me with a smile and said, “If anyone can do it, you can.”

My like of basketball started as a young tomboy while watching my dad play. But, my love for basketball started as a 9-year-old with my dad as our coach, on a Deerfield, IL, Park District team. My love for the game grew. It was when I made a commitment that I wanted to be a true “baller” that everything changed. Sundays were family night, and my dad would take my brother, Kenyon, my sister, Tauja, and me to the gym. He’d go through drills with us, play knockout and sometimes even one-on-one. I looked forward to those nights. The only thing I didn’t like was when the other men started to arrive, and get ready for their weekly pick up games. My dad would let my brother play with them, and I despised that he wouldn’t let me join the fun. Shoot, I knew that I could hold my own. But my dad didn’t want me to get hurt at my young age.

I would scream, “Why does Kenyon get to play? It’s because he’s a boy? That’s not fair!” Steam would come from my ears.

I would scream, “Why does Kenyon get to play? It’s because he’s a boy? That’s not fair!”

My dad made the game so much fun, though. Those Sunday nights were why I fell in love with the game. Eventually, I was playing on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays … every single day.

Basketball became my sanctuary. My safe haven.

I was born with a moderate to severe hearing impairment that affected and still affects both of my ears. With the hearing impairment came a speech impediment, hearing aids and a lot of hard times growing up. It was hard to be “normal” while so many things were different about me. Kids would tease me about my awkward hearing aids, my speech problems and for just being different. I would always try to make myself as invisible as I possibly could.

The court, though, that was my place of refuge where nobody could tease me. My mom and dad knew when I wasn’t at home they could find me there.

Thirty years later, and I still feel the same way.

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My favorite player growing up was the Charlotte Hornets’ do-it-all-forward, Alonzo Mourning.

‘Zo did everything on the court. And he did everything for the team. When they needed a basket, he’d score. When they needed a defensive stop, he’d get one. When they needed someone to facilitate and help make plays, he would make that pass. He was a strong leader, too. You could just tell. I’d watch ‘Zo and think, “One day, that’s how I’ll play. My team will know that whenever they need something, I can do it.”

Honestly, he’s the first player who showed me what a complete player looked like from the post.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1996, my soon-to-be senior year in high school that I started focusing on the what-ifs: What if I don’t make the NBA? What would my other options be? That was also the year of one of our most dominant USA Women’s Olympic team’s road to Gold. I got an invite to try out for the USA Junior Olympic team. Talk about an opportunity of a lifetime. I was super excited. My mentality started to shift — watching the women’s team, and having a chance at the Jr. Olympic team. Those women took the role of ‘Zo. They became my role models. They opened up the possibility that one day, I may be able to represent my country in the Olympic Games.

The following year, the WNBA was founded. I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee, playing under one of the greatest coaches of all time, Pat Summitt. On the heels of a successful gold medal charge from the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, those ladies spearheaded a league that showcased some of the best basketball in the world. All of a sudden, I didn’t need the NBA. It felt like the WNBA was made specifically for me — and thousands of other young women — to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing professional basketball on an equitable stage.

Each year that I played in college drew me closer to my ultimate dream. But then it happened … my senior year of college, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I suffered a torn ACL during our game against Mississippi State. It was awful. Nobody’s going to want me, I thought. The league needs players who can make an immediate impact as a rookie.

The Lady Vols made it to the Final Four despite me being sidelined, but we just couldn’t pull off another championship run. I was invited to the WNBA draft to actually be on set in New Jersey while they broadcasted it live. I remember sitting there, super nervous while waiting for my name to be called.

“With the first pick of the 2001 WNBA draft, the Seattle Storm select … Lauren Jackson from Australia.”

Lots of applause. Pictures.

The Charlotte Sting were on the clock.

“With the second pick, the Charlotte Sting select … Kelly Miller from the University of Georgia.”

Lots of applause. Pictures.

The Indiana Fever were on the clock.

“With the third pick, the Indiana Fever select … Tamika Catchings …”

It took a few minutes for things to register. I jumped up and hugged everyone that was there with me. Wow, I made it. I’m going to Indiana.

Hearing your name being announced at the draft is an out-of-body experience. After a few moments, though, reality kicks in. Oh, my God! I’m going to the WNBA!

While I was being interviewed after my name was called, someone asked me what I knew about Indiana. I was like, “Nothing! I don’t know anything. I know they play basketball. I know they have cows.” But, it didn’t matter — I was on my way to the WNBA.

I sat out my first year in Indiana, rehabbing my knee. The following year, when I finally got the opportunity to play, I felt I had something to prove. It’s hard transitioning from four guaranteed years in college to the professional level; you’re only guaranteed that day. Until you sign a real contract, every day is new. Basketball becomes your job.

It’s been my job now for 15 seasons, and this upcoming 16th year will be my last.

To this day, I remember the first time they announced my name right before a game. I remember running out of the tunnel and the crowd going crazy. I still get chills thinking about it. Even today, every time they say my name, I go back to that moment during my first minutes as a pro.

It’s the same feeling when I see fans wearing my No. 24 jersey. It’s surreal.

I remember, one day, many years ago, shooting around prior to the game with my teammate, Ebony Hoffman. Ebony was in true fashion warming up and cracking jokes. While we prepared for the game, Eb, seemingly out of nowhere, stopped in her tracks. I looked over.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “This is the greatest moment ever.”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“Look!” Eb said, as she pointed to the stands. “There’s a little girl wearing a No. 32 Hoffman jersey… I have arrived!”

I started laughing.

“No, Catch,” Eb replied. “You don’t understand. My jersey isn’t even for sale. Somebody had to get that made just to have a ‘32’ on it.”

It made me think about the first time I saw someone in my jersey. It’s a humbling, amazing feeling. But it gives me more joy to see people wearing my teammates’ jerseys. For so long, people were only able to buy mine. But now, I see more of my teammates’ jerseys spread throughout the arena. How awesome is that?

To me, that’s a sign of growth. I want to see every player’s jersey available to buy. Our league represents opportunity and empowerment. The product is remarkable, and there has never been more interest in the WNBA as it enters its 20th season. Unfortunately, we still get overshadowed because of the “W” in front of the NBA.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my legacy as I approach my last season. My off-the-court impact has been just as important as my on-the-court impact. I didn’t know much about Indiana, but I’ve made it my home. This community is my community. My records will be broken but my impact cannot. I take great pride in my Catch the Stars Foundation, and all the lives we’ve touched and stories we’ve told. That’s part of something bigger than basketball.

But basketball is what got me here. Basketball enabled that impact.

I’ll be working to ensure this league is in good hands when I leave. I’ve been president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association since 2004, and that’s what I’m focusing on most: player engagement and finding the next group of people who will lead the players themselves, and continue to grow our game.

It’s great to celebrate, but it’s imperative we keep looking forward.

There’s a great deal to be done from a marketing standpoint, and much of it will need to happen organically. I tell people all the time: “You have to come to a game and see for yourself.” It’s hard to sell something to another person that they don’t know anything about. I could show anyone all of the great players we have, but you’re just looking at pictures. You’re just hearing the words.

You have to experience the WNBA. Hear the noise. Feel the passion.

It would be easy for me to walk away and accept where the league is currently at — its 20th season. I could say I’ve put in my time and years. I’ve lived my dream. I’ve won my championship (hopefully championships). But I believe so much in the WNBA and what it stands for, that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I just stopped there. Think about all the young girls and women who deserve an opportunity to live that same dream.

I have a responsibility to them, too. Together we will keep grinding. It’s great to celebrate, but it’s imperative we keep looking forward.

Basketball won’t be our jobs forever. It couldn’t possibly be. Our bodies, over time, have had enough. But building a place for generations to come. Impacting lives of those you haven’t even met. Paying it forward…

That’s the job of a lifetime.

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Tamika Catchings recently released a memoir, entitled Catch a Star, and will be launching a Legacy Tour in each WNBA franchise city this season. For more details, visit catchthestars.org.

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