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Worth the Wait

Published on June 27, 2013

by Joshua Cooley

She hoisted the hardware aloft toward the roof of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The trophy glistened in the bright lights of victory—a shining emblem of her dominance, even after all these years.

Very few things in life have gotten the best of Tamika Catchings, but, on this night, her emotions did. The moment was too big. For a goal-oriented individual—one who used to schedule her entire wardrobe a month in advance in high school—the night of Oct. 21, 2012, was a satisfying culmination— like a climber cresting Kilimanjaro or a cyclist sprinting home on the Champs-Élysées.

Tamika Catchings
Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings

Hyperbole? Hardly. Not for a player who compared her 2012 WNBA season to “300,” a movie about King Leonidas and 300 Spartan warriors valiantly standing their ground against a massive Persian force in the Battle of Thermopylae.

“We went into a battle, and nobody expected us to be where we were,” Catchings says.

The Spartans lost of course. Catchings and her Indiana Fever teammates did not.

As the 33-year-old’s Finals MVP award went up, the tears trickled down. She had done it. The owner of an NCAA title and three Olympic gold medals was now, finally, a WNBA champion.

As she soaked in the euphoria, one word kept running through her mind: Wow. Simple, yet profound. For this one-syllable word describes so much of Catchings’ life story: a tale of basketball greatness sprouting from physical limitations. It’s a narrative of tenacity and willpower forged through adversity. Mostly, it’s an inspirational story of the Great Redeemer bringing hope to many through the life of one.

Fitting in

Catchings chucked the small, cumbersome hearing aids as far as her little 8-year-old arm could hurl things.

Following yet another rough day at school, she was so sick of being laughed at and so desperate to fit in that her impulses took over as she tearfully walked home: “These have to go.”

Catchings was born with hearing loss in both ears, which also permanently affected her speech. These disabilities, as well as the orthodontic braces and eyeglasses, made her an easy target. Self-consciousness started to cripple her emotionally, so she took a chamele-on-like approach to self-defense.

Since kids mocked her speech, she just stopped speaking, instead writing poetry and keeping a journal. She found safe friends—those of her older brother, Kenyon, and sister, Tauja. At school, she withdrew from groups, learned to read lips, and sat in the front row in class. Better to adapt than be teased.

“She tried everything to fit in,” Tauja recalls.

Including basketball. With Catchings as her surname, it was a natural pursuit. Harvey Catchings, Tamika’s 6-foot-9 father, carved out an 11-year NBA career (1974-85) as a scrappy reserve for four teams. Averaging only 3.2 points, five rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game over his career, he was never a star, but he reached the playoffs nine times and played for some of his era’s best teams, including the 55-win 1977-78 Philadelphia 76ers, featuring Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and the 60-win 1980-81 Milwaukee Bucks, starring Hall of Famer Bob Lanier.

Kenyon, a high school All-American, was traveling stardom’s path until the debilitating onset of Crohn’s Disease wiped out his career. Tauja starred at Illinois before being drafted by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in 2000 and playing briefly in Europe.

Tamika fell in love with hoops, too. At first, though, it was mainly out of survival mode. Basketball was a safe haven and an agent of self-transformation. Clark Kent had his phone booth; Tamika had her gymnasium. Once inside, she morphed from an awkward, insecure girl into a powerful force able to leap unfair stereotypes in a single bound: Make fun of my impairments? Then step onto the court with me.

Bringing It Home Devotional: His Love Is Relentless

It’s no secret that we all have insecurities. Tamika Catchings had hers as a child. Mocked and teased by classmates about her hearing aids, braces and glasses, she desperately wanted to be like everyone

Read more

It never ended well for her opponents.

By seventh grade, Tamika resolved to play in college at Tennessee for legendary coach Pat Summitt and then continue professionally. With pen in hand, she scribbled her goal on a note and posted it on her mirror as a daily motivator.

Of course, this was circa 1991, six years before the WNBA’s inaugural season. So what did she realistically expect to do?

“Follow in my dad’s footsteps,” she says matter-of-factly. “I thought I was going to make the NBA. I wasn’t going to be told no.”

Harvey, who had settled his family in Deerfield, Ill., after ending his career, poured his knowledge into his daughter and taught her the basics. Before long, driveway pickup games between Tamika and her siblings—particularly Tauja, 21 months older—became so spirited that they were getting a little dangerous.

“It got to the point where we couldn’t play together,” Tauja says. “There were bloody noses. It got pretty ugly. My dad had to put a schedule together: ‘Now, you can play at this time, and you can play at this time.’”

Once Tamika and Tauja joined forces on the court, though, they were an unstoppable tandem and led Stevenson High School to a Class AA Illinois state title in 1995, when Tauja was a junior and Tamika a sophomore.

Alas, the dynamic-duo days were short-lived. Their parents had divorced several years earlier, and Wanda, their mother, decided to move closer to her family in Duncanville, Texas, be-fore Tamika’s junior year. Kenyon was already in college, and Tauja wanted to stay in Deer-field. But Tamika—not wanting her mom to be alone and hoping to return to anonymity amidst her increasing basketball prominence—packed her bags.

It was a gut-wrenching decision. Tauja and Tamika had always been incredibly tight (aside from a few flying elbows in one-on-one games). When the family first arrived in Deerfield, the siblings had to share a bedroom. After a few months of normal sisterly bickering, their parents separated them. Inevitably, one of them would eventually arrive at the other’s room.

“I can’t sleep.”

“Me neither.”

And so they’d crawl into the same bed and drift off.

Tamika and Tauja did everything together. With youthful entrepreneurialism, they’d order cheap trinkets from the Oriental Trading Company catalog, set up a table at the end of their driveway and sell their wares with cups of lemonade. They called their business “T&T’s Treasures.”

“We were partners in crime,” Tauja says. “I was the mastermind. I’d suck her into things and then she’d get in trouble. We were just typical sisters, always together.”

When reporters approached Tamika for post-game interviews in high school, protective Tauja would often answer instead, aware of her sister’s reticence in public.

“Tauja has always been my backbone,” Tamika says.

Ultimately, the move to Texas was good for Tamika. It forced her to survive—and then thrive—without Tauja. While Tauja led Stevenson to another state title as the 1996 Ms. Basketball of Illinois and became one of the all-time great Fighting Illini players, Tamika led Duncanville to a state championship, became a four-time Parade Magazine All-American and earned several national player of the year awards as a senior. She even recorded the only confirmed quintuple-double in basketball history—male or female, at any level—with 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocked shots.

Next stop: Rocky Top.

‘Ask and you shall receive’

Catchings looked at the billboard and laughed. In big, bold letters, it said, “Who’s Your Daddy?”—a play-on-words advertisement promoting an upcoming sermon at a local Knoxville church.

Catchings, a junior at the time, told her three teammates in the car, “We should go.”

Athletically speaking, Catchings’ career at Tennessee was already an overwhelming success. As a freshman she had helped the Lady Volunteers go a perfect 39-0, winning their record-setting third straight NCAA championship as part of the famed “Three Meeks”—alongside Chamique Holdsclaw and Semeka Randall.

Tamika Catchings
Catchings with Chattanooga youth prior to speaking at the local FCA banquet in March.

Overall, she would go 134-10 at Tennessee, with four Southeastern Conference regular-season titles and three SEC tournament championships. She scored 2,113 career points (fourth on the school’s all-time list), won the 2000 Naismith National Player of the Year Award as a junior and joined Holdsclaw as the only four-time All-Americans in the program’s storied history.

But spiritually, Catchings was searching. She and her three fellow car passengers that day all had a lot in common. Each came from a church background and a broken home. None were fully walking with the Lord. For Catchings, Christianity had taken a backseat to basketball.

That day, through that sermon, the Holy Spirit started changing Catchings. The transformation accelerated the following season, in 2000-01. The Lady Vols entered Catchings’ final year as favorites to win another title, coming off a championship loss to Connecticut the previous year. But Catchings suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in game No. 17, abruptly ending her season and putting her professional future in limbo. Who will want damaged goods? Catchings thought. Why now, God?

“My goal was to be in the WNBA and, bam, I went down,” she says. “I was frustrated. But it’s weird because I felt a peace come over me. Basketball was such a big focus. God was like, ‘No, enough is enough.’ It opened my eyes.”

At the 2001 WNBA draft, Indiana harbored no misgivings about Catchings, snatching her with the third overall pick. She missed the entire 2001 season after tearing cartilage in the same knee that July, but rebounded to win the 2002 WNBA Rookie of the Year award and helped turn the struggling new franchise into a playoff contender.

Since then, Catchings has produced a surefire Hall of Fame career by averaging 16.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game over 11 seasons. She has earned 10 All-WNBA honors, seven All-Star appearances, five Defensive Player of the Year awards and a league MVP (2011). Along the way, she’s also won three Olympic gold medals (2004, 2008 and 2012).

Last year, she led the Fever to an eighth straight playoff appearance and a four-game WNBA Finals upset over the top-seeded and defending champion Minnesota Lynx, even though Indiana was missing second-leading scorer Katie Douglas.

The Fever’s title marked the state of Indiana’s first pro basketball championship since the Pacers’ 1973 ABA title.

In earning Finals MVP honors, Catchings averaged 22.3 points per game, including a dominant effort in the series-clinching Game 4—25 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three blocks. Dominant enough to receive a personal tweet from LeBron James: “Congrats to the Fever on winning the WNBA finals! Special S/O to T. Catch on her 1st one! I know the feeling.”

“Wow,” Catchings says, recalling that night. “That’s what it was like—wow. I don’t think it re-ally hit me until I was on the stage and they started talking about it. One minute I’m on the stage; the next I’m bawling. It’s crazy because you hear, ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ All these years, [I’ve thought] ‘I want to win a championship.’ But winning that championship and winning it that way this late in my career—I don’t know if I would’ve appreciated it as much if I had won it earlier.” 

‘A heart of gold’

If everything previously mentioned fully summarized Catchings’ life, it would still qualify as “wow.” Painfully shy and hearing-impaired girl overcomes physical challenges, scorn and broken family to reach apex of her sport. That’s Hollywood material.

But stopping there would neglect a vital component of her story. Consider this: In 2001, as she rehabilitated her torn ACL, the WNBA rookie didn’t mope or idly bide her time. She contacted the Fever’s community relations director. “Hey,” she said, “whatever you’ve got going on in the community, count me in.”

First up: A basketball camp for low-income kids in Indianapolis. Next, a health clinic to com-bat childhood obesity. Then some mentoring programs, more youth wellness clinics, and on and on.

By 2004, Catchings had started her own non-profit foundation called Catch the Stars which reaches out to Indianapolis area youth through fitness, literacy and mentoring programs.

“She would give you the shoes off her feet and not think twice about it,” says Tauja, who runs the foundation on a part-time basis. “She’s always been that way. What people do when others aren’t watching shows who you really are. She has a heart of gold.”

Recalling the difficulties of her own youth, Catchings is paying it forward. That’s why she gladly obliges opportunities such as speaking at an FCA banquet in Chattanooga in March.

Tamika Catchings
"To whom much is given, much is expected. Through this platform I'm able to reach out and help others." - Tamika Catchings

“She took time every chance she had to get down on the kids’ level, to really listen to and interact with them,” says Jay Fowler, FCA’s Multi-Area Director for Chattanooga/Southeast Tennessee. “Our key staff with her that day were so blown away by her willingness to serve and eagerness to get to know us.”

Catchings particularly enjoys hosting her annual three-day holiday basketball camp for about 200 kids in Indianapolis each December. Unlike some athletes who only make token appearances at community outreach events, Catchings intimately runs the show. She conducts the pre-camp volunteer meetings, leads the campers in stretching exercises, and tells them when to rotate stations.

“She’s the director of the camp in every way,” says Kathy Malone Sparks, the Fever’s long-time chaplain and a member of FCA's Hall of Champions.

Catchings also has a heart for adults, particularly her younger teammates with whom she assumes a big-sister role. She also serves on the WNBA chaplain board, organizing team chapels when the Fever hit the road.

Last season, she invited a teammate enduring some significant personal struggles to church and midweek Bible studies. At the end of the year, the player’s parents took Catchings aside and told her, “We really think you saved our daughter’s life.”

Catchings takes her own spiritual walk seriously, too. She’s a faithful chapel attendee—“I can probably count the times she’s missed [since being drafted] on one hand,” Sparks says—and for the last six years, she’s been involved in a women’s Bible study that Sparks leads.

“Her faith in God is very strong,” Sparks says. “She’s so grateful for all the blessings in her life. She knows they’re from the Lord.”

It all adds up to a heart that understands Scripture passages such as Luke 12:48.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Catchings says. “Through this platform I’m able to reach out and help others.”

The future …

What’s next for Catchings? For now, more hoops.

In February, she signed a two-year contract to return to the Fever. She believes the team is poised for a rousing encore. Her 2012 scoring average of 17.4 points was the fourth-highest mark of her career, a testament to her work ethic, skills and resolve. Entering this season, she ranked fifth on the WNBA’s all-time scoring list with 5,766 points (Seattle Storm forward Tina Thompson was first with 7,009).

At an age when many WNBA players are finished or fading fast, Catchings is still one of the game’s top stars.

“We’ll see,” she says of her future. “Lord-willing, they won’t give up on me anytime soon, my body stays intact, there are no issues, and I’m still playing at an elite level.”

In other words, doubt her at your own risk.

When she does retire from playing, she wants to be a WNBA general manager. With eight nephews and one niece, she also wants a family of her own soon.

Tamika Catchings
Cathings immediately after winning the 2012 WNBA Championship and Finals MVP.

Mostly, she wants to remain involved with her foundation. The memories of that day long ago involving tears and discarded hearing aids still linger. There are lots of hurting kids out there—just like she once was—who could use a little love.

Is it any wonder, then, that when one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time is asked to list the top highlight of her career, she avoids talk of trophies and personal glory and immediately mentions her foundation?

“I’m just so thankful to have a platform to help kids reach their goals and their dreams,” she says. “Twenty years from now, you’ll have to look at a book to see who won [the WNBA cham-pionship] and who was MVP. There were a lot of people who helped me. I realize I’m here to-day because of them, and I’m able to do the same thing with my foundation.”

Wow, indeed.

Originally Published: July 2013

Photos courtesy of USA TODAY Sports, Chattanooga FCA and Indiana Fever/NBAE




Bringing It Home Devotional: His Love Is Relentless

It’s no secret that we all have insecurities. Tamika Catchings had hers as a child. Mocked and teased by classmates about her hearing aids, braces and glasses, she desperately wanted to be like everyone else. To fit in, she strategically avoided groups, learned to read lips and concentrated on the one thing she did best: Play basketball.

With time, her insecurities faded as she grew older and gained self-confidence. As a junior at the University of Tennessee, she grasped the power of the love of her Heavenly Father, who created her in His holy image. Her newfound awareness of His relentless love helped her realize she no longer needed to try to fit in with the crowd, but instead she could embrace everything He made her to be.

We can all see a little bit of ourselves in Catchings’ story. While we may not be playing basketball on the world’s largest stage, we’ve all been in her childhood shoes as we’ve coped with—or hidden—the things we’re not so fond of about ourselves.

But consider this, from Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.”

Reading that, why should we ever be ashamed or feel the need to cover up who we are?

At the root of all our insecurities is fear. Fear, borne of sin, entered the world through our original ancestors, Adam and Eve, and it crippled all of mankind from that point forward.

Thankfully, though, God cares for each of us, the people He created in His own image. He loves us so much that He sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to die a brutal death on the cross for our sins. His sacrificial death and resurrection on the third day have the potential to save us from eternal separation from Him and the insecurities and fears that plague us.

All we have to do is accept His free gift of salvation by placing our faith in God, Who created us in His image and did not leave us to perish. Nothing should hold us back knowing God watches over us with His relentless, saving and grace-filled love.

Have questions about accepting Christ into your heart, beginning a relationship with Him, or what it means to be saved? Call FCA’s National Support Center at (800) 289-0909 or visit www.morethanwinning.org.