A lifelong hearing impairment, a surgically repaired knee and a busted nose weren’t nearly enough to stop Tamika Catchings

A Remarkable Catch

By Henry Abbott

Catchings showed the Fever that she was worth the wait.
Barry Gossage/WNBAE
Getty Images
Last March, renowned coach Van Chancellor was thrilled that Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley had come to Houston to try out for his 2002 World Basketball Championship team. He wasn’t so excited to see Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings walk into the Westside Tennis Club on her surgically repaired right knee. A former national Player of the Year at the University of Tennessee, Catchings hadn’t played regularly in close to a year, and Chancellor doubted she could make the team. “People had to talk me into inviting her to the tryouts, to tell you the truth,” he says.

Five minutes into the two-week tryouts, he had seen her nail enough treys, haul in enough tough boards and defend against enough top players to know with absolute certainty that he had made a colossal mistake. “Oh, can she play!” he exclaims months later, after Catchings started at power forward for a national team that won nine straight in rolling to gold in China, thanks in large part to the 23-year-old Energizer bunny of a power forward who more than held her own in a lineup of legends. Chancellor is amazed at the thought of almost cutting the team’s second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. “That was nothing but bad coaching right there,” he admits, “because I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone like her.”

Chancellor was just one of many to learn how special 2002’s WNBA Rookie of the Year is. A couple months later, in the Fever’s training camp, her teammates watched her play for a few minutes and then nicknamed her The Truth. “Everybody just had their jaws on the floor watching how hard she plays,” remembers Fever coach Nell Fortner. “A lot of players are talented—everybody can shoot, everybody can rebound—but it comes down to how bad do you want it? There’s just a relentlessness to Tamika’s game that really blows you away.”

One person who doesn’t seem blown away is Tamika herself. “I’m not a spectacular player,” says Catchings, who finished her rookie campaign first in steals (2.94), second in scoring (18.6), fourth in rebounding (8.6), sixth in blocks (1.34) and 10th in assists (3.7) in the entire league. “I just get the job done. Whatever the coach wants, I try to go out and do it.” Towards the end of the season, Coach Fortner asked her to lead the historically weak Fever to nine wins in their final 10 games for a chance of squeaking into the playoffs. “Nobody believed we would make it,” says Catchings, but somehow or other, they did.

"Whatever te coach wants, I try to go out and do it."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/WNBAE/Getty Images
Even though she has won NCAA championships and gold in the World Basketball Championship, the 6-0, 166-pound Catchings calls making the playoffs with the Fever her proudest basketball achievement to date. Fortner says it changed the team: “It left us with a great taste in our mouth, and at training camp I expect we’ll all be really motivated to do better.” Asked if there is a player in the league Fortner would trade Catchings for, Fortner screams, “No way! Not in a million years!”

Chancellor understands. He says Catchings has “all the talent and the tools” to be MVP but thinks her personality may outshine her skills. As evidence of that, he keeps the letter she sent him this summer. He had been tough on her in a game and in practice, telling her that he expected her to be a great player and that great players have to get back on defense better. “So I wrote him a letter thanking him for thinking of me as a great player,” explains Tamika “and saying that I wanted to achieve the things he has achieved.” Chancellor, who has led the Houston Comets to four WNBA titles, is still amazed.

“You and I both know that we would never write that letter,” says Tamika’s father Harvey, who played in the NBA(1) and has worked for the league for years. His job has often involved encouraging(2) NBA players to have dedication like Tamika’s. “She works constantly to get better.”

Tamika learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Tamika’s mother Juanda remembers clearly the day she learned that little Tamika had a hearing impairment. “I was devastated,” remembers Juanda, “I was crying.” It first showed up in a standard preschool hearing test, and it led to hearing aids, speech therapy, even learning to read lips a little—none of which were fun things for three-year-old Tamika to think about.

Catchings accepts the 2002 WNBA Rookie of the Year award.
Ron Hoskins/WNBAE/Getty Images
Juanda got over her own sadness quickly. She had been volunteering to help children with cancer. “I just thought about visiting those kids that are not going to make it,” she recalls “and they had such tremendous attitude and positive spirit. All of a sudden, ‘Mika’s hearing just didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.”

In the big picture, Tamika’s hearing problem really wasn’t that bad. She certainly isn’t deaf. Harvey says it can be tough for her when she has her back turned, and Juanda points out her inability to hear certain sounds, like “th” and “ch”. Her sister Tauja(3) points out that since their brother Kenyon has the same hearing problem, “I was the oddball really, because they both went to speech class all the time.”

Tamika says sometimes “people would just all of a sudden be asking me ‘Dang, can’t you hear me?’” As far as Tamika was concerned, the worst thing about her hearing impairment was how uncool her big, dumb-looking, early ’80s hearing aids made her feel in grade school. She already had to wear glasses. “I had a lot of problems socially,” she remembers.

That’s why, one day in the third grade, she carefully removed one of her hearing aids and chucked it into a field on the walk to her grandparents’ house from Reagan Elementary school in Abilene, TX. “I looked for a place where the grass was high,” she says, “so that we wouldn’t be able to find it again no matter what.”

She knew they’d come looking—hearing aids are expensive, and as Harvey points out, “NBA players back then didn’t make anything like what players make now.”

When she got home, Tamika told Juanda she had lost the hearing aid, but Juanda’s intuition told her otherwise. “Eventually she let out with what really happened,” remembers Juanda, who led the search party. Harvey, who remembers that moment as “the day we almost killed Tamika,” says that the crafty Tamika didn’t even lead them to the correct spot.

Except for special occasions, like trips to the audiologist’s office and speaking engagements, Tamika hasn’t worn hearing aids since, even though it means extra work. In the classroom, she always had to find a seat in the front row to be able to hear. “I would always read the chapter before class, so that I would know what the teacher was going to be saying, then I would stay after class and ask the teacher questions. I made straight A’s,” she says.(4)

School being the way it is, strong academics didn’t exactly solve her social problems. For that, she turned to sports. “I just wanted to play sports all the time,” she explains. “I played softball, soccer, I ran track a little.” But it was really basketball, the game her father taught her to play in the driveway, that gave her a way to fit in. “When you step between those lines, nothing else matters,” she says. “On the court, I was considered cooler. People noticed my talent, instead of any of those other things,” so she started working hard to get even better and put herself on a track to one of the nation’s top programs (the University of Tennessee) and a sparkling professional career.(5)

To this day she refuses to be outworked. “In practice, in games, it’s always the same. She just never stops working,” says Coach Fortner. “It’s awesome.” And it works. Consider August 16, 2002, when Tamika led the Indiana Fever in their first-ever playoff game. Moments after collecting her WNBA Rookie of the Year trophy, she dropped 29 and 11 on the Liberty in a blowout victory. Just a few weeks later, she stood on a podium in China, gold dangling from her neck, one of the world’s most dominant players at the tender age of 23.

In many ways, Tamika’s tossing of her hearing aid worked perfectly. Except for one thing: She says she did it to be normal, and she has turned out to be anything but. She has played some of the best basketball in the world while hurdling a number of obstacles with rare grace—her ongoing hearing impairment, her parent’s divorce, the broken nose she played with half of last season and the torn anterior cruciate ligament that kept her on the bench for a year. Tamika readily admits that some things in her life may not have gone the way she wanted them to(6), but feel sorry for herself? That’s not the way this woman’s brain is wired. “You can’t dwell on it,” she says. “Honestly? I just feel blessed.”

Stuffing

This article is from the Feb./March
issue of Inside Stuff magazine.
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1. Harvey Catchings played in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Italy.
2. Even though he was a professional player for many years, Harvey says he didn’t pressure Tamika to follow in his footsteps. “I expect her to have fun,” he says. “When she stops enjoying the game of basketball, it’s time to stop and do something different.”
3. Tauja and Tamika have always been almost inseparable, and Tauja even picks out a lot of Tamika’s clothes for her. “Tamika was sort of a tomboy who always wore baggy shirts and jeans in school, but these days she wants to look a little fancier and more professional. She gets Tauja to help choose her clothes, because Tauja has always taken her appearance very seriously,” says their mother Juanda. But that doesn’t mean Tauja’s any kind of sissy—she has played professional hoops in France, Sweden, Italy and Greece.
4. Tamika’s still young now, but when her playing days are over, she says she definitely wants to have a family, stay active running camps like the ones she runs now and own her own WNBA team.
5. Juanda Catchings remembers that when she was young, Tamika always said she would play professional basketball in the United States—even before there was professional women’s basketball here. “If there isn’t a women’s league, I’ll play with the men,” she remembers her saying.
6. Tamika says that dealing with difficult challenges as a youngster “made me stronger. Now I am able to deal with different things, and as an adult you have to deal with a lot of things that you can’t change.”
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