The International Hardwood
She has played basketball all over the globe. She has won an Olympic gold medal and is considered one of the most elite women’s basketball players on the planet. Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings has recently finished playing professionally in Russia, and beginning in January, she will ply her trade in Korea.
Whether on the court in the Women’s National Basketball Association; or winning Olympic gold in Athens; or playing internationally in Russia or Korea, Catchings is almost universally regarded as the best all-around talent on any court on which she plays. The case can be made – and has been – that Catchings is the most versatile women’s player in the world.
A year ago, Catchings took a break from her ragged pace that carried her from a U.S. pre-Olympic tour, through the WNBA season and through the Olympics in Greece. She conducted her annual clinics and camps, and from January through May, she completed pursuit of her master’s degree at the University of Tennessee.
Catchings accepted a contract with Spartak Moscow, playing in November and December before she resumes play in Korea, where she has competed previously in the winters of 2002 and 2003. In Korea, she will re-assume her place with the Woori Bank Hansae, whom she has guided to a pair of Korean Championships. And when the short Korea season concludes in March, she has agreed to return to Spartak Moscow for the remainder of its EuroCup schedule.
On the court and off, she is in constant motion and constant demand. She embraces her fans worldwide, and children in particular – evidenced by the formation of her charitable foundation in January 2005. She embraces and welcomes the responsibilities the come with being labeled a “role model.” In fact, she is as remarkable a citizen, as she is an athlete – hence her naming in December as one of three finalists for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup – a national award which honors an outstanding professional and college athlete who best displays character, teamwork, and citizenship.
The other Wooden Cup finalists? John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves and Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year’s winner? None other than Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning – another former Tennessee Volunteer like Catchings.
Fever Website: Originally, you hadn't intended to play overseas until you went to Korea in January. How did the opportunity present itself to play in Russia?
Tamika Catchings: “When I got approached to play in Russia, my first reaction was ‘no.’ But, after talking it over with my family, it was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up. So, I got myself prepared to come, and I have had such a great time!”
FW: This is the first time you have ever lived in Russia - what is the best part about being there?
TC: “My teammates are the best thing about being here. Having Nat (Natalie Williams) as a teammate again, along with Linda Frohlich, Ticha Penicheireo, and Iciss Tillis has allowed for an unforgettable experience. Plus, the other girls that are on the team are so much fun to be around.”
FW: While you are overseas, what do you usually miss the most about being away from home?
TC: “I always miss my family the most! The past few times Tauja has come with me overseas. This is the first time that I've been overseas without her. Thank God for Nat and her family at the beginning of this trip to Russia. I definitely felt better hanging out with them. I miss Outback Steakhouse too! Gotta have the Ayers Rock Strip with a sweet potato and a salad with ranch dressing! Yeah!”
TC: “Moscow is really the only city that I've spent time in, so I would have to claim Moscow! But, there is so much to do here. A little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Shops are cool, and the sight-seeing is awesome! From the Kremlin, to Red Square, to the museums, churches, and old-topped buildings [refers to Russia’s ‘onion dome’ architecture] – there is something for everyone.”
FW: Compare your playing experiences in Russia and Korea. There is a language barrier in both countries, obviously - which has been easier to manage?
TC: “I think Korea was easier to manage for me. Where I live in Moscow it is really hard to access anything. I mean, I love my place, but you need a driver to go anywhere! In Korea we had the metro right there, and it was easy for us to catch taxis everywhere, to get anywhere we wanted. Plus, the traffic here in Russia may be worse than anywhere I've been. Even New York City!”
FW: Compare the styles of play between Russia and Korea.
TC: “The Korean game is a lot quicker. Those girls are small, but quick as lightning. Here in Russia, the biggest difference is the hand checking rule. There is none. The foul situation is terrible, but in looking at the positives, it definitely helps you become a stronger player – both mentally and physically.”
FW: Obviously the overall play in the WNBA is a superior quality than in either Russia or Korea. What is the best thing about the Russian style of play? What is the best thing about the Korean style of play?
TC: “I wouldn't use the word superior, as if the Russian league or Korean league aren't good. Each league has its ups and downs. The best thing about playing in Russia is the opportunity to play over here, and have teammates I might never have in the States. For me, playing with Linda and Ticha has been a great experience for me. In Korea, I am the only American on the team, so a benefit is being able to play a lot. I love my coach and teammates in Korea, and I always feel like I get better.”
FW: In Russia, you are also playing with Fever teammate Natalie Williams, who also played in Russia last year. How has that helped your transition to playing there?
TC: “Having Nat and her family here has helped me a lot. I am very family oriented, so it allowed me to be comfortable in a not-so-familiar place. I'm fine now, though. My best friend and godson came over for a week, and my Dad came for a week. That really helped me get over the hump.”
FW: Natalie was there with her kids for a couple of months. How do the kids deal with any language barrier? In Russia, is there also a lot of English that is spoken?
TC: “I think Nat's kids did great with the language barrier. It's always cute to hear kids speak a different language. They got a few words, but if they were here longer, there's no telling how much more they would've learned. Like in any foreign country, you have those who speak English, and those who don't. I wouldn't say a lot of people speak English, but it's a lot easier for them to try to get their point across in English, than for us in Russian.”
FW: Do you live in an apartment? A house? Do you drive a car?
TC: “I live in a house out here. It's really comfortable, too. It kind of reminds me of my house in Indianapolis. We don't have cars, but we have drivers. It’s kind of cool at times, but not when you want to just run up the street. You always have to wait, and be conscious of someone else's schedule.”
FW: When you are playing overseas, have you ever experienced any anti-American sentiment?
TC: “I'm sure I have, but it's funny because when I'm overseas, I tend to drown out all outside ‘noise.’ I mean, I am conscious of my surroundings, but since I can't understand a lot of what I hear around me, I find myself not really paying attention.”
Catchings returned from Russia on Dec. 16. A Christmas party with a group of youngsters involved with her Catch the Stars Foundation was scheduled for Dec. 17, and she is scheduled to fly to Houston to spend her holiday with family. In true Tamika-fashion, she will take part in a Habitat for Humanity outreach event in New Orleans, Dec. 20. Following Christmas, she returns to Indianapolis for her Catch the Fever holiday basketball camp, Dec. 28-30.