Tamika Catchings is one of the greatest female athletes to play the game of basketball. She’s an NCAA champion, four-time NCAA All-American, WNBA champion, WNBA MVP, five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, 10-time WNBA All-Star, and four-time Olympic champion.
Catchings is also one of the game’s most popular players. She’s accessible to the fans, she’s active in the community, she plays with as much heart as any athlete to ever step foot on the court, and her smile is an infectious reminder of her genuinely kindhearted personality.
But more importantly than any of those things, Catchings considers herself a devoted Christ follower who wants to use her platform to impact the people around her with an eternal message of hope, faith, and love.
Sadly for the basketball world, Catchings (who spent all of her 15 seasons with the Indiana Fever) retired following the 2016 WNBA season and let behind an incredible legacy that will not be forgotten any time soon. And with the newfound extra time on her hands, she will focus even more energy on her Catch The Stars Foundation and its emphasis on mentoring young people.
In this conversation, Catchings talks about her past adversities, her memories of iconic college coach Pat Summitt, what it means to represent her country on the globe’s biggest stage, and how she hopes to help others achieve their dreams:
Bonham: Tell me a little bit about your faith upbringing.
Catchings: We grew up in the church. Everything the church offered, we did. Our parents just made sure that we were always involved in some positive activity. Even though we got older and may have fallen off as far as going to church and doing the things we had grown up doing, we always ended up going back to it.
Chad Bonham: What are some of the childhood difficulties you overcame?
Tamika Catchings: Growing up I had a hearing problem and I had to wear hearing aids. Back then they didn’t have the small ones. They had the big behind-the-ear ones. So that was a struggle for me, just being different. Along with that, I had speech problems. Whether it was getting made fun of for the way I looked with my hearing aids or the way that I talked, it was a struggle. And eventually I had to wear glasses and braces, a little bit of everything. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to get talked about for the different things that I had going on. That was something I struggled with until I was in second grade. I got tired of being made fun of, so one day I was walking home from school and I just took my hearing aids off and threw them in a field. Of course, my mom and dad weren’t very happy with me. I knew I was going to have to face the consequences, but I just wanted to fit in. I was willing to make that sacrifice. When I got into sixth grade, my mom and dad divorced. That was another struggle. From that point, that’s when I really started to look at sports as an outlet to get away and do something I didn’t have to think about. I just went out and did it.
Bonham: Does your story help you better relate to young people and their struggles?
Catchings: Every single place I talk, whether it’s to a group of kids or at a university or wherever I go, I always ask them a series of questions. By the end of my time, every single person has raised his or her hand. It’s different when you hear someone talk and you have nothing in common. They’re talking about something that’s over your head. But a lot of the stuff that I talk about is real life situations; my story, what I’ve gone through, how I’ve overcome, and of course my faith. Everyone plays off my faith. Being a WNBA player gives me a great platform to be able to give my testimony and talk about my faith without pushing it on people.
Bonham: What has God taught you through these challenges?
Catchings: God has taught me about patience and about accepting myself for who I am and knowing that He formed me and made me unique. He made everyone uniquely wonderful. That’s been the biggest thing for me. Every single cell, every single muscle, every single thing about my body, He created and He formed—and even my personality. I never thought I’d be able to speak in front of hundreds of people and have a story and a testimony. That’s the thing that God has showed me—just accepting myself. And he’s also shown me patience through the injuries I’ve had, and the relationships I’ve been through and the things I want in my life. It’s like He’s saying, “Be still and be patient.”
Bonham: What do you remember most about Pat Summitt?
Tamika Catchings: Eighth grade was the first time I ever saw Pat Summitt. I was flipping channels and I saw her flash across the screen. For whatever reason, she just caught my attention. So I watched the game for a little bit and I thought, “If I ever get good enough to play for her, that would be a dream come true.” The one great thing that Pat taught her players is that becoming a great player is one thing but just becoming a better person is the most important thing. It’s not just about who you are on the basketball court. It’s about becoming a well-rounded person—having respect for yourself, having respect for others and living life to the fullest. Another thing she always used to say was, “You ride or die as a team.” When people got in trouble, she would punish that individual person but she would punish the whole team too. Some people don’t agree with that, but I think for us it held us responsible. When you’re playing a team sport, you have to hold each other accountable. You know that if you do something wrong, you’re not just affecting yourself. You’re affecting the whole team. We learned to have love for one another.
Bonham: How did your ACL injury during your senior year at Tennessee impact your relationship with God?
Catchings: It seems like (the importance of having a relationship with God) became that much more obvious to me. There was a huge chunk that was missing in my life that I was filling with basketball. Basketball was my god. I couldn’t go to church because I had practice and you lose that balance that you grew up with. So after my injury, I got back to going to church and then one thing after another, my faith continued to grow. It is who I am and that’s how I’ve come through adversity, knowing that I have Him to count on. It makes things that much easier.
Bonham: You’ve actually had several injuries throughout your career. Talk about those and how you’ve relied on your faith to overcome them.
Catchings: I’ve torn my ACL. I’ve torn my meniscus. I’ve torn my Achilles. When I faced those tough times, it would have been easier to give up and said, “Woe is me!” But I want to be loyal – loyal to myself, my family, my team, and our fans. Most importantly, I want to be loyal to God. I represent Him in everything I do. All the things I’ve been through have given me a platform to be able to talk to people. They made me stronger and helped me become the person that I am today.
Bonham: Does your story help you better relate to young people and their struggles?
Catchings: Every single place I talk, whether it’s to a group of kids or at a university or wherever I go, I always ask them a series of questions. By the end of my time, every single person has raised his or her hand. It’s different when you hear someone talk and you have nothing in common. They’re talking about something that’s over your head. But a lot of the stuff that I talk about is real life situations; my story, what I’ve gone through, how I’ve overcome, and of course my faith. Everyone plays off my faith. Being an athlete gives me a great platform to be able to give my testimony and talk about my faith without pushing it on people.
Bonham: Describe what it’s like to compete in the Olympics.
Catchings: It is one of the most exciting things. It’s almost one of those things that even when you talk about it, you can’t fully describe the feeling—just being able to be considered one of the best in your nation. And when you look at the Olympics, it goes across all fields in life—sports, politics, diversity. It’s everything combined into one. And when you’re there, everybody is watching you. What they see is how they think every American acts. I take a lot of responsibility for that. This might be the only time some of these players and these people from different countries ever come into contact with an American. You are that person that they are going to go back and talk about. It’s cool to meet a lot of new people. But there are also a lot of foreigners that come to the WNBA and play so it allows us to develop those friendships as well.
Bonham: Tell me about your foundation and the basketball camp you run every year.
Catchings: I started the Catch The Stars Foundation in 2004. I wanted to make an impact on kids. I think about all the people that have come across my path from the time I was little girl to where I’m at today. There were so many people that wanted to help me. And some people didn’t even know. They were just a positive influence and encouragement in a time when I needed it. I want to help these kids catch their stars one dream at a time. We have a mentoring program. We have a fitness program. But one of the things we always come back to is being able to work with other people. We put kids together that have never been together in their life. While they’re at the camp, they’re going to learn to work with that team and that person. With our mentoring program and our focus is to help these young people to leave after the six weeks with a greater level of confidence and self-esteem. We’ve had young girls come to the program and literally not say a word that first week or even look at anyone and keep their heads down. You wonder if they even want to be there. But by the end of the program, these kids are like flowers that have blossomed. It’s amazing to see that.
(Photos: Indiana Fever, USA Basketball, Chad Bonham)