Tamika Catchings prepares for last chapter of her legendary career

Tamika Catchings prepares for last chapter of her legendary career

As the remarkable basketball career of Tamika Catchings reaches its close, fans of the Indiana Fever star already planned to take the season to reflect on the life and legacy of a star worth about 20 percent more, by win shares, than any other player in the history of the WNBA.

But while she was busy easing the Fever’s transition in the post-Catchings era, running her Catch The Stars Foundation, preparing for another Olympics with potential for a fourth gold medal, interning at the NBA and, oh right, getting married, Catchings put the finishing touches on a three-year project she undertook with Ken Petersen: “Catch A Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion”, a memoir that allows the world broader access into a story that extends well beyond the basketball court. Her book tour continues in New York on March 3, at the NBA Store, from 4-6 p.m. ET.

“I don’t know if I can operate without a whole lot going on,” is the way Catchings explained it, sitting courtside last week after day two of USA Basketball training camp in Storrs, CT. “I feel like every year, there’s a whole lot going on. Writing the book, reliving everything that went on, that was fun for me.”

It also represented another way that Catchings took an aspect of her life that presented a challenge—in this case, her unease talking to people as she grew up in various locales, including Chicago and Abilene, Tex.—and turned it into something useful. She describes herself as a person who feels deeply. And that comes across in the memoir, fueled by the notebooks she’s filled with her thoughts and dreams since early on in her life.

“I still have everything,” Catchings said. “Some of them are small, some of them are big, some of them were just [so] I could put them in my purse, or bend and put in my pocket. And some of them were bigger, that people actually bought for me. I’m grateful because even now, I can remember where I was, I can remember situations around me. I can remember putting myself back in that moment when I was writing it. That was cool to go back to.”

Catchings takes the reader back to the moment in Abilene when, devastated by schoolyard taunting of her large hearing aids, she throws them into an abandoned field. In the subsequent weeks, Catchings was forced to learn how to read people, lips and motions and the smallest indicators of intent. Not surprisingly, this turned her into the fiercest defensive player in WNBA history,by far the career leader in steals. Would she be the same kind of player without her difficulty hearing, and a subsequent choice made in the emotional heat of an adolescent moment?

“I never really thought about it, as far as would I be the same player,” Catchings said. “I definitely feel like I wouldn’t be the same person, from the standpoint of everything that it teaches you. And for me, just having to go back and deal with certain situations—not just being able to cope without my hearing aids. That definitely helped on the court.”

Perhaps the most significant emotional touchstone in the book is when Catchings writes about her relationship with her father, Harvey, an 11-year NBA veteran who pushed her hard on the basketball court—too hard, Catchings believes. It is not a story with a neat resolution, but Catchings didn’t shy away from telling it anyway.

“Understanding some of the emotions that we’ve had over time, the highs and the lows,” Catchings said. “And I think, even for him, reading it—I don’t know if he read it yet—but being able to see it in a different light. Because it’s different going through it… maybe seeing it written—I wasn’t trying to bash my dad, but I definitely wanted to talk about it, because a lot of kids are going through that. In some cases—not necessarily in my case, my dad played in the NBA—but they live vicariously through their kids. And put so much pressure on them, that they end up not wanting to play, or wanting to be successful.”

Her success connecting with people now is undeniable, and accordingly, her final season will close without the presents one typically sees in an athlete’s final season—“I don’t need more stuff,” she explained—but instead with afterparties in each city where she plays her final game. Fans will pay to get in, since the other WNBA teams are prohibited by the CBA from paying for such a party for a rival player. And the proceeds will all go to her foundation, a vital cog in the Indianapolis effort to teach literacy, fitness and mentor young people. It’s something she intends to expand nationally once she’s finished playing.

But there’s one more season to play first, one in which Catchings is attempting to do something in her absence that few can manage even while present: imbue her teammates with the kind of defensive energy and overall intensity that Catchings herself learned under Pat Summitt at Tennessee. Last year’s Fever team, which reached the WNBA Finals, and a deciding Game 5 against the Minnesota Lynx, vastly outpaced what most observers believed was possible. And in games like the victory over the favored New York Liberty at The Garden, the Fever looked less like a collection of basketball players than a single, cohesive group held together by the energy of Catchings herself. But is that transferable? Notice that her alma mater Tennessee, without Summitt, recently dropped from the Top 25 for the first time in decades.

“You do it by example,” Catchings said. “So for me, I played with players long enough that they know my expectations. And so even the newer ones, like Natalie Achonwa, and Devereaux Peters when she comes in, whoever we get in the draft, they will have played with me for one full year. You’ll know. You’ll know the expectations.”

It all makes for a fascinating question: whether there’s one last push from Catchings to win another championship before she leaves the court, and a book to argue fiercely against doubting her ability to do it. The good news is, Catchings doesn’t sound like she’s authored her last page yet, either.

“There’s so much more to be written,” Catchings said. “And even going through this journey, this year, there’s a lot that will be coming up. So I’m excited about the next steps, and where we go from here.”

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