Tamika Catchings was just 3 years old when doctors diagnosed her with extensive hearing loss. That’s when the future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer received her first pair of hearing aids.
But in second grade, after relentless bullying, Catchings threw them out.
“I remember going to school every single day and getting made fun of,” she told a session titled “Hoops and Hopes: A Superstar’s Story” at the 2023 NCSL Legislative Summit. “I would get made fun of for the way I talked, for the hearing aids I had to wear, and I’ve always been the tallest in the room.”
“Basketball was just that one thing, that one place, where I felt like no matter what happened, it was a safe place.”
—Tamika Catchings, basketball Hall of Famer
Catchings says she eventually refused to wear them in the hope of fitting in. She learned to adapt in the classroom—and she discovered sports.
The daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings, she quickly developed a passion for athletics, starting with soccer, softball and volleyball. But at the end of the day, basketball, she says, stood above the rest.
“When I was mad, when I was happy, when I was sad—whatever emotion I felt, I could grab my ball and go outside,” Catchings says. “Basketball was just that one thing, that one place, where I felt like no matter what happened, it was a safe place.”
She Got Game
By third grade, Catchings had set a lofty goal: to play in the NBA (the WNBA was not yet in existence). By eighth grade, she had her sights set on playing college ball for legendary coach Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee. Diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, she was nearly deaf in both ears by high school, but that didn’t stop her from being one of the only players in basketball history to have recorded a quintuple-double (racking up 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks) in a single high school game. She went on to achieve her dream of playing for Summit, leading the team to an undefeated national championship title and becoming a four-time All-American.
Catchings says Summit excelled as a coach as much for worrying about what the team did in the classroom as what they did on the court. “At the end of the day, she was more concerned about how we would end up as people,” Catchings says.
Sidelined with a knee injury three months before the 2001 WNBA draft, Catchings was uncertain of her prospects but was picked third by the Indiana Fever. Suffering a second knee injury during a practice with the Fever, she was sidelined for the 2001 season. She came back to be named WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2002 and led the Fever to a WNBA championship in 2012. Catchings played for the Fever for her entire 16-year career in the league, retiring in 2016 as the WNBA’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder, career leader in free throws and steals, and five-time Defensive Player of the Year. Oh, she also helped earn the U.S. four Olympic gold medals from 2004-2016, playing with greats including Dawn Staley, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.
Leading Off the Court
But while Catchings was a dynamo on the hardwood, she’s perhaps most proud of her work away from the rim. While recovering from her rookie-year injury, she says instead of sitting and feeling sorry for herself, she got out in the Indianapolis community, where she found a passion for doing work with kids facing impairments or having trouble fitting in.
In 2004, with her sister Tauja Catchings, she co-founded the Catch the Stars Foundation, promoting fitness, literacy and youth empowerment in Indianapolis and beyond. She received ESPN’s first Humanitarian Award in 2015 for her work with the foundation.
Following her WNBA retirement, Catchings has worked with Pacers Sports & Entertainment (owner of the Indiana Pacers, the Fever and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants) and USA Basketball. She also owns three Tea’s Me locations, an Indianapolis-based tea bar and cafe.
But, she says, life is always evolving, and she considers herself a lifelong learner—which led her to her current pursuit of earning an executive MBA degree from the University of Notre Dame.
“Sometimes you just have to have a leap of faith, and that’s where I am right now,” Catchings says. “I really want to discover myself and discover the things I’m passionate about. … It’s OK to be at this point in your life and go, ‘I don’t know where I’m going’ without fear.”
Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.