Tamika’s Last Shot
Ankle-deep in mulch, a handful of volunteers gathered on the Flanner House community center playground nearly two years ago, landscaping around the kiddie slides and sweating through their T-shirts and yoga pants as part of the citywide beautification project Indy Do Day.
Tamika Catchings stood out in the crowd, as she does in most crowds. At 6-foot-1, with broad shoulders, sculpted deltoids, and the kind of long, lean muscle mass you’d expect to see on a fresco ceiling, the Indiana Fever star forward had just wrapped up another solid season at the age of 35, averaging 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and setting a WNBA record for rostering in 10 consecutive playoffs, having taken the court in every post-season game in Fever history. Her team had recently reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and sports fans were already speculating that Catchings would add another gold medal to her collection during her fourth Olympic Games appearance, in 2016. If so, it would equal a feat of age-defying endurance that might dazzle Zeus himself.
But on that October day, the stat-stuffing marquee player was just another volunteer in floppy work gloves, sprucing up the neighborhood on Dr. Martin Luther King Street with a small group from her youth-mentoring Catch the Stars Foundation. It made for a nice “Tamika Does Good in the Community” story (one of many), and Channel 13 reporter Rich Nye happened to have a little time in his schedule to run over there.
“It was raining that day, so we were trying to shoot as quickly as possible,” Nye recalls. “I guess because the season had ended, and because we are an Olympics station, I asked her something about getting ready for Rio. And that’s when she kind of blurted it out. She said she would go to the Olympics one more time, in 2016, and then that would be it.” It didn’t register at first, what she had so casually revealed. Nye walked away after the interview—then doubled back. “I said, ‘Do you realize that you just told me that?’”
Well … yes, she said. She had put a lot of thought into the decision, actually. Nye asked, “Does anyone know about this yet?”
“Nope,” Catchings replied, mulch-coated, tired, and perhaps a little off her PR game. And just like that, one of the most talented professional athletes Indiana has ever known (yet not known well enough) announced her retirement on accident, the interview equivalent of dribbling the ball off her foot.
The funny thing about this story is that Catchings doesn’t do anything on accident. Anyone who has followed her career—from her early days as a phenom named Illinois’s Ms. Basketball as a high school sophomore to this golden season marking the 20th anniversary of the WNBA—knows this to be true. She is, in fact, a woman in complete command of any situation. Controlling the ball as she powers down the court like a heat-seeking missile. Controlling a team that has played in three championship finals during her 16-year tenure. Controlling the crowds at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which becomes a screaming sea of red T-shirts when No. 24 sinks a three-pointer out of nowhere, pumps those Michelangelian arms, and roars.
With that same focused intensity, she has managed the elegantly arched trajectory of her basketball career, beginning with her earliest notion of a dream job. In seventh grade, the bookish, awkwardly self-conscious daughter of Harvey Catchings, a pro basketball player in the 1970s and ’80s, wrote her life goal on a piece of paper: “One day, I’ll be in the NBA.” She taped that little affirmation to her bathroom mirror, a daily reminder that had nothing to do with girl power. For a kid who had been schooling the neighborhood boys in pickup games for years, basketball was simply the only future she could imagine for herself. And it’s no surprise to anyone that the meticulously organized Catchings was already taking inventory of her career goals by puberty. Tamika’s sister, Tauja Catchings, recalls how in grade school, her year-younger sibling cataloged every item of clothing in her closet for easy cross-reference: “On her schedule, she would write ‘6 + 20,’ and that would mean the dark jeans with the purple sweater. She would have an entire month of outfits picked out.”
To this day, Catchings seems like the kind of person who’s going down a checklist of things she wants to accomplish in life. If such a spreadsheet were taped to her bathroom mirror today, it might look something like this: Win the state championship for your high school basketball team (check) … In two states (check) … Play Division 1 ball on full scholarship with the powerhouse University of Tennessee, under Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt (check) … Clinch the NCAA title (check) … Go pro (check) … Take home a WNBA championship trophy (check) … Win gold in the Olympics (check, check, check).
This year’s U.S. Olympics women’s basketball roster includes a star-studded cast of the sport’s premier players, like legendary Seattle Storm workhorse Sue Bird; Breanna Stewart, the WNBA’s darling newcomer from UConn; Diana Taurasi, who made news last year for accepting her off-season Russian league’s offer to pay her WNBA salary so she could sit out the 2015 season and rest; the Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, who set a WNBA record by scoring 30 or more points in four consecutive games in 2014; and 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, the one who can two-hand dunk. Together, they make up what you could call women’s basketball’s royal family, but team co-captain Catchings is the Queen Mum. The five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. The 2011 MVP. The 2012 Finals MVP. And the first player ever—man or woman—to record a quintuple-double (25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals, and 10 blocks) in one game. Insiders like Renee Brown, chief of basketball operations and player relations for the WNBA, regard her as the one player in the history of the women’s sport who has quietly, selflessly changed the game. “I see her style of basketball on the court—her will to win and her high level of competition. It has spread,” Brown says. “It’s almost generational. Players like that don’t come along very often.” We have had a superstar in our midst for years. Who knew?
Insiders regard Catchings as the one player in the history of the WNBA who has quietly, selflessly changed the game.
Catchings doesn’t act like a superstar, or live like one, either. She has a house on the northwest side, attends church at the New Life Worship Center on Lafayette Road, and has devoted her life to Jesus Christ. She loves french fries and enjoys playing with her nephews. She invited 27 guests to her wedding at the Skyline Club in February, when she married Parnell Smith, a soft-spoken Indianapolis native who won two state basketball titles with Pike High School and played overseas in Germany; he had been working as a project coordinator for Windstream Communications in Los Angeles when a mutual friend introduced them.
If you spotted Catchings eating a grilled cheese sandwich at the Slippery Noodle or out at any of her other favorite spots—Bru Burger Bar, Binkley’s, Outback Steakhouse—you would never guess she’s a legend, not just in Indiana but across state lines. ESPN.com writer Mechelle Voepel, who has covered the league since its inception and first wrote about Catchings during her freshman year at Tennessee, recalls the time she walked through the lobby of the Westin Indianapolis at 3 a.m., right after the Fever beat the Minnesota Lynx in the 2012 WNBA Finals. A group of Lynx fans had gathered to commiserate over their team’s loss in the series. “One of the things that all of them were saying was that if they had to lose, at least it meant Tamika Catchings got a title,” Voepel says. “That encapsulates the respect that she has within the league. Even the fans that were cheering against her were happy for her.”
To coincide with this final stretch of her playing career, the WNBA posted a series of tribute videos from the likes of Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant, and Alonzo Mourning. Pacers rookie Myles Turner calls her an inspiration and a role model. Paul George jokes that she’s the reason he changed his number to 13. (“You was putting too much pressure on me, wearing that No. 24.”) And what do we detect in the voice of Fever owner Herb Simon when he God-blesses and thanks Catchings for doing “such an incredible job for the organization”?
Is it panic?
Maybe sometime around that fateful Indy Do Day interview, Catchings’s checklist started taking on a different tone: Establish a local foundation for disadvantaged kids that promotes literacy, fitness, and mentoring (check) … Publish an autobiography (check) … A New York Times bestseller, by the way (check) … Get married (check) … Figure out what life might look like after that final buzzer on September 18 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse heralds the end of her playing days. The end of an era.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Catchings says. “I mean, I don’t. This is a leap of faith.” The 36-year-old, draped comfortably across one of the awkward green foldout chairs in the empty baseline section of the Fieldhouse, with her long legs crossed elegantly and one arm resting easily on the back of the chair, doesn’t look like a major baller. She’s wearing a fitted teal dress with a neckline that shows off the silver cross dangling on a chain around her neck, and the kind of tall, black boots Nancy Sinatra sang about. She has the relaxed and open demeanor of a good therapist—the gentle smile, solid eye contact, and slow, tilted nod that almost make you want to start telling her the story of your life instead of teasing out the details of her post-Fever career. Not that she takes the bait on her retirement plans. She only says this: “Whatever I do next is going to be even more powerful.”
She’s all business. But she’s a sweetheart. Ask a question, and her answer is polished yet sincere, her demeanor as confident in an interview as it is during a game. Only in the moments when Catchings softens an “r” or drops an “s” are you reminded that she has a disability, born with moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears. She wore bulky hearing aids when she was a child and went to speech therapy for years. Catchings has spent a lifetime closing the gap, trying to diminish the things that made her different from the other kids. In school, that meant sitting at the front of the classroom so she could read the teacher’s lips, devouring multiple chapters in advance of lesson plans, staying after class, and tossing those boxy hearing aids into a field one day on her way home from grade school in a desperate attempt to fit in.
Was she bullied? “Not necessarily bullied, but definitely challenged,” she says. Catchings has probably fielded this question hundreds of times, which doesn’t take away any of the rawness when she answers it. “Those were the toughest years. I started playing sports because it gave me an identity, for one. It also gave me an opportunity to be part of something. I could be part of a circle where I fit in—rather than an individual who got made fun of all the time for being different.” Her ability to not only adapt but excel would prove a running theme in her life. All of those years she spent working extra hard to overcome the hearing impairment would translate to a work ethic that those who follow the WNBA consider the universal standard for competitiveness in her sport.
Later, in the Fieldhouse’s practice gym, Catchings poses for some promotional Fever photos with her longtime teammate and close friend Briann January. The two players ham it up for the camera, Catchings grinning mischievously as she palms the ball over January’s head as if in mid-dunk, much to the enjoyment of the roomful of handlers and PR people. January laughs it off, plays along. Clearly, this is something they do. “I’m going to miss her so much. I’m trying not to think about it,” says January. In her eighth season with Indiana, she—like every other player on the team—has never known a Fever season without Catchings, whose legendary style of play is woven into the fabric of the entire organization, from the front office to the locker room. “Her energy is contagious. When you’re around her, you want to make yourself better,” January says. “And she gives really good hugs.”
If you’ve ever watched Catchings play basketball, you wouldn’t take her for much of a hugger. She has a reputation in the WNBA as a full-contact player—a banger—diving into plays, throwing her body at the ball, turning into a human punching bag to take the foul. “She’s relentless,” says former Fever teammate Katie Douglas. “When you’re lined up against Tamika, either offensively or defensively, you can expect a lot of ice after the game.” Douglas should know. Before she became Catchings’s teammate, she was among her fiercest opponents. The Perry Meridian grad competed against Catchings at the college level (notably, as part of Tennessee’s rival Purdue team in the 1999 NCAA tournament). When the Connecticut Sun traded Douglas to the Fever in 2008, the team management in Indy was so concerned about the Catchings–Douglas dynamic that they made the two players go to counseling together. “She was coming back from an Achilles injury, so we’d had no practice time, ever,” Douglas says. “People who didn’t know anything about the situation wondered why Katie and Tamika weren’t gelling.” They both laugh about it now, having grown close over the years. It’s all just part of the game.
Sometimes, the game gets rough—and that has nothing to do with the action on the court. This year marked the 20th season for the WNBA, which has come a long way during what has felt like a two decades–long awkward teenage phase. When the league started in 1996, sports fans didn’t warm to what seemed like a lesser version of the NBA. Women running down the court in baggy shorts didn’t have the sex appeal of women’s tennis (Anna Kournikova had recently turned pro) or the youthful novelty of women’s soccer (in three years, a jubilant Brandi Chastain would rip off her white jersey during the 1999 Women’s World Cup). WNBA players became media targets, the subject of Jimmy Kimmel and Family Guy jabs and rants from disaffected sports commentators, like the ESPN producer who suggested that the WNBA acronym stood for “Will Not Be Accepted.”
Of the 12 teams currently in the league, the Indiana franchise is regarded as one of the most successful programs. It’s among the few teams to turn a profit last season, when the WNBA’s then-president Laurel Richie told the Indianapolis Business Journal, “The Fever are doing a lot of things right” in regards to having strong sponsorship sales and “a clear strategy.” When the Fever celebrated in Indianapolis after its 2012 win, a crowd of approximately 1,000 fans gathered in the Fieldhouse to celebrate with the team and their feisty then-coach, Lin Dunn—an outspoken grandmotherly firebrand who has been described as a cross between Aunt Bee and Bobby Knight.
A different measure of success is the energy inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse on game day. Every time a Fever player hits a three-pointer, super-fan Becky Hardy runs the steps between sections 16 and 17, high-fiving everyone in the aisle seats. Meanwhile, the bug-eyed, yellow-dreadlocked mascot Freddy Fever blasts souvenirs into the stands with a T-shirt cannon as the Fever Inferno hip-hop squad twerks at center court. It’s tempting to compare the average Fever crowd (7,000 to 8,000) to that at a typical Pacers game (over 16,000). But what the cheering section lacks in size, it makes up for in loyalty—a melting pot of Lin Dunn lookalikes in bedazzled Fever sweatshirts mingling with school groups, multi-generational African-American families, date-night couples, LGBT fans spanning the entire spectrum of the rainbow, lots of dads with their kids, and clusters of fist-pumping, baseball-cap-wearing young men chugging Sun King beers and heckling the refs. Chances are, if you asked any of them what brought them to Bankers Life, they would answer in one word: Tamika.
Catchings didn’t know much about Indiana when she arrived in 2001, the third pick in that year’s WNBA draft—a shocker considering she was healing from a debilitating ACL tear that would render her unplayable for the entire season. That choice surprised everyone, including Catchings. “I don’t know if I would have taken that chance,” she says. “Probably not. But I’m glad they did.”
To say that the chance paid off is an understatement. “We didn’t know at the time that we had drafted a once-in-a-lifetime player that we were going to build our franchise around for the next 15 years,” says Fever president Kelly Krauskopf. Just as Catchings worked hard to prove herself as a kid with hearing loss, she notoriously trains like a beast, spending hours in the gym shooting baskets, running drills, and playing pickup games with anyone who shows up to compete with her. She does core workouts in the mornings at Bankers Life from 7:30 to 9:30, then takes a break before heading to St. Vincent Sports Performance to work on her agility and speed. Through the years, she has mixed it up with workouts like martial arts and swimming. Dunn remembers having to kick her out of the gym, just to make her rest. “I don’t think you ever are as successful as she is accidentally,” Dunn says.
If you want to know how that kind of intensity translates to the court, you should have been sitting in section 116 during the second game of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Liberty, last September. At halftime, the unfavored Indiana team trailed by 15 points, but two minutes into the third quarter, Catchings started sinking shots. One after the other after the other, scoring 16 of her 25 points in the final 20 minutes. She was everywhere—manufacturing every play, driving to the basket, stutter-stepping, shot-faking, rebounding her own ball and tipping it in, launching herself into the air in that perfect Michael Jordan money shot, until her final two points put Indiana in the lead for the first time, in the last minute of the game. The Fever won 70–64, and the fans were screaming, out of their seats, out of their minds. Everyone who had ever been an underdog hoisted their Diet Pepsi cups a little higher that night. It was the kind of rally that transforms ordinary people into Fever fans, waving free-towel-night rags in the air.
It’s hard to say goodbye to a superstar like that. But maybe this season isn’t goodbye. Catchings has reasons to stay in Indianapolis after putting down roots in the place where she has lived for a longer stretch than anywhere else in her life. Her foundation is here. Her sister and nephews live here. Her husband is from here. She likes Indianapolis, and she wants to raise a family as soon as she retires. “I feel like this is home,” she says.
Catchings has yet to announce what she plans to do next (although we might be just one Rich Nye interview away from finding out). She says that she wants to continue her work with her foundation, to keep helping kids and serving as a role model. But she also seems to be creating a brand—releasing her inspirational book, building her foundation’s theme of empowerment, accepting public-speaking engagements. People who know her have theories, and they don’t involve Catchings taking the Fever coaching job that Stephanie White will vacate after this season. (Catchings, they say, isn’t the type to obsess over game tape.) They can see Catchings transitioning to a front-office position with the NBA or the WNBA, possibly the NCAA. She has a master’s degree in sports studies, and last winter she spent a few weeks interning with the NBA at the request of commissioner Adam Silver. Having served as president of the WNBA players union for 12 years, she has a great business mind and a reputation for rolling up her sleeves. People want her on their team. Even Herb Simon signed off on his Tamika Catchings tribute video with a wistful tone: “I hope you stay around. There are a lot of things for you to do here.”
It’s possible Catchings will hit her stride post-retirement, as she settles into a new career as competitive and gratifying as her decades on the court. Maybe this is what she has really been training for all of these years.