VICE Sports Q&A: Tamika Catchings Reflects on Pat Summit, Her Upcoming Retirement, and Her Final Olympics
Tamika Catchings is preparing to represent the United States in her fourth Olympic Games. They will be a capstone on one of the greatest careers in basketball history.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Tamika Catchings is playing in her fifteenth, and final, WNBA season, for the Indiana Fever, and she will be playing in the summer Olympic games in Rio. Catchings' Fever squad won the WNBA championship in 2012. Her Tennessee Vols won the NCAA title under Pat Summitt in 1998.
Catchings owns three Olympic gold medals. She has been college basketball's player of the year, the WNBA's Most Valuable Player, a nine-time All-Star, and a five-time winner of the league's Defensive Player of the Year award.
She entered the 2016 season as the WNBA's all-time leader in points, rebounds, free throws, and steals. Now Catchings is poised to become the only WNBA player to ever spend her entire career of fifteen or more seasons with the same franchise.
VICE Sports: It's been kind of amazing in this ever-changing world to see somebody start a career with one team and finish that career with the same team. For you it's been the Indiana Fever. Are you surprised that it lasted this long?
Tamika Catchings: I'm blessed. I wouldn't say I am surprised. I came into the league not really know much about Indiana, but hoping that it would be somewhere that I could stay and stick for long-term career. Fortunately for me, it has just been amazing to be able to stay in one organization. Pacers Sports and Entertainment has been absolutely amazing for me and my family and my "Catch the Stars Foundation." So, literally the word I would use is "blessed" to be able to spend my career with the Fever.
Does it mean even more to you since the Fever took a chance on you when came out of the University of Tennessee in 2001? You had just suffered the ACL injury. Nobody knew what was going to happen with you or where you might go in the WNBA draft and the Fever stepped up and took you with number three pick.
Definitely. Kelly Krauskopf, the general manager, took a chance on me that first year when I was recovering from the injury and then she stuck with me through it all. I mean. I tore my ACL, had surgery, and had to sit out my first season. Over the years, I tore my Achilles. I tore my meniscus, broke my nose, broke some fingers, and had some teeth knocked out but, through it all, here I am.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Winning the championship in 2012 but, even beyond that, I would say 2009 when we went all the way to game five against Phoenix in the Finals. I think we all look at that season just like the end result of losing to the Mercury and not being able to take care of his business ...
I thought you had that one, Meek.
(Laughs) I did too! I did, too, but I think beyond that. Going into the year there were a lot of ups and downs with the franchise and question marks about whether or not the Fever would stay in Indiana or be moved to a different city. Because of the success that we had in 2009, it really propelled our entire organization to whole new level.
When you were very young, it was discovered that you had a "moderate to severe" hearing loss. You used hearing aids for a while and you didn't like the attention that you got with them. In fact, you got so ridiculed at school that, one day, you threw the hearing aids into a field just to get rid of them. As you look back on all you've had to overcome with your hearing problems, do you call it a "handicap" or do you call it something else?
I definitely call it something else. People call it a disability, but I finally realized that god had blessed me with a hearing problem. That's what I call it "a hearing problem." Early on, I didn't appreciate it as much as I have, as of late. I think what I do on the court, and even off the court, has been an avenue that I can use to inspire a lot of young kids that are going through hearing problems or having to deal with adversity at a young age. I feel like they are able to relate to my story. As I've gotten older and been successful, I hear from adults that may be a going through the same things. I feel like my story, and all that I have gone through, has not only inspired young kids. It is inspiring young adults, adults, grandmothers, grandpas. You name it. It has inspired people.
I have to be honest. I covered most of your WNBA career and I didn't know if you wore hearing aids or not. I didn't know what you could hear on the court or what you couldn't hear. Fill me in.
I learned to adapt without them, but I did get back into wearing hearing aids when I got to college. Pat Summitt was the one who sat me down my freshman year, Pat and our trainer Jenny Moshak at the time. Pat said, "One day, you will be able to inspire and impact millions of people."
I remember walking out of that room and thinking, "Yeah. Millions of people. Whatever, Pat."
It's crazy because her vision has always shone bright. Fast-forward twenty years later from that moment and my story has inspired a lot of people.
Millions? I don't know.
Thousands? I don't know, but Pat recognized my situation and had a vision, early on. Here I am living it out now.
Pat Summitt passed away back in June. What did your college coach mean to you and your life?
My gosh. When I look at myself now, I can't imagine. It's like every single piece of her and her standards and her character and what she stood for is a part of me, my fabric and my life. She is intertwined with me on the court, me off the court, my faith, my family. She was my mentor, my hero, my inspiration and motivator. Somebody who always strived for excellence and definitely, right now, what I aspire to be is great, like her.
When you were recruited to Tennessee and you decided to go there, did you have any idea what you were getting into and just how demanding Pat Summitt could be?
I knew and I wanted that. I went to some other universities and made all my little school visits and when it came down to making my decision it was like, "This women never promised me playing time. She never promised me that it would be easy."
Pat always said, "You will get what you work for." It was kind of like; you will reap what you sow. "If you work hard, you will get your minutes. If you don't, you get nothing." I respected that about her more than anything. She never said, "Oh yeah. You come in. You'll get your jersey. You'll get to start and get playing time." I really respected that about her.
You relate in your book that on your very first day of practice at the University of Tennessee, you were doing a defensive drill and Pat kept constantly correcting your technique. You got emotional and frustrated and you snapped at her and said, "But it doesn't work that way" The gym went silent. In your first day of practice, you managed to talk back to the great Pat Summit. What the heck were you thinking, Ms Catchings?
I have no idea what I was thinking! It's funny because I tell that story a lot and, even when I'm just telling the story, my heart starts beating fast. (Laughs). My feelings were hurt. I had never really been told that I had done anything wrong. Never really gotten yelled at throughout my middle school and high school careers. So, here we were on the first day of practice and my feelings got a hold of me and I wasn't able to hold my tongue. It just came out. It was a slip-up. One of those moments when it comes out, but you think, "Okay. Maybe I think I said it, but I really didn't say it." No. I really said it.
Up until that point, I felt like the defense I had played had been good enough but her standard for quality defense was that you needed to be in a defensive stance. You were going to be down and your butt was going to be down and your arms were going to be out. That's the way she played defense and that was different from the way that I had gotten by playing defense. The moral of the story is that if I wanted to play I had to learn real fast how to play the Pat Summit Tennessee Lady Vol defense and, you best believe, I learned real fast how to do that.
You must have learned quickly because that year (1998) you went undefeated and Tennessee won the NCAA championship. That had to be special.
It was special and the thing about that I remember the most is how hard we played. Practices were so hard. I remember like ...
You say in your book that there was "blood shed blood every practice."
There was blood at every practice. When we got between the lines, it was a battle, but as soon as we stepped on the other side it was different. Even Pat changed. She was hard on the court, but once practice was over, it was like nothing had happened. That's tough, especially for us females, because we carry everything, but as soon as we crossed that line it was like, "What happened to that tyrant that we just saw on the court?" But it was in a good way. I just remember that every single practice we pushed each other like none other. By the time we got through the practices, it made the games so much easier.
Tell me about the "Summit glare," that piercing look Pat had. You call them her "laser blue eyes." What prompted the "glare"? What made Pat Summit mad?
Nothing made her so mad as you not giving 100 percent in everything. It wasn't just on the court. It was in the classroom and when we had to do appearances. She expected us to be great and she expected 100 percent. Nothing made her madder than watching us and knowing that we're going through the motions. Oh! You go through the motions and, you best believe, you are going to get that "glare" or get chewed out to at least one time during that practice.
After that first day that I got yelled at, I decided to do whatever I could to make sure that I never had to go through that moment again, and I'm sure I got yelled at a couple times after that, but that one I will never forget in my life!
Speaking of influences in your life, your dad, Harvey Catchings, played in the NBA and played with Dr. J. in Philadelphia. Was it a blessing or a burden to have a NBA dad?
I think it was a blessing. I don't think I realized how big of a deal it was. I was probably in middle school when people started coming up to me and saying, "Oh. Your dad plays in the NBA. That is really cool." I was young and our family hung around with other player's families, so it was kind of like living in a bubble, but not knowing that you are in a bubble. You don't know what you don't know. So, for us growing up, that was what it was like.
Then we moved overseas and lived in Italy. That was a little bit different, but when we came back to the States and I started having some success in my career, everybody continued to talk about my father being an NBA player and what it meant for me growing up. He provided opportunities for me to get better and to be able to aspire to be like him.
You met some interesting people along the way, too. Back in 1986, your dad was playing in Italy with Kobe Bryant's father, Joe. You and Kobe got to know each other when you were both just elementary school age and now, look. You have both achieved incredible success and played your entire pro careers with one franchise.
It is interesting. People always ask now, "What was it like back then. What were you guys thinking?" We were just kids. We weren't thinking about being professional athletes or the "what ifs" of the future. Soccer was the number one sport in Italy. Not basketball. Our dads played basketball, but our families interacted more because we were both African-American families. We felt it was important to be able to establish a type of community and be able to engage with people who looked like us and spoke English. Sometimes you lose that when you are living in a foreign land.
The 2016 Olympics are coming up in Brazil. These will be your fourth Olympic games, but there are concerns surrounding the Rio games because of the Zika virus, violence and pollution. Are you concerned?
I'm not concerned. This is my twentieth year being a part of the USA Basketball family, and I feel like every single time we prepare for the Olympics there is always some issue that we are talking about. There are always warnings and threats and all these different things that get brought to our attention. Our parents and our schools and the media keep pressing us on it and, every year, thank God. Knock on wood, we've never really had any issues. Same thing this year.
I believe that, between the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Basketball, every one will come together and make sure that all of the athletes are safe. If they feel like we are not going to be safe, they will make sure that they do everything possible to insure our safety or we wont be going to Rio.
You've played in three Olympics and earned three gold medals. One more and you will join Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie as the only American basketball players to win four Olympic gold medals. What was it like the first time that you stood on that Olympic podium, clutched the gold medal, and heard our national anthem played while the red, white and blue was raised to the rafters?
Ahhhh! That is a moment that you can only dream of. That first time was with Van Chancellor in Athens in 2004. I just remember standing there and looking up. I looked to my left and I looked to my right and my teammates were all lined up, single file. They were all watching. The national anthem was being played. The flag was slowly being raised up. It was like all of the practice, all the hard work, and everything had paid off. For me, it was being able to be a part of the senior team for the first time. All the emotion just welled up inside of me. Tears are coming down your face and it's not like you are crying. You are just so excited and so overwhelmed by the moment. I say the only thing that was missing were the fireworks.
Now, you are headed down the stretch in your final WNBA season. Are you enjoying your Legacy Tour?
It was a great idea to do the Legacy Tour. Coming into this season I was really trying to figure out, "how do you go out with a bang" and not necessarily make it all about me. The Legacy Tour allows me to, not only carry on the legacy that I've had on the court but, even more so, carry on the legacy that I have off the court. We've been giving out $2,000 grants at every Fever road game to a local community partner that promotes fitness, literacy and mentoring. Twelve cities equals $24,000 and my jersey number, ironically, is 24.
It's been fun to interact with other teams' fans. We come and go so often. We come to a city and play and then we are out. We don't really get to interact with fans and so, for me, I really wanted to get the opportunity to do that, sign autographs, shake hands, and sign copies of "Catch A Star." I just wanted to go out doing something that is different and has never been done.
You have spent the past few years as the president of the WNBA Players Association. What has been the biggest part of that job and what advice do you have for whomever takes your place?
I think over the years, it was about maintaining, directing our players, and being a positive voice for the players, especially from the respect stand point both from our players, the league and even the media.
My role, right now, is to prepare the next group to be able to stand up and be able to fill that void and fill those shoes. Overall, you have to have the mindset of working for the all the players, not only the ones who make a rookie salary but also the ones that are making the veteran's minimum and the ones that earn the highest amount. You have to be able to speak on behalf of everybody and have it in your mindset that our league has to continue to grow through what we do as a union.
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