WNBA legend, 4-time Olympic gold medalist, Tamika Catchings, says it’s been a theme in her life. In a candid interview, Tamika shares her struggles, victories and lifelong passion to leave a legacy beyond basketball
STORY // Lisa Husmann Photos // Todd Rosenberg/The Players’ Tribune
Yesterday I was a wife, mother of three and an interior designer on the side. Today, I am interviewing the WNBA GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) Tamika Catchings. What is going on here!?
Admittedly, I am not a huge sports fan. So I had to take a 12-hour crash course on Google to find out: Who exactly is Tamika Catchings? The journey to answer that question led me to fanship for life.
Aside from her impressive career as a professional basketball player—named WNBA Defensive Player of the Year a record five times, league MVP in 2011, a league title in 2012, and being the first person in the world to achieve a quintuple double (that’s where you hit double digits in five different statistical categories in one game)— Tamika is using her stardom platform to do everyday kingdom work.
On top of all that, this amazing woman faced adversity from the beginning of her life. She often shares openly about being bullied and never feeling like she fit in. How many of us can relate to that?
So naturally, I totally geeked out when I saw a message from Tamika in my email! And to top off her down to earth nature, she attached her personal cell phone number for the interview. AHHH (screaming). What celebrity does that!?
Tamika Catchings. That’s who. Tamika is easily the busiest, most generous philanthropist I have ever met. Yet, she fit me in—between two charity appointments—and didn’t make me feel rushed at all. I told her this is my very first interview. Ever. She graciously responded, “I love working with rookies.”
I am “fanning” even harder now.
Each answer she gave was more endearing than the last, and by the end of reading this interview, I hope you see the same light radiating from Tamika that I witnessed while chatting with her. A light that exudes from a life in close relationship with her savior, Jesus Christ.
The geeking and fanning interview officially began with a word of prayer and off it went.
Q: Hearing aids, speech problem, glasses then braces. You said “I didn’t want people looking at me or talking about me. I just wanted to fit in.” Here you are now one of the most recognized and decorated female athletes of all time. You far surpassed just fitting in. Tell us what it’s like to be on the other side.
A: It’s been an interesting journey. Thank God for sure. I go back to the beginning, in 2nd grade.
I remember going to school, and getting made fun of pretty much every single day. And I questioned “Man, why did God make me like this?” I didn’t understand why He would put me in this situation.
Now, fast forward to my freshman year in college at the University of Tennessee. Pat Summitt, yes, the one and only legend, asked me for a meeting post-practice. The rest of practice was a blur, but when I walked into the training room, Pat was joined with our athletic trainer, Jenny Moshak, on one of the training benches. Pat drilled me with a series of questions pertaining to when people need help, they use (she wanted me to fill in the blank). The last question she asked me was “When people can’t hear they need (fill in the blank)?” As I responded hearing aids, she put her arm around my shoulder and said, “I think you should get back to wearing your hearing aids.” She continued on to say, “One day your story will impact thousands, maybe millions, of people. Just think about the role model you can be for kids who are going through or will go through, the same things that you’ve gone through.”
I remember literally sitting in that training room, looking at Pat like this lady is crazy; I’m not ever going to be out here talking about anything pertaining to my story, and DEFINITELY not in public. She clearly has no idea what she’s talking about.
Well, that was then, but five years later, after sitting out my first season with the Indiana Fever, our Community Relations Director at the time asked me if I would be willing to go on a speaking tour at local elementary schools for the Fever. Of course, my first response was “No” because I didn’t speak in public, and I was so worried about going back to 2nd grade and getting made fun of for the way that I talked and the hearing aids that I had to wear. I thought I don’t really speak. I definitely don’t want to talk in front of kids…or anybody. Then she informed me I had to speak.
There are some things you say you will never do.
“I will never.” — “It’s just not me.” — “I can’t do it.”
There are all these excuses we have for why we don’t do things. People make fun of the way I talk. I can’t hear right. Just like Moses in the Bible, I don’t speak right.
Then God said to me, “This is a testimony I put on you. This is a story you are going to share, like it or not.”
And He was right.
Q: You knew in 7th grade you wanted to be in the NBA and even said your freshman year in college, when they created the WNBA, “They made a league knowing I was coming… They made it just for me.” Your senior year at University of Tennessee, you tore your ACL, cutting the final season of your college career short, and leaving you unable to play for the Indiana Fever your first year out of college while recovering. While dealing with your first injury, a few months later you suffered torn cartilage in the same knee, underwent surgery again and it was final that you would not be able to try to make it back before the end of the season. How did you reconcile what God was doing with that?
A: My senior year in college, right after my initial injury, our trainer rushed me back to the locker room. When we were back there I kept telling her to “Just tape it up! Put me back out there,” because I wanted to go out with a bang and finish my senior season.
After the game, when my teammates came to check on me— we were all crying. Someone ushered them out of the room, and the room got super silent just as moments before it had been super loud. It was at that moment I swear I heard a voice say “I got you.” And I was like, what? This is where it got a little random—but, I started thinking about all of my teammates and all of the different things we all had going on in our lives. And in the end what it came down to was, if there was anyone who could handle this and anyone that could go through this, in this moment in time the only person that was suited for it—was me. I was strong enough to handle it. Strong enough that it wouldn’t break me.
My faith is a lot stronger now than it was then, but you think about the cross that God has to bear for all of us and some crosses are heavier than others. And I think it’s the same thing in this case—the cross that I had to bear (in a different sense, of course), God had already prepared me for, and He knew that I would be able to overcome.
You don’t necessarily always have to be the one to talk about your faith; sometimes your faith is just who you are.
Tamika really wanted to be back in Tennessee to rehab, but the Fever GM said, “I really want you to be around this team; this is going to be your future. This is where we want you to be. You belong here.” This was a team committed to being there for her. She didn’t know at the time that this beautiful relationship would serve as a foundation for her entire professional career. #24Forever in the hearts of Indiana Fever fans.
Q: You speak of your faith growing over time. Tell me, how did you become a Christian?
A: I was raised going to church but as far as my own personal decision? Freshman year, we went undefeated. [I thought,] if this is how college is going to be, wow, we are in for the ride of our life. But, sophomore year we lost a few games and you would have thought it was the end of the world.
One day, I was driving down the road and saw a billboard for an upcoming church revival. There are times when things pop up on our journey that we would have never seen, or thought about, but I rushed back to the dorm to tell my teammates (the “Fab Four”) about what was going on at the church. So, when Wednesday came around, we piled into the car to head to this “revival.” Interestingly enough, the sermon was titled, “Who’s your daddy?”
The four of us had different journeys with our fathers. My mom and dad had divorced when I was in 7th grade. One of my teammates never really knew her dad, another hadn’t seen hers in a long time, and the last one had a dad who was really involved; he was our team dad.
That night when the Pastor gave the altar call, we all bum-rushed up there—gave our lives to Christ and never looked back.
Q: You talk a lot about your family as your supporters. In the Bible, Paul had a supporter, too, in Ananias. Without Ananias answering God’s call on his life, Paul wouldn’t have been able to affect thousands of generations. Tell us about your family as supporters.
A: (She answered with a big smile on her face) My sister, by far, is that person. Obviously, she had aspirations and dreams and goals. She was playing overseas in Sweden when I tore my ACL. Literally, the very next day, she flew back to Knoxville, so she could take care of me. When you think about somebody as selfless as that, [it] goes a long way. It’s a blessing to have somebody like her. I feel like what used to be my passion is now her passion and then some. I mean, she’s the executive director of our foundation. We do everything together, and it’s a blessing to have somebody like that on your side no matter what.
Love and Basketball…and Tea: Life after Retirement
Tamika found love and married Parnell Smith in 2016. She says he encourages and supports all of her adventures. When asked how she fell for him, she says, “He’s obviously very attractive, but smart, intellectual. He played basketball, so [we were] able to relate in that sense, and able to talk about other stuff outside of basketball and sports. We’re both very faith oriented,” adding, “He’s really close to his family. I’m obviously really close to mine.”
When asked which is the most important number to her: #24, #4 (gold metals) or her quintuple doubles, she proudly chose #24 — a number she says has a family connection. Her dad was #42, the reverse of her number. Her brother was half her dad’s number (#21), and her sister was the reverse of that with #12.
In 2017, a few months after retiring from the WNBA, the Indiana Fever franchise retired Tamika’s #24 Jersey in her honor. It was an emotional ceremony for all who attended.
Q: You have been called “a living legend,” and just had a bronze statue in your image put up at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. You say, “I don’t want kids to be like me, but better than me.” I understand what you mean, but honestly… YOU ARE THE BEST! What do you want your legacy to be?
A: (Humbly she responds) Everything I do, my faith is a big part of, and an underlining part of who I am. I don’t have to be out there preaching all the time because of the way I live my life. My legacy is rooted in my faith. But it’s really just the attitude of giving.
A couple of years back, someone asked me, ”What is the number one reason rich people are rich?” I thought it was a trick question. He said, “Rich people are not just rich in money but in life. Rich as in fulfilled, smiles—everything about them is rich in life and in joy. It’s because of giving.”
And so, my legacy and my life will always be about giving, always helping those behind me—our youth. That’s the focus for my foundation, [called] Catch the Stars.
Catch the Stars empowers youth, ages 7-18, by providing goal-setting programs that focus on fitness, literacy and youth development. Over 14,000 youth have been impacted by the foundation’s camps, fitness clinics, back to school celebrations, mentoring programs, reading corners, and scholarship programs.
Q: Why do you continue to live in Indianapolis?
A: What happens is, you get engaged in and involved with the community. So now this community is my family. We have been able to impact so many families’ lives through the Catch the Stars Foundation. Why would I go anywhere else? Why not make this my home base?
Along with Catch the Stars, Tamika also puts her expertise to use as Director of Player Programs and Franchise Development with Pacers Sports & Entertainment and is committed to helping her community through good works. Though she is no longer making her living on the basketball court, it is evident she still lives by the same philosophy of excellence. “What’s the point in doing something mediocre?” she once said. “When you’re mediocre, you get mediocre results. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be excellent. If you aren’t demanding and leading with excellence, why should anyone follow you?”
Tamika now uses her leadership as a local business owner. After being a regular customer at Tea’s Me, a tea bar and café in the downtown Indianapolis area, the owner told her they were going to sell it. The tea shop showed up in her dreams every night for two weeks straight. Finally, she asked her husband, Parnell, about his thoughts for her taking over and he said, “Every single thing you are passionate about—it works!” So she bought it!
Q: You are taking your Tea’s Me staff to the Multiply Conference this fall. How did you hear about it and what prompted you to buy tickets for your staff?
A: One of my friends organized an entrepreneur workshop at her house and gave out the book “Called to Create” by Jordan Raynor. A few weeks later she e-mailed the group that he would be speaking at the Multiply Conference and encouraged us each to buy tickets. So, I went online to check out the conference and saw that Cynt Marshall, the Dallas Mav’s CEO was going to be there. Immediately, my first thought was “I want to meet her.”
Her foundation, by the way, celebrated its 10th year last year, and because of her decade-long work impacting youth in Indianapolis, Tamika is a two-time recipient of the WNBA’s Community Leadership Award along with being named ESPN’s first-ever Sports Humanitarian of the Year.
She didn’t fit in as a child, and she certainly doesn’t fit the model of “Average Jane” now. With the help of strategic mentors in her life and God’s words “I got you,” Tamika embraced the reality that he didn’t create us to fit in, but to be different. And that has made a world of difference.
Want to make a donation to Catch The Stars? Text CATCH24 to 50155.