The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, February 12, 2020 1:00 am

Catchings captures audience with tales of struggles, former coach

VICTORIA JACOBSEN | The Journal Gazette

Tamika Catchings is a four-time Olympic gold medalist, the 2011 WNBA MVP, the current general manager of the Indiana Fever and, as of Monday, an incoming member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. 

But when she addressed a room full of high school athletes at the Beyond the Game Leadership Luncheon on Tuesday, the leader she talked the most about was her coach at Tennessee, the late Pat Summitt.

“It’s a blessing, it really is,” Catchings said when asked how it felt to learn that she will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, which is located in her old college town of Knoxville, Tennessee. “I think about Pat and the impact she’s had on my life. And being able to be on the same stage as her and get into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, it’s an honor.

“I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to be a Hall of Famer.’ But as you go along in your career, you have opportunities. It’s awesome.”

The World Baseball Academy played host to the annual leadership awards at the ASH Centre complex. They recognized four junior athletes – two boys and two girls – from each of 18 local high schools.

World Baseball Academy CEO Caleb Kimmel said the event hosts put together a list of other sports figures who could take the place of Eric Wedge, the WBA founder and former major league manager who is now the coach of the Wichita State baseball team, and Catchings stood at the top of the list.

“Growing up playing basketball, she’s always been one of my favorite female basketball players,” Northrop’s Destiny Jackson said of Catchings.

“Learning the trials and tribulations she went through, but she still succeeded at what she wanted to do, was like ‘wow.’ The things we go through, sometimes we think, ‘OK, it’s done,’ just because we go through something.

“She overcame every obstacle she had to get to where she is.”

Catchings, who was born with a hearing disability, said she was relentlessly teased as a child because of her hearing aids and speech. She was so upset by the bullying that she threw her hearing aids away.

She originally wanted to play in the NBA like her father, Harvey, but the WNBA did not exist yet.It was only while she was flipping through the channels as an eighth grader that she landed on a Tennessee women’s game and realized high-level women’s basketball teams were out there.

“All the sudden the only thing I saw on the TV was a pair of eyes – creepy, right?” Catchings recalled. “I watched those eyes and I watched the television pan out, and all I saw was a sea of orange.

“That was the first time I was introduced to Pat Summitt. ... The goal shifted. I wanted to go to the University of Tennessee, and I wanted to play for that crazy lady running up and down the sidelines, yelling at those players.”

It wasn’t always easy to be on the receiving end of Summitt’s glaring eyes. Catchings didn’t come to college thinking of herself as a defensive-oriented player, and she said she lost her cool in her first practice with the Volunteers after failing again and again to get into the defensive stance Summitt wanted her to use. 

“She called me down, and she said, ‘Am I going to have to handle you with lace gloves? Am I going to have to send you back to Duncanville, Texas?’” Catchings said.

“And at that point, I really made a decision: I could stay here and get killed by Pat or I could stay home and get killed by my parents. I chose the University of Tennessee.”

But Catchings said Summitt, who died in 2016, was also the kind of coach who always had an open door for her players. During Catchings’ first year, she sat the freshman down and pointed out that plenty of people use glasses to see – why were hearing aids any different? With Summitt’s urging, Catchings started using hearing aids again, and she began to speak openly about being an athlete and young woman with a hearing disability. 

“That’s what leadership is about,” Catchings said. “There is somebody that you have that believes in you and leads you to make an impact, and hopefully you believe in yourself.” 


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