(Article originally appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of STV.)

By Susie Magill

You would never know it. Not by the welcoming smile or the calming spirit. You wouldn’t have a clue there was a time in Tamika Catchings’ life when she was shy, withdrawn and intimidated by the world around her. That description doesn’t fit the typical girl who would become the face of the WNBA.

“Growing up an introvert, I wasn’t able to express how I felt. FCA made it easier to talk because people understood what I was going through and the different emotions that I felt as an athlete.”

But Tamika Catchings has never been one to conform to stereotypes. She was born with a mild hearing loss, which caused her to speak with an impediment and wear hearing aids (which she hates even to this day). But it was this very disability that perpetuated the gritty, never-say-die attitude for which she is known. As an introverted child, Catchings Clung to her athletic talent as a buffer when classmates made fun of her large glasses and slurred speech. When the teasing became too much, she ran home crying, wanting to never leave the house again. But Catchings’ parents saw the potential their little girl possessed—giving in wasn’t an option. They picked her up, dusted her off and sent her back out to face her mockers, instructing her to not let them make her bitter, but better.
But to say Tamika Catchings’ career got “better” would be like saying Pat Summit has won a “couple” of games. The shelves in this Indiana Fever All-Star’s trophy case display awards and medals that have made her one of the most decorated athletes in her field. The 2000 ESPY award for the College Player of the Year, the 2000 Naismith National Player of the Year award, the 2002 WNBA Rookie of the Year trophy, a 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medal and the 2005 and 2006 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. Those probably make the biggest impressions.

The trophies are well-deserved, of course. After missing her first WNBA season due to a torn ACL, Catchings quickly bounced back and led the Fever in points, rebounds, assists and steals in four seasons straight. No other WNBA player has led her team in as many categories in even one season.

But what’s great about Catchings is that she doesn’t care about the trophies. She’s not fazed by the titles. She may be a superstar in the world of women’s basketball, but to those who know her best, she is just “Mik.” A once-shy girl, all grown up, living in the moment and sharing it with as many people as possible.

Susie Magill: Tell me about growing up and having to overcome a hearing disability. How did that affect you?
Tamika Catchings:
The biggest thing was that because I had a hearing problem, I had a speech problem, and I also had to wear glasses. I was different. Kids can be so cruel at that age. They would ask, “Why are you different?” “Why do you wear those?” “Why do you talk like that?” They would call me “four eyes” and “monster” and make fun of the way I sounded when I talked. And I just didn’t understand why I had to be so different.

I basically shut myself off. I loved school, and I loved sports, and I managed to excel in both while not having to talk to anybody. Both were outlets for me because on the basketball court, most of the communication is sign language. And in school, the teachers did all the talking.

SM: How did you deal with being teased?
I tried to figure out different ways to escape the pain and being different. Sports helped me excel and get through that. If people would tease me, I would say, “You know what? Let’s go play basketball.” I knew that, more than likely, I was going to be better than they were. So, I would beat them, and after that, those kids wouldn’t make fun of me. Over time, that was something that helped me develop my never-give-up attitude.

Tamika Catchings #24
July 21, 1979
Postition: Forward
Height: 6–1
College: University of Tennessee
2006 Stats:
• 16.3 ppg
• 33.5 mpg
• .407 field goal %
• 7.5 rpg

SM: When did you break out of your shell?
My mom and dad got divorced when I was in the sixth grade, but we all still lived in Chicago—me with my mom, and my sister with my dad. My mom and I moved to Texas my junior year of high school, and that is when I really opened up.

Before the move, my sister, Tauja, and I were always together, and she was the spokesperson for both of us. We played on the same team, so after games, the reporters would come ask me questions, and I would literally have her answer my questions because I was too shy. I hated seeing myself talking on TV. It was so embarrassing.

Moving to Texas, I no longer had my sister. I was no longer in my comfort zone. The night before school my junior year, I cried and cried for, like, an hour and a half. I’m sure my mama was wondering, “What did I do?” But she encouraged me and sent me out the next morning. It was the best decision we ever made. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today if somebody had let me give up back then.

SM: What role did your faith play in getting you to the WNBA?
TC: I was raised in the church, but for me it was more of a social thing until I got to college. FCA became a part of my life while at the University of Tennessee. It allowed me to talk about different situations that I wouldn’t have normally talked about. Growing up an introvert, I wasn’t able to express how I felt. FCA made it easier to talk because people understood what I was going through and the different emotions that I felt as an athlete.

I got hurt my senior year of college. But you know how you have that feeling of peace and calmness? That is what I felt. Yeah, I was disappointed that I was injured my senior year. I had all these goals and plans. But in some way, the injury made me focus on God more and on what I needed to do for Him.

SM: What did you feel you needed to do?
Being an athlete, sometimes you start to worship your sport. You lose focus of what is important in life because basketball is what you do. I went to school, but when it came down to it, I was missing classes for games, missing church for games. Basketball was what I was thinking about when I woke up.

From the moment of my injury, my relationship with Christ began to grow. And to this day, I continue doing “Our Daily Bread” Bible studies, trying to focus on Him and figuring out what I can do through Him.

SM: How has your faith grown since you got to the WNBA?

TC: I have done a better job of reading the Bible and trying to immerse myself in the word and learn more. I see myself growing in my prayer life, and I’m asking for forgiveness. I’ve kind of gotten over that hump of where I used to be. I live my life in a way that I know He would want me to. I see other people changing around me, too. People who used to cuss all the time don’t around me. They respect me and know that God is the center of my life.

"Even though she wasn't released to play her first year with the Fever, she was around with her smiling, happy face, and she never missed chapel. And she still never misses a chapel. She is the same person now as she was before she got famous."
Fever Chaplain Kathy Malone (in red) on Tamika Catchings

SM: Even though you experienced a season-ending injury your final year at Tennessee, you were still drafted by the Fever. How did it make you feel knowing they believed you would return to the court?
TC: Being drafted was definitely a blessing. That was my goal. Then getting hurt three months prior to the WNBA draft and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to play that summer was tough. But I remember the day I got drafted by the Fever. The coach called and said, “We are so excited to have you.” I was excited to just be a part of the WNBA.

It’s like when you go to a hardware store to get something for your house. You don’t get something that is broken, you want something that is brand spankin’ new, right out of the package. That is how I see my being drafted. They wanted me even though I was a littlebroken. But God had gone before me and prepared the road, even though I got hurt. My first season I got Rookie of the Year, and we even made it to the playoffs for the first time. He was definitely preparing the road for me.
SM: How has FCA Chapel ministered to you during your professional career?
Our chaplain, (FCA volunteer) Kathy Malone, goes out of her way to do a great job. We even meet during the off-season to talk about life and the different things we can pray about for each other. When we pray, it seems like an instant weight is lifted.

SM: Have any of your teammates kept you accountable in your relationship with Christ?
Last year it was Charlotte Smith. She really changed our team dynamic. We had Bible studies at her house during the season and on the road—she, Ebony Hoffman and I. She was a very influential person because of her walk with Christ.

I was excited to have her on our team when I first found out she would be joining us—not only because she was a great basketball player, but because I knew that her walk with Christ was incredible. I was anxious to be around somebody like that. She changed my outlook on a lot of things through our Bible studies, talks and in just being able to communicate when experiencing the same things.

 “I tried to figure out different ways to escape the pain or to escape being different. Sports helped me excel and get through that. If people would tease me, I would say, ‘You know what? Let’s go play basketball.’”

SM: You have been referred to as the “Face of the Fever.” Do you ever get caught up in the publicity?
Not really. I look at myself as a regular person. I don’t shelter myself from others.
My first year with the Fever, I sat out the whole year, but I went to community parks around Indianapolis. I watched the high school and junior high games. People were probably like, “What is she doing?” But it was comfortable for me. Even to this day, the people I meet tell me, “You aren’t like the regular superstar.” But what is the regular superstar? Sometimes I step back, like one of those out-of-body experiences, and look around at what’s going on and wonder why people are getting so excited and I realize—Oh, it’s me!

SM: This summer, FCA’s camp theme is “Game Ready,” regarding putting on the full armor of God. How can you apply that concept to your life?
You’ve got to be ready for the battle. Last year I struggled with shooting. It was a constant battle all year. Even though there were great articles about the other things I did on the court, the ones about my shooting percentage were what hurt the most. But toward the end of the season, I just had to forget about it. I couldn’t worry about what anyone was saying. I had to put on all my gear and just play.

SM: How do you deal with the stress of going non-stop during the summer and then playing overseas in the off-season?
Prayer. And realizing that this opportunity is going to come and go. So, I try to take advantage of it while I’m in the moment. It does get crazy. There are things I want to do that I can’t because of basketball. Like my family. My brother is married with three boys, and I saw them just four times last year. My nephews are starting to play basketball, and I missed out on their whole season this year. Little things like that are frustrating. But while I’m in the moment, I am going to enjoy it and not dwell on things I don’t have control over right now.

Catch the Stars
Growing up and having positive role models of her own, Tamika Catchings desires the same for the youth of Indiana. In 2004, she established the Catch the Stars Foundation, which organizes both academic and sports-related programs for at-risk kids and prepares them to “catch their dreams, one star at a time.” Current and future plans for the foundation include after-school programs, mentoring partnerships for young girls and boys, camps and clinics on basketball and health, and “reading corners” around the world. Visit catchin24.com.

*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. 

Courtesy of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, Tamika Catchings and Kathy Malone.