Before They Made It: Tamika Catchings

Tamika Catchings began her USA Basketball career in 1996 while still in high school. She competed on four junior teams before being called up to the USA National Team in 2002 – when she won the first of three Olympic gold medals.

If that wasn’t enough, Catchings won a college national championship at the University of Tennessee and is entering her 13th season in the WNBA, all with the Indiana Fever. In 2011, Catchings was voted one of the top 15 players in WNBA history.

Catchings was born with a hearing impairment that required her to wear a hearing aid as a young girl – but it never got in the way of her basketball. We caught up with Wanda Catchings, Tamika’s mom, to learn more about Tamika’s early basketball experiences: 

USA Basketball: What was Tamika like as a child?

She was very active in sports. She liked to play a lot. Kind of had a temperament, though (laughs), but for the most part a joy.

USA Basketball: How did she become active in the sport and develop her skills?

She was always playing with her older brother, who was about four years older than her. And they always had a basketball around – any kind of ball, actually. First they had the little hoop over the kiddy rocking chair. Then hoops over the door, as kids do. She was always shooting basketballs – and kicking soccer balls. She was playing a lot of sports, actually. It started with everything, and it probably wasn’t until high school that she really focused on basketball. Up until junior high she was still playing soccer.

USA Basketball: When did you realize Tamika had what it takes to play at a high level?

I would say fourth or fifth grade. Even in elementary school, when the boys were meeting at the playground to play basketball, they were always calling Tamika to invite her to play with them. And when they chose sides, they wanted her on their team.

Her dad, Harvey, on Sunday evenings would take the kids to the high school to play. And most of the time it was meeting up with other men to play. But ‘Mika and my other two would follow along. And they’d go a little bit early so he could work with them and teach them and play with them. And then the men would show up and she would get quite upset that he would not let her play, because she felt that she could hold her own against them. And then she’d call me all upset wanting me to come pick her up. She was that competitive, and she felt that she could do it.

I think gradually, with some of the men that were closer friends, he did let her play. 

USA Basketball: Tamika’s hearing disability was obviously a big hurdle to overcome as a kid. How was that, and what other challenges did she have to overcome?

She handled it well. A lot of people didn’t even know that she had a problem with her hearing. It wasn’t until she was at the University of Tennessee, when Pat (head coach Pat Summitt) noticed it. Pat kind of pulled her aside and asked her about it, because she maybe didn’t hear some of the plays. But she had learned over the years to watch people’s mouths and watch what was going on. She compensated that way and a lot of times people really did not notice that she had a hearing impairment.

There were no other real challenges. She was very happy, active. A little bit shy, maybe. Her sister, Tauja, was the more outgoing one. Tamika’s comfort level was more with the boys, and that might have made things a little more difficult for her, being a little shy. 

USA Basketball: What advice do you have for the parents of young basketball players?

Let them follow their dreams. I fully believed in exposing her to whatever she wanted to do as far as playing in the park district league and AAU. I believe in being involved with them, traveling with them. I know it’s hard for a lot of parents, but I feel that full participation, involvement and interest in what they’re doing helps them feel confident and strong in what they want to do and pursue.

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