WNBA Legend Tamika Catchings was in India from 28th January to 2nd February 2015 as part of the Reliance Jr. NBA programs in Mumbai and Chennai. She participated in coaching clinics and tipped off the Junior NBA City Championships. Tamika Catchings won a championship with the Indiana Fever in 2012, was the 2012 Finals MVP, 2011 WNBA MVP, 5-time Defensive Player of the Year, 9-time WNBA All-Star and 3-time Olympic Gold Medallist with team USA.
Team Ekalavyas’ Vishnu Ravi Shankar, along with cameraperson, Ashwin Viswanathan, caught up with the WNBA champion in Chennai in an exclusive one-on-one interview. Catchings spoke in depth about her career in the WNBA, her passion for basketball, playing for Team USA and more. View the video and read the full-length interview below.
How has your experience been in India so far? What do you think of the love for basketball here?
My experience has been great. I’ve had a really good time since I got here. Obviously, started off in Mumbai and now here in Chennai. Looking particularly at the basketball aspect of it, the kids that we’ve worked with so far, I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is just the passion and the desire. They want to learn about basketball and that’s what the beauty of a program – the junior NBA and the Reliance Foundation – just the beauty of wanting to start at the grassroots level to teach the skills. By the time the kids get old enough, to really start playing and being really active in basketball, hopefully they’ll be really good and have the opportunity to reach their goals, which is being in the NBA or in the WNBA. You never know!
What drew you to pick up basketball? I know about your struggles as a child.* How did basketball help you combat those struggles?
Well, sports in particular. Growing up with the hearing problem and the speech problem and having to wear hearing aid, I used to get bullied a lot early on. That’s when sports became my outlet. Soccer was my first sport, then softball and then basketball was actually my third sport that I played, as far as organized sports are concerned. I played in the playground and my dad played. So we would go to practice and watch him. But for me, if there was a way that I could escape everything that was going on around me and I could practice and get really, really good at something. Basketball – I’d go and I practice and I practice. So if somebody made fun of me, I’d say ‘Okay, lets go play basketball’. I would try to beat him as bad as I could, but that was like my way of being able to escape and also a way for me to fit in with the rest of the kids.
* Tamika Catchings grew up with hearing problems, for which she had to use hearing aids, and a resulting speech difficulty.
Speaking about your dad, he played in the NBA for over a decade – Mr. Harvey Catchings. Did that influence you to pursue the sport professionally at some point? What was his key motivation or advice that helped you improve your game in your early years?
Yeah, I was in seventh grade when I made the goal that I wanted to be in the NBA. I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps and be like my dad because the WNBA wasn’t around. So, I just remember that time, I sat down and was like ‘One day, I’m going to be in the NBA. I don’t care if I’m a girl, I don’t care what people say, but that’s what I wanna do.’ When I told my mom and dad, they believed in me and they said ‘You know what – if you work really really hard, you can do it’. And I know that having the confidence that they had in me actually boosted up my own self-confidence. You know, they believed in me, so I should believe in myself too. And you know the thing that my parents did – they put us in a lot of sports. I have an older brother, I have an older sister. We did soccer, softball, baseball, volleyball, track, did gymnastics, took tennis lessons – we did a lot of different sports. But the one sport that after all of that – I still wanted to play basketball, this is what I want to do. And my dad sat me down and he was like – ‘Look, I’ll help you as much as you want me to help you. Whenever you feel like, you know what dad, I wanna walk away from the game or whatever, just tell me. We’ll walk away – no hard feelings, nobody is mad, nobody is angry. The only thing that I ask is that whatever you do in your life, you stay passionate. And when you loose the passion for what you’re doing, you need to find something else.’ And I’m still passionate!
Speaking of your early years again, when you were in high school, you were the first player to have recorded a quintuple-double**. It seems like you were unstoppable that day. Tell us a little bit about that game.
** A quintuple-double is when a player accumulates a double-digit number total in all five statistical categories—points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots—in a single game.
You know what? Unstoppable to the point that I don’t even remember! That’s just the way that I play the game – I just go all out. I love being on the court, I love being active and just playing. I think that the one thing that’s different is being an all-round player. Alonzo Mourning was my favourite player growing up – he was with the Charlotte Hornets, then he went to the Miami Heat, now he’s like high up in the front office for the Miami Heat. I used to love watching him because he was the kind of player that – he was big, he was strong – if they needed a basket, he could score; if they needed a defensive stop, he could stop somebody. Rebound, pass – he did everything. And just seemed like a great leader on the court. So for me, as a little girl watching him, I’d say that’s my favourite player. Like I want to be like him or I can score if my team needed me to score, I could get a defensive stop, if my team needed me to get a defensive stop, I could rebound, I could pass, just being an all-round player.
Would you say Alonzo Mourning is your inspiration or has influenced the way you’ve played the game?
Well, of course. Like my parents, I mean, my family overall would be first and foremost. They’re the reason that I’m the person I am. But as far as my role model after my family, like yeah, he’s definitely the one.
Coming to your college years, you played at the University of Tennessee for four years. It’s a great program that has produced numerous stars. How did the four years of college ball help you compete at the pro-game?
Well, playing for the best coach ever! Pat Sumitt. Having the opportunity to be under her wing. The one thing that Pat always told us is that we’re not only going to be great basketball players. We’re going to be great in the classroom and we’re going to be great in the community. Overall, just being a great woman. So, to go four years with those instructions – ‘I don’t care about just one thing. I want to overall package!’ So, for me, that’s what I learned the most. Of course she was hard on us, but that’s what I needed and that’s what I wanted. I wanted somebody that – you see where I’m trying to go and you see that I’m trying to make to the NBA. But the WNBA came up in my freshman year of college – so then, I wanted to be in the WNBA. But she saw my ultimate goal, and she pushed me to be able to get to that level.
As we all know, the WNBA started in 1996 – in your freshman year in college. So, if the WNBA had not started, your initial goal was to make it to the NBA. Do you think it was realistically possible? How did the WNBA help women basketball progress from college to the professional level?
I think it definitely helped. It gave opportunities for women to be able to play the game that we loved here in America. Even back then, the opportunities overseas were still there. But with the WNBA there, it has allowed for us to have a league in America and really, its been a while – we’ll be celebrating 20 years next year with the W. This is our 19th season that we’re coming into. If you think about it, we’re the longest standing professional women’s league in the world. We got players from all over the world that aspire to be in the WNBA and have the opportunity to be a part of the best women’s league – period. And so, having that in the beginning – now if you look at what we’re doing with the Jr. NBA program and with the Reliance foundation, we’re doing all these programs here in India and you know, we go across Asia, we go to Europe and obviously America. You provide opportunities for all these young girls. Now, they’re not just looking at the NBA stars, they’re not just looking at the men. Like Alonzo Mourning was my favourite because who else am I going to look at? What other woman did I see playing? Now, we’re providing the opportunity for these young girls to say – ‘I want to do that, I want to be like her when I grow up’.
You’ve also played outside the US – in Europe and Asia. What do you think of the talent level outside of the US? Has basketball truly become an international sport?
Basketball has always been an international sport and that will continue. I think the talent level continues to get better, I think it continues to get better because of the possibilities and the opportunities that are now out there for girls to play – specifically to be in the WNBA. I think when you look at the different leagues – I played in South Korea for 5 years, half a year in Russia, one year in Poland, two years in Istanbul, Turkey and then I finished in China. There were American players on each of these teams overseas. So I think what it kind of established is that when you see these players, such as myself or others on the team, the younger players look up to us and they want to be like us. So they’re constantly asking questions and constantly watching how we do things on the court, which improves the game because some people you need to tell, ‘okay, this is what you need to do’ and some people, they get better by watching and some people need both of that. So having a leader on the team or a player that is part of the WNBA on their team gives them an opportunity to watch and learn firsthand – ‘I need to learn, I need to watch this person and continue to work on my game.’
Lets talk a little bit about defense. You’ve been Defensive Player of the Year five times – an amazing achievement. How do you prepare for your defensive matchups? What sets you apart defensively?
Yeah, I love it now. But I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t start loving defense until my freshman year in college! Up until then, my sister and I played on the same team. She was the defensive stopper and I was the one that scored all the points. But Pat (Sumitt) changed my mentality real fast. She was like ‘You know, you’ve got an opportunity to change the game by playing defense and by getting really really good at it, and so, I think the biggest thing for me is because of my hearing problem, I had to learn how to be very observant. I was always constantly looking around. So, in hindsight, when I look back now, I went for a period of time without having my hearing aid and nobody knew. I threw my hearing aid out when I was young. I wanted to fit in and that was the thing that was keeping me from being normal. So I threw them out from my third game and onto my freshman year in college – I didn’t wear my hearing aid at all. But in basketball, it made me have to look around. It made me have to pay attention. I read lips. It made me just be so aware on the court. So now, on the court, I almost see things happen before they happen.
Who do you think is the toughest player that you’ve had to guard?
I’d say the toughest player that I ever had to guard would be Chamique Holdsclaw.*** The reason why it was so tough was that ‘Mique’ was so good at everything. She’s finesse but she’s tough. She’s so fluid – her body kind of like moves. She makes things look so easy. To guard her – you think you have her shut down one way and she makes a move and get by you. So, as a defensive specialist, you get frustrated, but you love the challenge that it presents.
*** Chamique Holdsclaw is a former WNBA player and was a 6-time WNBA All-Star.
You’ve been with the Indiana Fever your entire career. It took you a decade to win a championship. What kept you going? What kept you persevering through all those years to keep coming back to fight for a championship?
The thing that keeps you going is that every single year, you have ‘Media Day’ before the season starts. The first question all the media asks is ‘Is this the year? Is this the year?’ Every year, I say ‘Yeah!’ Because you never know what’s going to happen. I think for us, we had the talent, it was just about putting everything together and making it all work. For me, what can I do to be a better teammate and a better leader for my team and that’s what I continue to focus on. Because you can’t do everything for the team. But you have to be able to empower the players around you to do their job to make it easier, so that we can win together. That was like the biggest thing, we’re going to keep pushing, because we’re getting close and we got really close – 2009, we got all the way to Game 5 and then we lost. In 2010, we get out in the second round and the most frustrating year of all was 2011 when we were right there. Then we get to 2012 and we win!
Was there a missing piece all those years in 2009, 10 and 11? What clicked in 2012 that you went on that championship run?
2009 – when I think about it, we were so excited to make it that far. You can’t be excited to make it. You have to know! Every single game and every single possession – you have to go and know that you have to win this game. We were up 2-0! And we lost 3 games straight. So the next time we finally made it back to the finals in 2012, we were like we’re not going to get excited because we were the underdogs – nobody expected us to win anyway. We were going up against the Minnesota Lynx and they had Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin – I mean they had all the stars on their team. If you look at it on paper, we weren’t expected to win anyway. We won the first game and everybody was like ‘Ah, it’s a fluke’. We won the next game and they won the next game. Even if you think about it, we lost players along the way. We lost our best shooter, Katie Douglas, in the conference finals against Connecticut. And we get to the finals and we lose Jeanette Pohlen, who is our second best shooter and a scoring specialist. The coach is looking down the bench and like ‘Who do I put in?’ Everybody stepped up their game! It was that magical moment that you hear people talk about when they win championships. You can’t explain it until you’re actually in that moment.
You’ve now achieved a championship. You’ve achieved numerous awards – ROY, MVP, Finals MVP, DPOY, you’ve been voted to the All-Decade team – the list is endless. Is there anything else that you would like to achieve before you retire?
I just want to be the best that I can be before I retire. This off-season, I really worked on my shooting. Because when I think you look at just my career as a shooter, its kind of gone up and down. I would really like to end my last two years, just being a better shooter. And when I walk away from the game, I want to be the best that Tamika can be. Not comparing myself to anybody else, but I know that I worked as hard as I could for 16 seasons and I gave everything that I could. And now, everything transfers to me going to the front office and being a general manager and try to find some more players.
You’ve announced your retirement in 2016. What plans after that? Do we see more India visits?
Maybe! You never know where I’ll be. That’s what Carlos (Barroca)**** wants! They want me to get more involved and you never know. I definitely want to be in the front office and I want to be the general manager or president of an NBA or WNBA team. So I’m kind of learning that role and being put in that situation. And then travel the world, do camps and clinics, get married and have kids and all the other fun stuff that regular people do.
**** Carlos Barroca is the Senior Director of Basketball Operations at NBA India.
You’ve won 3 olympic gold medals. You’ve also represented your country in 3 world championships. Most players that you see – 2 or 3 international tournaments and then they’re done. But you keep coming back and playing for your country. What motivates you to do that?
The USA. When we have training camp and right when we get there, we check-in and do paperwork and all that and then they give you your bag with all your stuff in it. You go up to your room with this bag. For me, when I open it, I lay everything out. My jersey, my shirts, my shorts, my shoes, my spandex – I lay everything out and I take a picture of it every single time. Because being able to represent your country is one of the highest honours that a player can ever have. I don’t just represent just myself and my family and my team that I play with in the WNBA or my college. We represent every single American that stands behind us. Not just the players and the athletes that you see at the Olympics. We, as a whole, represent the whole United States of America. Just that, even thinking about it gives you chills. Just that is something that you will never forget. So you want to relive that moment. Every year, every opportunity that you have to represent your country – it’s a new group around you. You know players come and go. Every single time, people are like, ‘Which Olympics is your favourite?’ You can’t really say which ones your favourite. Because I was really young when I started out, I was one of the youngest players and then I was a middle player and now I’m the oldest player and so, each time, you’re in a different phase of your life. Different players around you – players in your team now look up to you and you go from being the baby to the oldest and teaching them how to represent your country and how you carry yourself and the way you wear your clothes and the way you talk and just, the respect that you give to others. That’s what you teach the younger players and the younger generation.
What does your pre-game music playlist consist of?
Well, I try not be superstitious. But I guess this is kind of going to sound superstitious. I listen to something different before every game. But I love Christian music, so I’m very big in gospel and Christian artists.
Final question, what advice or tips would you give to young Indian ballers out there?
To all my young Indian ballers, just keep working hard. I think it’s really important that they believe in themselves. No matter what anybody tells you, you can do it. If you aspire to be in the NBA or in the WNBA, you can do it. But you have to practice, you have to work really, really hard. But if you have the passion, you have the dedication and you’re committed to what you want to do, you can do it.
Tamika Catchings also had the following special message for all viewers:
‘Hey, it’s Tamika Catchings of the WNBA Indiana Fever and I wanna make sure that you log on and check out Ekalavyas.com!’