To quote the motivational speaker Tony Robbins, “Life is not about me, it’s about we.” After sitting down with members of the Catchings family to do a feature on Tamika Catchings, it was evident that beyond her sports legacy, she embodies that quote and so much more. To understand one’s impact, you have to sometimes uncover the layers and journey that made them who they are today.
Before I can share her story, I would like to share my first interaction with Tamika while she was in the WNBA. It was Thursday, September 16, 2004. I was working for the National Basketball Retired Players Association and received a phone call from Harvey Catchings around noon. Harvey, who at the time worked at the NBA office as a Director for the NBA Players Program, typically just called to say hello or connect with my boss, but on this afternoon he reached out to me with a special request, “Andrew, join me tonight at Radio City Music Hall, my baby girl Mika is in town with the Indiana Fever to play the New York Liberty.” The response was simple, “I’m in! I’ll see you at Radio City at 7 PM.”
For non-basketball fans, the New York Liberty typically plays at Madison Square Garden, but that summer they hosted several games at Radio City Music Hall. (Yes, there was the odd chance that a ball could go out of bounds and fall into the orchestra pit.) To see a regulation basketball court constructed on the stage of Radio City Music Hall was a sight to see. Having the opportunity to take in a game with NBA Legend Harvey Catchings was an added bonus. It was then and there I was able to see the intensity, love, and family pride as Harvey provided an analytical perspective of the game being played. On that evening, Tamika and the Indiana Fever fell short and lost to the Liberty, but this story is not about that game, it’s about Tamika Catchings, the person I was fortunate enough to meet after a tough loss.
After the game, I was waiting outside with her father Harvey and then-MSG President Steve Mills. While I was well aware of Tamika’s storied college career at the University of Tennessee, I was very much intrigued by the opportunity to meet Harvey’s youngest daughter in person. One by one the players from both teams exited the side entrance, and there she was. She embraced her father with a big hug, they shared a moment of unspoken eye contact that seemed like it said, “yes, tonight was not your team’s night but there will be better days.” In the famous words of Harvey, “Stay determined.” Right then and there, Harvey formally introduced Tamika to me and I remember shaking her hand and Tamika saying, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Andrew.” Between the brief conversation on the sidewalk, watching her sign autographs and the professionalism she showed her fans, I was thoroughly impressed. I walked away from that evening defining Tamika with the following words, “humble,” “gracious,” “driven,” and “blessed.” The gold standard that Tamika’s parents, Harvey and Wanda, set for their children growing up clearly explained the professionalism and genuineness I felt in the small window of interacting with Tamika. Recently, I spoke to her sister, Tauja, who shared, “Growing up we have always been grounded in faith and family.”
Tamika’s storied college career at the University of Tennessee speaks for itself. As a four-time All-American, she earned the Naismith College Player of the Year award, the AP Player of the Year award, the USBWA Women’s National Player of the Year award, and the WBCA Player of the Year award, all in 2000. As a freshman she was a part of the undefeated 1997–98 Tennessee Lady Volunteers national championship team. In January 2001, her senior year, Tamika’s world came crashing down when she sustained an unfortunate season-ending ACL injury. At the time her sister Tauja was overseas in France playing professional basketball and once she heard the news, “I knew what I had to do next. I packed up my stuff and headed back to Indiana to be with my sister Mika. I ended up being her secret weapon during her rehabilitation process. I was able to push her physically in the gym and keep her frame of mind positive throughout the road to recovery.”
Despite her injury, the Indiana Fever selected Tamika with the third pick in the WNBA draft. Upon arriving in Indianapolis, Tamika was faced with two choices, she could dwell on her injury in rehab for 8–12 months or figure out a way to make an impact in the community and make the best of a bad situation. At the time, Tamika reached out to the Community Relations Director, Laurie Satterfield, and said: “Whatever appearances you have in the community, speaking appearances, activities, I’m in!” From Tauja’s perspective that surprised her because “Mika was shyer growing up so for her to extend herself really showed where her heart was to the community of Indianapolis.”
Tamika shared an important message that contributed to her legacy. Her college head coach from the University of Tennessee Lady Vols, the late Pat Summitt: “Pat always preached the importance of being great in the classroom, in the community, and on the basketball court. Pat, more importantly, stressed the importance of being a great individual with high character and values. Coach Summitt set a high standard for her players and her program. She always wanted us operating at 100% in life. To this day, whether I’m working with my foundation, at my tea shop, doing a speaking appearance, or conducting an interview, I’m giving nothing less than 100%.” While it may have seemed like a surprise from Tauja’s perspective, after hearing directly from Tamika, the legacy and words of wisdom that Coach Summitt instilled in her players, it helps explain why making an impact to the community of Indianapolis was important to Tamika during her first year with the Indiana Fever. To quote Tamika, “Everything I do in life is part of Pat’s legacy.”
“Everything I do in life is part of Pat’s legacy.”
During one of her Fever appearances during her first summer in town, Tamika met the Park Manager of Riverside Family Center and he said to her, “You are really good with kids; ever thought about having your own camp?” From there the seed was planted and Tamika took on this challenge to do something for at-risk youth by hosting her first annual Holiday Basketball Camp. The five-day camp taught youth basketball fundamentals as well as the importance of teamwork, goal setting, and positive attitudes. The premise was to educate the value of nutrition and empower the children about the importance of giving back. The camp was free, but they required each kid to donate and bring 10 cans of food for admittance. The next year, Tauja recalled the parents of the campers expressing excitement and asking, “What more can you add to the program?” After the success of her Camp, she added free Fitness Clinics as a way to continue to give back to the community and teach youth the importance of being fit and leading healthy lifestyles. This lead to hosting a mentoring program to teach girls ages 9–14 ways to handle peer pressure, decision making, financial literacy, goal setting, and positive self-esteem. Tamika received numerous Community Assist Awards in honor of her commitment to giving back. By 2004, she was running several community programs and formally founded Catch the Stars Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization to serve as an umbrella for her programs. Tauja shared, “Thanks to the relationships and respect Mika has with corporate sponsors and local businesses, whether it supplies, we need a local gym for the kids or equipment, we have been blessed with all the resources we need to enrich the lives of these children in the community.”
The Catch the Stars Foundation focuses on three major pillars: Fitness, Literacy, and Youth Development. The fitness component promotes two very important philosophies: good health and giving back to the community. Between the Catch on to Fitness/Parent Wellness Clinics and Catch the Stars Youth Holiday Basketball Camp, children ages 7–15 participate and participants and parents learn ways to be fit and lead healthier lifestyles while giving back to the community (10 can donation per participant). On Literacy side, they have Reading Corners in Riley Children’s Hospital, Christel House Academy, and Brookside Park. The foundation also hosts monthly reading programs throughout Indianapolis. On the youth development side, they have two separate six-week programs for boys and girls ages 12–16, touching on goal setting, self-esteem, dealing with peer pressure, community responsibility, and so much more.
While Tamika’s philanthropy remained a part of her every day, the calendar year of 2016 would become remarkably unforgettable. Prior to the start of the 2016 WNBA Season, Tamika tied the knot with her husband, Parnell Smith, in February of that year. The couple met in January 2014 through a mutual friend. It was a true blessing from above to meet her match in someone who was equally passionate about family, faith, and basketball. This marked an exciting personal chapter to add to her continued legacy as she was just months away from embarking on her farewell season in the WNBA.
During her final WNBA season in 2016, Tamika hosted a farewell Legacy Tour which included post-game fundraisers in each city. The purpose was to connect with fans, increase awareness of Catch the Stars Foundation, and provide local youth-serving organizations in each city with $2,000 grants. It was all about giving back and expanding reach outside of Indiana. In 2017, the foundation returned to each city and teamed up with the Boys and Girls Club, community centers, local schools, and parks to conduct a free Legacy Basketball Clinic. To encapsulate things, her farewell tour in her final season in the WNBA was never about Tamika but all about leaving a legacy behind with fundraising and the future impact the foundation would make in 2017 and beyond.
It’s very humbling to see an individual’s impact from afar, but it’s even more powerful when you hear the personal stories that might not get the media exposure or public awareness. When sitting down with Tauja, she shared countless stories about her sister Tamika and the butterfly effect she has created in the community.
In 2017, the Foundation conducted their scholarship dinner and Tamika’s keyword was “Impact.” Over the years the Foundation has been able to increase the amount of what they can award the scholarship recipients and, in 2017, they were able to deliver $10,000 per awardee. During the presentation, Tauja mentioned, “I knew Mika was up to something but she didn’t give us the heads up on what exactly she was planning on doing during the presentation. When she made the announcement for the recipients receiving the scholarships for 2017, she personally told the audience, ‘We can do better, I’m going to personally match each scholarship and award each recipient $20,000!’ The families in attendance were in shock as if they were a part of Oprah’s favorite things or Ellen’s giveaway show. Mika’s purpose wasn’t solely to create impact but also to challenge everyone in the room to find a way to make their own unique impact on others. Whether it was donating quality time, giving back, or helping others, Mika wanted to create change and bring smiles to the faces in the room. For Mika, the foundation was never about media exposure, it was truly about connecting, giving back, and empowering others to succeed in life.”
“We can do better, I’m going to personally match each scholarship and award each recipient, $20,000!”
Her generosity and selflessness that Tauja admired are just scratching the surface about Tamika the person. Tauja mentioned, “There are countless stories about Mika that stay between her and the individuals she’s impacted in her lifetime. I’ve seen her take the time to have conversations with homeless people, offer to buy them a meal, and even invite less fortunate folks to Fever or Pacers games as her way of paying it forward and making their day or even year.”
Beyond her community involvement, Tamika recently made a purchase that may have been a surprise to some but not to her sister. Upon retiring, Tamika was having a conversation with the owner of a local tea shop in Indianapolis called Tea’s Me Cafe. The owner confided in Tamika, “I’m looking to close down the shop because I’m ready to retire just like you. My wife and I are ready to return to Savannah, Georgia, and enjoy retirement together.” Tamika was shocked to hear the news because she was a regular to the cafe and grew up having an appreciation for tea. The owner jokingly said “You want to buy it?” as he laughed. Tamika ended up sleeping on it, praying on it, dreaming about it, and woke up in the middle of the night, and immediately woke her husband, Parnell, asking, “What do you think if we bought this tea shop?” The rest is history. It’s been an exciting venture and equally a blessing to the community. Tamika has been hosting block parties, open mic nights, and countless local activities at the tea shop. As Tauja said, “Knowing Tamika, she has a bigger plan beyond the norm for Tea’s Me Cafe, so don’t be surprised if you see it franchised one of these days.”
Overall, Tamika summed up, “the long-term goal is to focus on the recognition of the Foundation and spread awareness. I’d like to share our impact across different WNBA cities, so I can leave a little bit of my legacy in each city. I’d love to empower our next generation of future stars, leaders, and professionals.” For 2018, Tamika’s keyword is “Focus.” From what I’ve seen in person and from afar, whatever Tamika puts her heart and soul into turns into gold.
“I’d love to empower our next generation of future stars, leaders, and professionals.”
When sitting down with members of her family, I was able to capture the one thing they admire most about Tamika the person, beyond her sports legacy. I would like to personally thank, her father Harvey, mother Wanda, sister Tauja, and brother Kenyon for sharing the following personal messages about Tamika:
“I’m proud of the fact she’s remained grounded to his day. She is the kind of person that doesn’t treat people based on their status in life but treats people equally as human beings. She’s come a long way from all the challenges she faced and overcame growing up with her speech impediment, her hearing loss, and self-confidence. Present day, whether you are aware of Mika’s professional basketball resume or not, she has evolved into a truly special young woman that continues to inspire and spread her love across everything she touches. She’s put in the work day after day, year after year. Her word is her bond if she tells you she’s going to do something, best believe she will do it and exceed your expectations. I love Mika with all my heart and [I’m] so proud of the legacy she is creating with the foundation.”—Harvey
“Since closing out her professional career with the WNBA, I feel as though Tamika has been even busier with all of her work with the foundation and career responsibilities with the tea shop, Indiana Fever, Pacer Sports and Entertainment, and serving as an analyst for the SEC network. Regardless of the new challenges she takes on professionally or personally, the one thing that keeps her grounded is the love she has for her nephews. No matter where her travels take her, she finds a way to make it to their games, takes them out to lunch or dinner, and just is a positive role model they can look up to. I know it’s very humbling for Tamika to hear such positive praise about the impact she has on others. Sometimes you just need a friendly reminder from family and loved ones that your actions and influence mean the world to the people you are touching. I’m so very proud of who she is today.” —Wanda
“Often in life, you meet celebrities or athletes and they are different when you meet them in person. I admire the fact that Mika is the same genuine person every day of her life. She’s someone that is selfless, caring, giving, compassionate, and kind to others. As I’ve gotten older, my siblings are the greatest gifts that I could have ever received in life. I’m blessed to have Mika as my sister and a super auntie to my sons and my brother’s children”—Tauja
“It’s hard to just share one moment or one thing, so I’ll break it down into three short stories that exemplify Mika, my sister.
“From the time Mika was a little girl, she was really good at setting goals and turning them into a reality. For Christmas when she was in the 7th grade, I remember buying her a University of Tennessee sweatshirt. Mika knew at that point in her life, she wanted to attend that university. The rest is history, Mika was fixed on that goal and there was nothing that was going to stop her from achieving it. At the University of Tennessee, she had a goal of earning her undergraduate degree fairly quickly and she achieved it in less than 3½ years. The success she achieved in the classroom while balancing the rigorous travel and basketball program schedule, deserves praise. By finishing up early it afforded her the opportunity to get started on her master’s degree before officially graduating in 2001. I most admire her dedication and love for family. This mini-story is just an example of how much family means to Mika. [For example] one week Mika was at an event in Los Angeles from Monday to Tuesday; after the event, she hopped on a plane to commentate the Missouri vs. Kentucky game (Wed/Thursday). That Friday morning, she got on the road and drove to St. Louis to watch my son’s game Friday night. After the game, she drove four hours home to Indiana; got in around 12:30 AM. All of her nephews admire her and love the fact that she always finds a way to make time for family.” —Kenyon
In life, there are countless individuals making an impact on society. Some get the media exposure, some go under the radar, and many often fall somewhere in between. Having the opportunity to narrate and share the continued legacy of Tamika Catchings-Smith can be summed up in one word: Inspirational.
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