To Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, forward Tamika Catchings was a
dream freshman--a good player who wanted to get better. She was
6'1" and strong, a slashing scorer quick off the dribble and in
releasing her shots. Moreover, she wasn't just a shooter: In one
high school game she had a quintuple double--25 points, 18
rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocked shots. Yet she
always felt she could do more. She wanted to be pushed. "If I
said touch the line in sprints, she always went over the line,"
says Summitt. "She never took shortcuts." Even her gaze was
unusually intense; when Summitt spoke about a trapping scheme,
Catchings hung on her every word.
But she didn't always follow directions, didn't always execute
the right play. At times she seemed to be in her own world. When
the top-ranked Lady Vols traveled to play No. 11 Stanford in the
fifth game of the 1997-98 season, Catchings was brilliant, with
20 points and eight rebounds. She also broke a curfew that had
been announced on the team bus after the game. By then Summitt
had realized two things about Catchings: She was going to be a
big-time player, one whom people would someday mention in the
same breath with Chamique Holdsclaw, Cheryl Miller and Teresa
Edwards, and she had a hearing problem.
Catchings was born with moderately severe hearing loss in both
ears, a condition caused by damage to the nerve that connects the
inner ear to the brain. As a result she cannot hear certain
pitches, tones and sounds, even in her own voice, and has
difficulty with her speech articulation. (Her brother, Kenyon,
also has the condition, but to a lesser degree.)
As a child growing up in Deerfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago,
Catchings received speech therapy and wore boxy, behind-the-ear
hearing aids. But even after she switched to the less obvious
aids that fit into her ears, she was ridiculed by other children.
"Kids can be cruel," says Catchings. "You don't want to be
different. I was already different because I played basketball."
When she got to high school, she decided she wanted to fit in, at
least off the court, so she ditched the hearing aids and the
therapy sessions. To compensate, she worked harder at reading
lips and interpreting facial expressions.
November 23, 1998
She missed some things in class--think about how many times a
teacher turns away from the class and talks into the
blackboard--but by following the text and studying hard, she was
still able to maintain a B+ average. Among friends the gist of a
joke might escape her, but if everyone else was laughing, she'd
laugh too. On the basketball court she watched her teammates'
hand and eye movements and read her coach's lips. She became so
adept at "filling in the blanks," she says, that a lot of her
high school friends had no idea she couldn't hear every word
they said. When Catchings was honored as the Athlete of the Year
by the League for the Hard of Hearing last summer in New York
City, several of her pals were stunned. "They said, 'Why didn't
you tell us?'" says Catchings. "Well, what was I supposed to do,
make an announcement? 'Hey guys, don't talk to me because I have
a hearing problem?'"
Catchings doesn't make announcements or excuses, and she insists
that her hearing loss hasn't had much of an impact on her life.
But her father, Harvey, a former NBA center, disagrees. "I think
the fact that people considered it a disability really pushed
her," says Harvey, a mortgage broker in Chicago. "Where others
might use a disability as an excuse, she used it as a driving
Whatever it was that drove Tamika, it took hold early. Her
mother, Wanda, recalls second-grade softball games in which
Tamika would deliver a pitch and then sprint to the outfield in
an attempt to catch the fly ball. "She'd try to cover the whole
field, be the whole team," says Wanda. "She'd get so angry at the
kids who couldn't catch, throw or hit as well as she could. She
couldn't accept that this was just supposed to be recreation."
Tamika was particularly serious about basketball, which Harvey
had played professionally from 1974 to '86 and which her siblings
had excelled at. Kenyon, now 23 and working in marketing for
Motorola, showed great promise until he began suffering from an
intestinal disorder at 16 and had to quit playing. Tauja,
Tamika's older sister by 21 months, was good at hoops as well,
but she had other interests, such as dolls. Not Tamika.
"Basketball was everything to me," she says. "Whenever I got mad,
I would play basketball; whenever I was happy, I would play
basketball. Anything I was feeling, I'd play basketball."
When Tamika was in elementary school and junior high, she and her
siblings regularly accompanied Harvey to his weekly pickup games
at a high school gym. Wanda stayed home, waiting for the phone to
ring, as it inevitably did. On the line would be Tamika
demanding, through furious sobs, to be picked up and taken home
because Harvey wouldn't let her play with the men.
Tamika's most frequent opponent was Tauja, and the two were so
competitive that their one-on-one games usually turned into
fights. Whenever the girls started scrapping on the driveway,
Harvey would have to take the ball away. Tauja would then storm
into the house, but Tamika would remain outside, pretending to
play without the ball. "Scary, isn't it?" says Harvey. "I used to
think there was something wrong with my baby."
Harvey had never had that much passion for the game; he didn't
even start playing until his senior year of high school, in
Jackson, Miss. "I hated it at first," he says. "After eight
games I quit and went back to playing the drums in the band."
Yet he showed enough potential to get a scholarship to
Weatherford (Texas) Junior College, launching a career that
would comprise 11 seasons in the NBA with the Philadelphia
76ers, the New Jersey Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los
Angeles Clippers, plus a season in Italy. A rebounding and
defensive specialist who never averaged more than 4.7 points in
any season, Harvey doesn't see much of his game in Tamika's.
"She's much more aggressive and creative on offense than I ever
was," he says. "Every time I see her play, she does something
I've never seen before."
As a sophomore at Stevenson High in Lincolnshire, Tamika became
the first underclassman to be named Illinois' Miss Basketball, as
she and Tauja led the Patriots to the 1995 state title. By the
following season, after her parents had divorced, Tamika had
moved with Wanda to Duncanville, Texas. Tauja stayed with Harvey
in Chicago, where she led Stevenson to another title and
succeeded Tamika as Miss Basketball. Not to be outdone, in '97
Tamika led Duncanville High to the Texas Class 5A title and won
the Naismith Award as the national schoolgirl player of the year.
As such, she could have gone to just about any college and been
the star of the team. She considered joining Tauja at Illinois to
honor a pact they had made to reunite in college. In the end
though, she chose five-time national champion Tennessee--where
Holdsclaw was already emerging as perhaps the best female player
ever--because she liked what she had seen of Summitt while
watching the Lady Vols on TV: an intensity, a determination that
might surpass her own. "I wanted a coach who would push me,"
Playing at Tennessee attracted her for another reason. "She
wanted a program that was going to win most of the time," says
Lady Vols assistant coach Mickie DeMoss. "She cannot stand to
lose." Not that Catchings has to worry too much about that. When
Tennessee won the national title in March, completing a record
39-0 season, Catchings extended her personal victory streak to 79
games, dating to her senior year at Duncanville.
But there's more to Catchings than her success in basketball,
starting with her radiant smile and a baby face that Tauja, on a
recent visit to the Tennessee campus, can't keep her hands off
of. In a study hall Tauja grabs Tamika's dimpled cheeks and
squeezes. "Aren't these adorable?" she says. When discussing
Tamika's nose, which was broken in practice before last year's
SEC tournament, Tauja says, "It's amazing she broke it, because
she doesn't have any cartilage." To prove it she flattens
Tamika's nose with a forefinger.
Tauja offers other sisterly insights, such as, "She used to plan
her wardrobe a month in advance. Drove me nuts." Tamika is still
organized and efficient. She also continues to work hard in the
classroom, where she has a B average as a sports-management
What spare time she has is spent composing poetry--"I like to
write about love," she says--or hanging out with her boyfriend,
Tennessee guard Del Baker, or seeking out friends in need of a
hug. Unbidden, people in Tennessee's athletic offices testify to
the warmth of a Catchings embrace. She always seems to know, they
say, just when you need a lift. But then, who's more practiced at
reading a face? "One day she found out it was my birthday and
came in and gave me a big hug that made my day," says assistant
athletic director for academics Kerry Howland. "She has a lot of
love to give."
"Tamika is so genuine, there's nothing fake about her," says
Summitt. "When we visited her during recruiting, I took to her
right off. I told my assistants, If we don't get her, I'll be
With her 18.2 scoring average (a Tennessee freshman record),
53.7% shooting percentage, 8.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game
last year, Catchings surpassed all of Holdsclaw's freshman stats
except rebounds. She was the Naismith national freshman of the
year and became only the fourth freshman ever to be named a Kodak
Even on her own team Catchings is a role model. That's in part
what convinced her of the merit of Summitt's suggestion last
December that she consider wearing hearing aids again. The aids
Catchings now wears are tiny and technically superior to her old
ones; their main function is to clarify and amplify some sounds
while tuning out background noise. "It's weird," says Catchings.
"I can now hear myself talk."
When the League for the Hard of Hearing presented its award to
Catchings, she stood before a crowd of 500, including outfielder
Curtis Pride of the Atlanta Braves, who has been profoundly deaf
since birth, and scores of young children with hearing
disabilities, and told her story. Since then people have come up
to her and thanked her for being a role model for the hearing
impaired. "That feels good," she says. "It feels really good."
"Kids can be cruel," says Tamika, so when she got to high school
she ditched her hearing aids and speech therapy sessions.
Tamika and her sister were so competitive that their one-on-one
games in the driveway usually turned into fights.