girls basketball

Girls Sports Month: Tamika Catchings on her illustrious career and life after basketball

Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings (24). (Photo: Brad Rempel, USA TODAY Sports)

Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings (24). (Photo: Brad Rempel, USA TODAY Sports)

March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports will provide a series of pieces in which female athletes from high school to the pros and their mentors and coaches share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives.  The series continues with Tamika Catchings.

Tamika Catchings didn’t want to be one of those athletes who didn’t know what to do once her playing career ended.

So she started planning.

During her rookie season with the Indiana Fever.

In 2002.

“When I first got drafted it was cool, but it was a struggle early on because I felt like our team was good but something was missing,” Catchings, 36, told USA TODAY Sports. “I started thinking strategically. ‘We should go get these players.’

“I like putting things together. How do I get the right pieces to make this puzzle fit? How do you put together a championship caliber team?”

MORE: Click here for all of our Girls Sports Month coverage!

But just a rookie, Catchings understood, “Coaches coach, players and play and GMs do their thing. But it got me thinking, ‘I would love to do that,’ ” she said.

Catchings, who is preparing for her 15th and final WNBA season, is interested in working in a team’s front office but she also sees herself working with the Jr. NBA. She just finished an internship at the NBA office in New York, and she will continue working with her Catch the Stars foundation.

It’s already been a big year. Her book – Catch A Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion – was released this week and she got married last month.

But before the post-basketball career chapter of her life begins, Catchings looks forward to the remainder of 2016 – which will include her final WNBA season and possibly her fourth Olympic gold medal.

Her career in some ways mirrors Kobe Bryant’s career, and he, too, is retiring after this season. Both are the children of former NBA players who also played professionally in Italy, and the Bryants and Catchings knew each other as kids in Italy.

Catchings is WNBA MVP, 10-time All-Star, five-time defensive player of the year, rookie of the year, champion, Finals MVP and three-time Olympic gold medalist.

She has an epilogue for this story: win another gold medal and another WNBA championship. The Fever lost in last season’s Finals, and there’s no guarantee she makes the Olympic team.

“I want what’s best for the team,” she said. “I told USA Basketball and I told Geno (Auriemma), if I’m not the person, my feelings won’t be hurt. If there is somebody who is better than me and can do more than I can, then it’s time.”

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Knowing how to play a role may help Catchings’ Olympic hopes. “You can’t have 12 stars,” she said. “You have to have people who understand you may play or you may not. The things I bring are leadership and defensive tenacity and just being a great teammate.”

It’s not like she can’t play. An All-Star last season, Catchings averaged 13.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.8 steals in 2015.

“She’s the most hard-working, most loyal team-first person I’ve ever been around – one of the great people we’ve ever seen,” Fever coach Stephanie White said. “She’s takes being a role model very seriously and gives back to the community in a way many star athletes do not.”

Catchings’ foundation began as a camp in Indianapolis and has morphed into an organization that aims to “empower youth to achieve their dreams by providing goal-setting programs that promote literacy, fitness and mentoring.”

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The foundation distributes books, backpacks with school supplies and yearly college scholarships, and conducts a mentoring program for kids 12-16.

“My passion is in helping people,” said Catchings who plans to expand the foundation’s reach into other states.

During the 2016 season, Catchings will have a meaningful stop in each WNBA city. Instead of an opposing franchise giving her a gift, she prefers the team make a donation to her foundation. She will have a postgame fundraiser and will donate some proceeds to local charities and other player foundations.

It is already and will continue to be a whirlwind year, and it doesn’t come without a tinge of melancholy with her basketball-playing days nearing an end.

“It is sad at times,” she said.

And she continued, “But it’s more joyful. I’m excited about the future. We’ve got so many great things happening. I’m excited about ‘what am I going to do next?’ “