Posted Sep 22 2011 12:00PM - Updated Sep 22 2011 7:06PM
She's been christened the Complete Package, a basketball player blessed with enviable gifts, all of which are still serving her well here in the golden stretch of her WNBA career. But Tamika Catchings, the star of the WNBA's Indiana Fever, doesn't fall for it.
She knows what's missing. She knows her flaw.
Right now, those who've watched her might scratch and say, "Really? What could possibly be absent for a player whose house seems in order?"
Not the genes. She's the daughter of NBA stock. Her father once rode shotgun with Julius Erving on the Sixers in the 1970s. Harvey Catchings was all biceps and sharp elbows in his day, willing and able to bleed for a rebound or blocked shot. He lasted 11 blue-collar seasons and 725 games (308 of them with Dr. J and Co.) without making a jumper that anyone could recall, although that only became an occupational hazard years later when playing his five kids in the driveway. Especially Tamika, who became the most accomplished of the flock.
"I knew I could take it down low and back her in," Harvey once said, "but that wouldn't be fair. She could shoot the ball much better than I ever could."
Tamika got her father's limbs and grew to 6-foot-1, lean but strong. She's tall enough to challenge the bigs like her father did, yet skilled enough to feel comfortable handling the ball anywhere on the floor. She's the rare player who can play any position, and had she ever tried, could probably make the All-Star Game at any position.
What else is there? Determination? No, that was earned long ago, almost from birth. She arrived hearing impaired, not so much that she couldn't listen to comments from her elementary school classmates. The teasing and the mocking ... well, you know how cruel kids can be. Tamika grew up with two constants in her life: A loving family and a hearing aid. That's what made her the strong and fierce competitor she is today.
She looks back and calls her handicap, which permanently affected her speech, "a gift" in disguise. Meaning: It forced her, from a very young and vulnerable age, to do whatever it took to overcome setbacks. And it encouraged her to find something else to grab people's attention, instead of a device stuck in her ear.
That led to basketball, not just to follow her dad, but to be great in her own regard. As driven as she could possibly be. And so, determination also became a constant companion in her life, pushing her to icon status at Tennessee under Pat Summit, to Team USA in the Olympics, and now with the Fever. She's a star who approaches every game with the mindset of a scrub. Catchings treats every minute as though it might be her last, hustling and flying and trying to keep from being yanked -- even though her team has no chance without her.
What about heart? No, she has plenty of that, and we don't mean the clichéd part about playing hard. Her heart is actually softer than her jump shot, and it beats for all. Catchings performs better in the community than she does on the court.
Let's put this in better perspective. Truthfully, most superstars in professional sports are not thrilled to spend hours doing community service with the "common folk." They do their part for charity, especially around the holidays, then beat the TV cameras out the door. By most, it's often seen as a hassle and an infringement on personal time.
Catchings is always on call. You call with a cause, she's there. She's won the WNBA community assist award five times, the runaway stat leader. She's been honored by President George W. Bush and UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, shared the dais with former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and lunch with community leaders, and cited for her beating heart on every level of basketball.
Her foundation has 10 different programs, all geared to assisting the less fortunate, all stressing the importance of academics, a passion for someone with a master's degree who carried a 4.0 her final year in college and gave a commencement speech. Her foundation is particularly sensitive to at-risk youth in the Indianapolis area, young teenaged girls with esteem issues and also African-American kids with social disadvantages. And of course, she lends an ear, so to speak, to anyone with hearing impairment.
Have we missed something? Respect? Get serious. Longevity? She's in her 10th season. Health? With the exception of 2007, when she developed plantar fasciitis, she's been good to go. Pure skills? Amazing how we haven't touched on that yet. Here are the vital facts: She's the only known player, male OR female, in basketball history with a quintuple double (25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals, 10 blocks). Nobody else in the W has ever led her team in points, rebounds, assists and steals in a single season. Catchings has done it six times. All-Star? Seven times. Defensive player of the year? Four times.
Which means: MVP? Ah, we are getting warm.
She earned the honor today, finally, for the first time in her career after finishing runner-up the last two seasons and being Top 5 in the balloting for seven seasons. It's a fitting honor for someone who once again has the Fever at the cusp of a championship.
Yes, we have finally arrived at the lone imperfection of the woman with everything.
The WNBA trophy. The slippery hunk of silver that somehow is beyond the reach of a player with double Olympic gold and an NCAA ring is the scratch on a Picasso career. Catchings isn't very big on the individual stuff, yet very big on team. She has two more rounds in the playoffs to erase the flaw, two more victorious rounds before reaching the satisfying conclusion of knowing she's finally complete, in the basketball sense.
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