Date: 09/17/2016

Tamika Catchings: A reluctant superstar

Sometimes superstars need to be reminded they’re superstars. Doesn’t happen often. Actually, almost never.

But when you start out a gangly, shy, insecure girl with a wobbly self-image — not ever really fitting in — it’s hard to see a superstar in the mirror.

When you wear clunky hearing aids that kids relentlessly tease you about.

When you stop wearing those hearing aids to avoid the embarrassment and people think you’re ignoring them, that you’re rude or you’re dumb.

When your parents announce their divorce, after you’ve settled into a high school and just been named the state’s youngest Ms. Basketball in Illinois history at 15. When you should be happy about your accomplishment, but you’re devastated that your parents are splitting.

When the next year you find yourself almost 1,000 miles away in Texas trying to fit in yet again, with a whole new crowd in the city your mother moved to. When you still miss your dad and your sister, who stayed behind in Illinois.

Sometimes, it’s hard to accept you’re a superstar, to even think of yourself that way. You’re too busy trying to overcome to see any of the great things you’re doing.

Tamika Catchings was a superstar long before she knew it — long before she became, many people think, the top women’s basketball player in history, and a much honored humanitarian.

It’s hard to imagine the women’s game without Catchings in the middle of it, but we’ll soon have to. Catchings plays the final regular season game of her illustrious career with the Fever on Sunday at home against the Dallas Wings.

Her career has spanned 15 WNBA seasons and garnered many accolades:  11-time WNBA All-Star, 12-time All-WNBA, Defensive Player of the Year five times, MVP, league champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist.

It’s unfathomable to think of Catchings without a basketball in her hand.

Basketball, after all, has been the constant in her life, the equalizer that made all those insecurities vanish. Every once in a while with that basketball in her hand, Catchings believed she just might be a superstar.

***

She is out in the driveway, fighting with the grit only a little sister can, fighting to beat Tauja, the older sister by 19 months.

“Their games always got brutal and bloody,” said their dad, Harvey Catchings, who played in the NBA from 1974 to 1985. “It got ugly.”

This day it was especially ugly. Someone was going to get hurt. So Harvey went out and yanked the ball away from his daughters. There would be no more basketball.

Tauja ran into the house to play with her dolls; Tamika stayed.

“I go back out and I see Mika outside going through the imaginary motions without the ball,” he said. “She’s shooting and dribbling and rebounding. Seeing her doing those things?”

There is always the story of when a parent first realizes, “Hey, this kid might be something special.” This was that moment for Harvey Catchings. He’ll never forget it.

“This was something that set her apart,” he said. “She had so many issues growing up that basketball was something that allowed her to excel.”

To blend in. Which is all Tamika Catchings ever wanted to do. Which is ironic, because she became a superstar who stood out.

***

She still doesn’t believe it herself.

Catchings will go out and people come up to her. They want to get close to her, get her autograph, talk basketball. They stand in awe that they are in front of this dynamic player.

“I just don’t realize I’m ‘quote, unquote’ a superstar, whatever that means,” Catchings said Friday. “That makes for a fun life. It allows me to have more friends.”

Just like that little girl always wanted.

The hearing aids were huge and awkward. Catchings was born with a hearing impairment in both ears. Back then, in the 1980s, hearing aids were awful.

And if hearing aids didn’t cause kids to take notice, Catchings’ speech did. She slurred some words, didn’t pronounce others with the proper accents and emphasis. She couldn’t make some consonants powerful enough.

Kids taunted her for all of that.

Yet what was miserable for a young Catchings at the time, who said she just wanted to “be normal,” turned into something great. Sports.

“Sports was my outlet where I could practice and I could get really good at something,” Catchings said. “And, literally, people couldn’t make fun of me because they wanted me on their team.”

Catchings described the hearing disability as being in a prison. Basketball was her ticket to freedom.

***

If only she knew how good she was, said Harvey Catchings.

In youth games he coached, he would have to make sure Tamika wasn’t in at the same time as Tauja. Otherwise, they would run up 60-point leads for his team. Tauja Catchings was a stellar player in her own right, going on to play at the University of Illinois, then being drafted by the WNBA and later playing pro ball in Sweden.

Harvey Catchings learned that he would have to start them together and then sit one, almost immediately.

Tamika Catchings didn’t get the fuss as she stole the ball from helpless opponents, grabbed rebound after rebound. She was just playing a game she loved.

She got just as excited to see her sister and teammates score. She wanted to be a part of something. Not someone who was the center of attention.

“People say if you look up the word teammate in the dictionary,” Harvey Catchings said, “there is a picture of Mika.”

And, in his opinion, that spirit has cost her some in her professional game.

“That’s one of the struggles we had throughout her career,” he said. “Because of the position she was in, she had the green light to shoot whenever and wherever she wanted. I felt that she should have taken more advantage of that.” And yet Catchings is the No. 2 scorer in league history, and the all-time leader in rebounds, free throws and steals.

But Harvey Catchings said he knows that his daughter could have done even more.

“She tries to blend in,” he said. “Still.”

Or maybe it’s just her priorities. “At the end of the day, all (my records) will be broken, and all that goes away,” she said Friday, focusing instead on her Catch the Stars Foundation, which helps children going through struggles much worse than what she went through.

“But when you’re able to leave an imprint, a lasting imprint, that is amazing.”

***

Frank Mattucci first saw Tamika Catchings playing as a sixth-grader. No question about this 11-year-old.

“She could have played with our varsity team right then,” he said.

When he got her on his high school team at Adlai E. Stevenson in Lincolnshire, Ill., she became a freshman starter. And because she and Tauja, a sophomore, were so much better than everyone else, Mattucci started something he’d never done as a coach.

He brought in the boys.

Three male managers were assigned to the team so they could guard the Catchings sisters in practice.

Stevenson won 30 straight games and was a top 10 USA TODAY team. Tamika Catchings brought it all, even as a young teen, Mattucci said.

“As far as speed, agility, defensive knack, offense, she had all of that early,” he said. “Rebounding for her is kind of just like a reflex action.”

But it was in the final of the sectionals her freshman year that Mattucci saw just how special Catchings was.

She was leading the team to what looked like a sectional championship when, all of a sudden, she picked up a foul. And then another foul. And another.

“I remember it was really difficult because the two (Catchings) girls were the only two black kids on the court at the time,” Mattucci said. “A lot of people thought the officials were picking on her because she was black.”

The crowd. Her teammates. Even Mattucci thought the fouls weren’t fouls.

“Mika never once said a word about that. She just said, ‘Coach, I never touched anybody,’ ” Mattucci said. “The way she responded to that adversity, I knew this was a special young lady.”

They lost that game, but the next year Stevenson finished No. 2 in the nation and won a state championship, and Tamika Catchings became the youngest Ms. Illinois Basketball in the state’s history.

She was finally coming out of her shell. She was getting a glimpse of the superstar inside.

Mattucci was thrilled to see her blossoming, thrilled to have two more years with her. He soon learned that wasn’t to be.

***

The summer after her sophomore year, Catchings’ mother, Wanda, and Harvey Catchings, by then a well-known Chicago Bulls announcer, gave their girls life-changing news. They were getting divorced.

Harvey Catchings would stay in Chicago and so would Tauja, to finish her senior year at Stevenson. Wanda Catchings would move to Texas to be closer to family.

The weight of the world, it seemed, was on Tamika Catchings’ shoulders.

“She started talking to me about this dilemma,” Mattucci said. ” ‘What am I going to do? I want to play with my sister again. I want to play with you, and I want to stay,’ ” he recounts. ” ‘My mother is going to miss me. I miss her already. I don’t know what to do.’ ”

No doubt, Mattucci was dying inside to tell Catchings she should stay. She had to stay. They were about to embark on a basketball season with one of the greatest teams ever assembled in Illinois.

He did what any great coach would do.

“I told Mika, ‘Wherever you go, the team you play for is going to be that much better. You’re going to be just fine,’ ” Mattucci said. ” ‘The bottom line is, I got your back, I support you, and follow your heart.’ ”

Her heart told her to go to Texas with her mother. Once again, the superstar was back in hiding.

***

Shy and reserved, Catchings walked into coach Sara Hackerott’s office at Duncanville High in Duncanville, Texas, to introduce herself. She had just moved 959 miles across the country to a school that had 4,000 kids.

“She was really trying to feel her way, and I think it took her a little while to figure things out and feel acclimated,” said Hackerott. “To feel comfortable.”

Hackerott had heard about this stellar player she was getting. People had told her Catchings was amazing. She’d heard rumors, over-the-top praise. Hackerott had no idea.

But in 1995, people didn’t Google. They didn’t read newspaper articles online.

“I was going on a lot of hearsay,” Hackerott said. “Anybody in their right mind would say, ‘OK, you’re telling me that this player is this good?’ ”

Looking back, Hackerott is pretty sure that Catchings held off a little when she first started working out with the team — almost as if she didn’t want to be seen as a showoff or let people know how good she was.

As usual, she wanted to blend in.

“There were times she would just let loose and dominate, and there were times when she also very much wanted to be accepted and fit in,” Hackerott said. “And in order to do that, she had a sense of balance, of knowing when to fit in and when to go with the flow.”

But inside a Texas gym in 1997, Catchings the superstar emerged.

***

The Duncanville High crowd was going wild. Crazy. The new girl from the year before, now a senior, was lighting up the court. She always lit up the court. But she was really lighting up the court.

Hackerott knew Catchings was having an exceptional game. She didn’t know how exceptional, not until she looked at the stat sheet after the game.

Catchings had done something no other player in the history of basketball had ever done — no man, no woman, no pro, no college or high school player.

She had officially recorded a quintuple-double — double-digit totals in all five statistical categories in a single game: 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocked shots.

“It was like you’re watching someone really explode into a phenomenal game, but it was so fluid you were drawn into it,” Hackerott said. “You didn’t know what the stats would be because she makes it look easy. You literally would go, ‘OK now. Did she just do what I think she did?’ ”

Most players would have made sure everyone in that gym, including the coach, knew they were doing superstar stuff. Not Catchings. She never showboated because she never believed she was superstar status.

“I remember after the game, people told me, ‘Hey, you got (a quintuple-double),'” Catchings said. “I was like, ‘What is that? That’s cool. I didn’t realize that.’ ”

She didn’t realize what she had just done was exceptional.

“Sometimes, the superstars are the ones that need reminded,” Mattucci said. “Need reminded the reason why they’re superstars.”

Sometimes. But it’s rare. Catchings is one of the rare ones.