January 6, 2021
She Got Next, Episode 16: Indiana Fever GM Tamika Catchings
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PEPPER PERSLEY: Hello, and welcome to this episode of “She Got Next,” with me, Pepper Persley. The guest on this episode is Hall of Famer and general manager of the Indiana Fever Tamika Catchings. Hope you enjoy the interview.
PERSLEY: Okay, I can definitely hear you now. So, let’s hope the internet stays good for this interview. Okay. I have some idea of what you do as general manager of the Fever, but I’d like to know more. What does a typical day look like for you in this role?
TAMIKA CATCHINGS: Well, it’s interesting. Do you want in-season or do you want out of season?
PERSLEY: Can you give me both?
CATCHINGS: Okay, well, let’s start with out of season because that’s what we’re in right now. It’s a little bit different. I kind of look at — even being the general manager — I kind of look at it as basically three seasons in a year. So you got your January through April, which our free agency will start on January 15. We can start signing players on February 1, and then the draft is in April, and then we flow right into our season. So that period between January and April, we’re doing a lot of scouting, looking at medical records, a lot of conversation with the coaches, a lot of conversations with other teams, trying to figure out how we’re trying to build a championship-caliber team. So a lot of phone calls, a lot of film and just a lot of conversation between the coaching staff and I. During the season, obviously, we get into the season, we get going, my job is really just to continue to evaluate our players, evaluate our team and our coaching staff. So, going to practices, making sure, you know, you want to keep — especially early on — you want to keep up with what’s going on with other teams and players early on with training camp and even the beginning of the season, players getting cut off from other teams. So when another player comes to our team and makes our team better, so a lot of evaluation. And we flow into the season, and the same thing, just keeping up with our players, continuing to evaluate. And not just the players, the coaching staff as well. Then you get to the offseason, and really from October to December, it’s really about looking at your team, evaluating yourself — like, I do a self-evaluation. So evaluating myself, evaluating how we did as a team, what could we have done better? What could I have done better for our players and for the team and for the coaching staff? Look at the staff that’s even around our coaches, so not just myself and the coaches and the players, but even, you know, like our PR role — public relations role — our community relations role, trainer, DOBO — director of basketball operations — so we have a lot of people that kind of tap into and help us and what we’re trying to do and so a lot of it for me is overseeing, evaluating and talking a lot. I feel like I’m talking a lot, sometimes I stumble on my words. But it’s fun. I love it.
PERSLEY: I’m not going to ask you to name names, of course. But what type of player are you looking to draft with the fourth pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft?
CATCHINGS: Well, it’s interesting, because I feel like we’re in a really good position. Last year, when I look at our team, we had nine players that are still on the rookie contract. And we have a really young team, you know, so I think with us, we will continue to — we have a very good, I think, an established young core that we can continue to build off of. And so I’m not really, we don’t need, you know, some teams need a great player to come and save their team and be the end all be all for that team. But I think for us, we need a solid player. I guess the most important part for me, and we can have this interview in February or March, because I think the most important part for us as a team is our free agency and who we’re able to get in the free agency because we are so young, we need more leadership. And so I want to get a strong leader, a strong veteran leader. And I think that at that point, when we look at position-wise, somebody that comes in, I want somebody that works hard, is a go-getter every single day when they come in, they’re the first one in, the last one to leave. They have the mentality of a champion, a championship person, a championship-caliber player — not necessarily do they have to come to our team having won a championship, but they have to know what it takes to be a champion on and off the floor. And so I want somebody that’s engaged in the community, that loves the game of basketball and wants to continue to get better. I mean, I can go through a lot of different characteristics of the things that I want. I know what I don’t want on our team. But I also know, you know, we’re trying to change the culture of what Indiana Fever basketball is about. And so when we interview players and the players that we interviewed last year, preparing for our No. 3 pick, we were very straightforward on the type of people that we wanted, not necessarily from the basketball standpoint, but the type of people that we wanted as part of our organization.
PERSLEY: You just led me right into one of my questions!
PERSLEY: You mentioned that you have a young core of players like Lauren Cox, Julie Allemand, Teaira McCowan, Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians. So what do you see in the future of the Fever?
CATCHINGS: Well, I mean, I think that I see championships in the future of the Fever, of course. And you know, honestly, when I look at the players that you just named, Tori is coming off a couple of injuries, and so we we saw her in her rookie season, how good she is and what she’s capable of bringing to a team. I’m waiting for her to get rebuilt and get her own confidence back because I think she’s a great player. Kelsey Mitchell, you know, came out this past year in the wubble and it’s been really cool to watch her grow in the last three years of her career. And you know, I think for this year coming up, or 2021, coming up and beyond, I want to continue to see her get better. But I see her, Teaira, Tori, Julie and I’m excited about continuing to build them to be really good players for us.
PERSLEY: You cut out at the end a little bit, so if you don’t mind repeating what you were saying when you’re getting to the end?
CATCHINGS: So I said, you know, really what I see is for the future of them, and, you know, whoever we end up drafting, being a part of Indiana Fever basketball for a long time, and really us continuing to build our team and continue to build the culture around those type of players.
PERSLEY: Switching it up a little bit, can you walk us through the moment you found out you were elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame?
CATCHINGS: The moment I was elected, I remember waking up that morning, they told us that we were going to find out in between, I think they said 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. And mean we’ve been in COVID, so think about being stuck in the house and the anxiety that builds up from wanting to learn and know and being so excited. And so about 2:30, I just told my husband I said, “Look, I just got to get out of the house. I just feel like I’m anxious. I can’t sit down. I need to just go for a ride real quick. I’ll be back in a little bit.” And so I was driving around and literally about three, I mean a little bit after three o’clock, I got a phone call. And the young man was just like, “Is Tamika Catchings there?” and I said “Who’s this?” and he said, you know, so-and-so from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and I just wanted to be the first one to congratulate you. And I swear, like, I was driving, so I got got excited, like, “Oh my gosh!” and then I realized I was driving, so I had put my hands back on the wheel. But I was, you know, it’s exciting. Definitely a blessing. And, I mean, you don’t go, for me personally, I don’t play basketball, and I haven’t played basketball for the accolades. I’ve played basketball because it’s been something that I love to do. And it’s, you know, been a part of my life since I was a kid. My father played in the NBA, we traveled around, we did a lot of really cool things. And, of course, I started my own basketball journey at the age of seven. I set my first goal while I was in seventh grade. It’s just been a journey since then. And so all of that kind of came swirling in, got off the phone, I called my dad, I called my mom, I called my sister, I called my brother. She’d have probably just done a conference call. And I was just excited. I mean, it’s just definitely — it’s a blessing. It’s a blessing to be in a group and to be in such an elite class.
PERSLEY: What a story is that? Thank you so much for sharing, and I honestly think you are very deserving of being in the Hall of Fame.
CATCHINGS: Thank you. One day we’ll be watching you in the Hall of Fame! I like that jersey on you, by the way. We’ll have to get you your own jersey when you come and play with us.
PERSLEY: [laughs] That would be amazing.
CATCHINGS: I’m recruiting you. I’m recruiting you now. [laughs]
PERSLEY: I’ve spoken to Skylar Diggins-Smith, Natalie Achonwa and Haley Jones, who have all talked about how your game has influenced theirs. What does it mean to you to have this generation respect to your game?
CATCHINGS: It feels good. You know, I think especially for those players and, you know, kind of being a little bit of the bridge in that gap. You know, like I’m the bridge in that era. And I think even cooler is when you just look back at the history of the WNBA and for me, man, I watched my favorite players, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, like I emulated them, and from a female standpoint, that’s what I watch. And then of course, Tina Thompson came in, you know, I got a chance to play with those type of players through the Olympics and then, you know, just having them as teammates. For me it’s cool because Natalie in particular was one of my teammates. You know, Skylar, I’ve had some interaction with but not necessarily had her as a teammate with USA Basketball, we had tryouts. And so it’s really cool to watch how their game has evolved, and how they continue to get better and better every single year. And now there’s players in our league that want to be like them and want to have the opportunity to play like them and play with them. And that’s what it’s all about, you know, when you’re starting in the league and you’re young, you have these older players that you look up to. And then as they move on, you kind of move into being one of those older players that the younger players that come into the league want to be like, and so it’s just about that circle of influence. And I’m just — I’m happy, I’m thankful to be a part of it. And to continue to be a part of it on the other side.
PERSLEY: Well, you just answered one of my questions, I was gonna ask who you looked up to, but you answered that.
CATCHINGS: I already knew! I’m in your mind right now. [laughs]
PERSLEY: Well, you mentioned the Olympics. So you have a favorite memory from playing for a gold medal?
CATCHINGS: My favorite memory for all of them is when we were standing on the podium, at the end getting ready to get our gold medal. And I mean, they would always crown or you’d get the little crown that they put on and the flowers that you would get. I mean, honestly, standing on the podium, thinking back, because for the Americans, it’s a lot different than most countries. Most countries spend so much time training, that like that’s all they do. For us, because we play in the WNBA and for the most part, the majority of the players go overseas in the offseason, our time to train is limited. So the amount of time that you’re actually together is way less than the majority of the countries that we face. And so you know, for me, the moment, honestly, the time of just being with my teammates, and playing with players that I would never have gotten the opportunity to play with in the WNBA, you know? The only opportunity we had was at the Olympic Games. So being on the bus, the bus rides we had, just having fun, just laughing, joking around, talking about things that have happened during the WNBA season, [inaudible], you know, like, those are the moments and the memories that you go away with. The gold medals are great, I’m not taking anything away from that. But I think really, it’s just being able to learn about different players and the way that they are off the court.
PERSLEY: Thank you for that insight. How did you develop the kind of work ethic you have to arguably be the best WNBA player ever?
CATCHINGS: I believe that I developed it from being born with a hearing disability. And, you know, I think that through the disability that I have, being hearing impaired, it really forced me, in a way, to work so hard for everything that I had. And, you know, sports was really my avenue to be normal and to fit in with everybody else. But realizing that that was the one thing that I had, I kind of went overboard in a sense of really wanting to be good at you know, every sport, not just basketball, but volleyball and track and anything that I participated in, I wanted to practice really, really hard and be the best at it so that when people were picking teams, especially when you’re kids and, you know, you’re playing intramural games and gotta get picked on a team, I wanted to be a player that got picked. And so I think for me, having that work ethic early on, like as a little girl, definitely has helped me as I’ve gotten older because I think my mentality has never changed. And I’ve always continued to want to be the best in everything that I do.
PERSLEY: You mentioned your hearing disability. How did you deal with being bullied as a kid? And did basketball help you get away and/or process being bullied? I know you mentioned that it was kind of your lane of being normal. But did it help in any way?
CATCHINGS: Yeah, I mean, I think sports helped for sure. And my way of kind of combating the bullying was, “Well let’s go play basketball,” or let’s go play tennis, I mean, we took tennis lessons we were younger, let’s go play something that I might have a level playing ground. Like, I might not be able to hear you as well. I might not be able to hear as well as you can. I might not be able to talk as articulate as some other people might be able to talk. But sports was my way of saying okay, you can go train, I can go train. I was born with this disability, it’s something that will never go away. But as far as being athletic and being able to become better and better, I can practice, you can practice. So that was really my way of being able to combat the bullying and being able to make it a level playing field.
PERSLEY: Thank you for that advice. And thank you for that story. I mean, all the bullying stories I hear help me deal with the bullying that I went through in second grade, which was really hard for me. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this story. But in second grade when two kids who I thought were my friends, they gave me a letter and part of the letter said that I was too athletic. And for a lot of time, I didn’t know what that meant. But I actually did something in response to that. And I created an anti-bullying video, which I can absolutely share with you.
CATCHINGS: I’ve seen it! Trust me, I’ve seen it already. Your mom sent it to me.
PERSLEY: Yes, at the leadership conference. But, I mean, just everything through the opportunities that I have as a journalist now, every story that I hear just helps me a little bit more to process and get through being bullied. So thank you for that.
CATCHINGS: I think that it’s awesome what you’re doing. And you have definitely — you’re an example for a lot of young girls and boys that will come after you, and that are that might be going through some of the same things that you’re going through. But you’ve figured out a way — and I heard this the other day, we always hear that you figured out a way to make lemonade out of lemons. And to keep it going, right? You continue to push and you continue to to elevate yourself to another level. And that’s what it takes to be really, really good at whatever it is that you’re doing.
PERSLEY: I’m honestly speechless. Thank you so much for that. Can you discuss what it was like winning the WNBA championship in 2012? And what it was like for you to achieve such a feat?
CATCHINGS: Winning that championship. So people will ask, like, what out of all the things that you’ve won and all the accomplishments that you’ve had, what is one of those? Well, I can’t pick one. But this is definitely one of my top three things. And some days that might be my first thing that I talk about, some days it’s the second thing and some days it’s the third, but it’s never lower than third. Winning a championship with the team that we had was really, really special. And one of the main reasons was ’cause nobody expected us to win. You know, it’s almost like the David and Goliath story where we were David going into the battle and we were playing against Minnesota as the giant. And all the power, the firepower that they had, Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Lindsay Whalen, you know what I mean? And then their bench, which was phenomenal. Everybody on that team was phenomenal. But I am so proud, like when I talk about our our championship year. And I mean, we faced all types of adversity throughout that year, and even going in after every single round. We lost Katie Douglas in the first round, our best shooter. And in the championship round, Game 2, we lost Jeanette Pohlen, our second-best shooter on the team, and other players had to step up and fill in big roles. And we were able to beat Minnesota at home, in Minny and when we came back here in Indianapolis to win that championship. And I tell you what, when that buzzer went off, I literally — tears just started coming down my face because it’s just like, “Man, this is what you play for.” You play to win a championship, you play and you practice, you practice every single day, your hardest, for the people that are beside you on your left and your right. And when you finally get that moment to be a part of it, it’s just like, oh, even thinking about it when I go home and I look at the pictures and stuff, it just, it was a dream come true. You know, being able to win with that group of players and just group of people. We just had a really good group of people. Solid character, we all fought for one another. It was never about self. It was all about the team.
PERSLEY: Well, that was a powerful response. Thank you for sharing that. I have two fun questions coming up. Players often talk about the moment when they realize it was no longer college. What was your “welcome to the WNBA” moment?
CATCHINGS: Well, mine was a little bit different because I tore my ACL my senior year at Tennessee. And so when I got drafted to Indiana, I knew I wasn’t gonna play that first year. But the following year when I came back though, even that first year when I was hurt, our GM at the time, Kelly Krauskopf, she asked me to travel and so I traveled one trip with the team. I went down to — we still had the Houston Comets — so I went down to Houston, ended up re-injuring myself in the three hours that I happened to be in Houston, so flew right back to Indianapolis, had another surgery that next day and that was my first year. But the following year, our first road trip, we went to New York. And I remember — because in college, we always have pregame together, we have, you know, we traveled to the game together, like everything is done together. And I didn’t have that experience my first year as a rookie. So when we got to New York, we went to shootaround, we came back and I’m thinking okay, like, we’re gonna have pregame, it’s gonna be ready for us to go and eat. Well, no, our coach said, “Okay, The bus will leave tonight at five o’clock for the game.” And I was like, okay, so at that point, I’m like, okay, it’s 11:15. What am I going to do between 11:15 and five o’clock p.m. to get ready for the game? So everybody’s like, okay, well, just go grab some food. So I literally walked out of the hotel, I got bumped by somebody and then when I finally got my footing, I got bumped by somebody on the other shoulder. And I was like, I kind of got scared. Scared in New York, I’m rolling by myself. And I went into the first restaurant I saw, it was a pizza place, grabbed a couple pieces of pizza, came back to the hotel. And then that game, I played terrible. Because I had no energy, I did not eat the right food. But I think — so that was my first experience of the WNBA and being on my own in another city. We got lots — there’s lots of stories for that, but I think that was — to me, that was my introduction, like, okay, like, you’re an adult, you gotta figure out what you’re going to eat. Think about what you ate in college, and find the right food to eat.
PERSLEY: Wow, what a story. I was wondering if you had a fun story about Coach Summitt, or just what it was like to be around her, and how she affected you.
CATCHINGS: Being around Coach Summitt was awesome. You know, there will be people that come into your life that no matter whether you’re close or far, they’ll always be a part of you. And you know, I think with Pat — and I share this all the time — with Pat, the thing about her was that she always said, “We’re gonna be great in the classroom, we’re gonna be great on the floor, we’re gonna be great in our community. But beyond all of that, we’re going to be great people.” And I remember watching her and sometimes just subconsciously watching people without really watching them. But just how gracious she was to everybody. I mean, titles have no fame and even for me, like, titles have no fame, they have no importance. The No. 1 thing is you treat all people with respect. And you treat all people like they matter. And you treat all people the way that you want to be treated. And Pat was a solid example of how you treat people. And I mean, literally, we would go on the road, and we’d fly to all these different places, and people would be so excited to see her. And no matter if she was tired, no matter what mood she was in, she would take time to talk to people, and she would take time to greet people. And just what an example, what an example for all of us of like, what greatness, what grace, what humbleness, and that no matter what level you get to, it’s always about turning around and reaching back and helping other people.
PERSLEY: I actually asked you that question the first time I met you, when I was at your camp, pre-COVID. And you said the same thing. But it still hits me really hard to hear that advice. So thank you for sharing that again. And thank you so much for being an inspiration. Thank you for being on my podcast. Thank you.
CATCHINGS: Thank you for having me. And thank you for being you. You know, thank you for using your story and using your experiences. Because you just said that to me, but honestly, like, having you on the calls earlier this year and every time I’d get a chance to talk to you, like, you just continue to amaze me, you are amazing. And you can do and you will do anything that you want to in your life because you’re a go-getter. Whether you’re athletic, or not athletic, it doesn’t matter. You are an inspiration for so many people. So never ever forget that. One day, I’m going to be telling my kids about you! Like, man, there was this girl, Pepper. So keep doing you, keep doing all the great things that you’re doing. I’m so proud of you.
PERSLEY: That means so much. Thank you.
CATCHINGS: Thank you, Pepper.
PERSLEY: Big thank you to Tamika Catchings and the Indiana Fever for making that interview possible. You can find me on Instagram @dishwithpepper and on Twitter @teampersley. And please subscribe to The Next for more amazing content like this. Thank you for listening!