Tamika Catchings found a note recently while cleaning out her garage. It was a hand-written letter from legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt, given to Catchings in the summer of 2002.
“I’m proud of you and proud for you,” the note read. “You have a great pro career ahead of you.”
Tamika Catchings is retiring after a 15-year career in the WNBA, a great pro career indeed.
Sunday was Catchings’ final regular season game. If you missed it, that’s understandable. The Denver Broncos were playing over on CBS, while Catchings and the Indiana Fever were dismantling the Dallas Wings by 23 on ESPN2. I commend ESPN for broadcasting Catchings’ final game and competing with the NFL on a day that the network typically reserves for bowling reruns.
Whether you caught any of Sunday’s game or not, it’s worth recognizing the work that the WNBA star has put in for the past 15 years. She’s one of the most influential and important female basketball players in the history of the sport.
Catchings was an All-American for Summitt at Tennessee and part of the 1997-98 undefeated national championship team. She tore her ACL during her senior season and still went on to have maybe the best professional career of all time.
She was WNBA Rookie of the Year, a 12-time all-WNBA player, 10-time All-Star, WNBA MVP, Finals MVP, WNBA champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist.
Catchings — who has the Fever in the WNBA Playoffs and could still add to her stats — is second all-time in scoring with 7,380 career points and was the league’s top scorer five times. She’s made 2,004 free throws, 300 more than the next closest person.
Probably more impressive, Catchings was even better at the other end of the floor. She’s the league’s all-time steals leader with 1,074, and she led the league in steals seven times. She hasn’t missed a beat, leading the league in steals as both a rookie and during her final season. For reference, among active players, Catchings has 451 more steals than Katie Douglas, who has the second-most in the league.
She’s also the league’s all-time best rebounder with 3,316, despite never leading the league in the category.
Oh, and she’s a five-time Defensive Player of the Year recipient.
Quick recap: scoring (second all-time), steals (first), rebounds (first), free throws (first). She got it done on the court.
But she made an even bigger impact off the court. Along with her humanitarian services throughout Indiana and all across the country, she is loved and respected by her peers. She was awarded the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award twice and has been the president of the WNBA players’ union for 12 years.
When Catchings took over as president, the league was on the brink of disaster. Two franchises dissolved and two more relocated. This year, the WNBA celebrated its 20th season. She’s been a part of two collective bargaining agreements with a large focus on loosening league restrictions on players competing overseas during the offseason to supplement WNBA salaries that are much less than those of NBA superstars.
She’s gone from a hearing-impaired, bullied, shy youngster to one of the most outspoken players in the league, and most of the speaking is on behalf of others.
“She’s very good at finding out everyone’s opinions,” Washington Mystics’ Stefanie Dolson told the New York Times in an article about Catchings. “She’s open to them, and she does a great job of just making sure the players are taken care of and the league is thriving.”
That last part is important. The league is thriving — a league that almost collapsed 12 years ago.
Catchings doesn’t have but a few games left in her Hall of Fame career. Whether you care for the WNBA or not, I’d encourage you to catch one of Catchings’ final games this week. She’s one of the most important figures in the history of the sport and a tremendous role model for young players, both boys and girls.
The number 24 will certainly be hanging from the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse soon enough.
We’re proud of you, and we’re proud for you.