To Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, forward Tamika Catchings was a dream freshman—a good player who wanted to get better. She was 6'1" and strong, a slashing scorer quick off the dribble and in releasing her shots. Moreover, she wasn't just a shooter: In one high school game she had a quintuple double—25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocked shots. Yet she always felt she could do more. She wanted to be pushed. "If I said touch the line in sprints, she always went over the line," says Summitt. "She never took shortcuts." Even her gaze was unusually intense; when Summitt spoke about a trapping scheme, Catchings hung on her every word.
But she didn't always follow directions, didn't always execute the right play. At times she seemed to be in her own world. When the top-ranked Lady Vols traveled to play No. 11 Stanford in the fifth game of the 1997-98 season, Catchings was brilliant, with 20 points and eight rebounds. She also broke a curfew that had been announced on the team bus after the game. By then Summitt had realized two things about Catchings: She was going to be a big-time player, one whom people would someday mention in the same breath with Chamique Holdsclaw, Cheryl Miller and Teresa Edwards, and she had a hearing problem.
Catchings was born with moderately severe hearing loss in both ears, a condition caused by damage to the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. As a result she cannot hear certain pitches, tones and sounds, even in her own voice, and has difficulty with her speech articulation. (Her brother, Kenyon, also has the condition, but to a lesser degree.)
As a child growing up in Deerfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, Catchings received speech therapy and wore boxy, behind-the-ear hearing aids. But even after she switched to the less obvious aids that fit into her ears, she was ridiculed by other children. "Kids can be cruel," says Catchings. "You don't want to be different. I was already different because I played basketball." When she got to high school, she decided she wanted to fit in, at least off the court, so she ditched the hearing aids and the therapy sessions. To compensate, she worked harder at reading lips and interpreting facial expressions.
She missed some things in class—think about how many times a teacher turns away from the class and talks into the blackboard—but by following the text and studying hard, she was still able to maintain a B+ average. Among friends the gist of a joke might escape her, but if everyone else was laughing, she'd laugh too. On the basketball court she watched her teammates' hand and eye movements and read her coach's lips. She became so adept at "filling in the blanks," she says, that a lot of her high school friends had no idea she couldn't hear every word they said. When Catchings was honored as the Athlete of the Year by the League for the Hard of Hearing last summer in New York City, several of her pals were stunned. "They said, 'Why didn't you tell us?' " says Catchings. "Well, what was I supposed to do, make an announcement? 'Hey guys, don't talk to me because I have a hearing problem?' "
Catchings doesn't make announcements or excuses, and she insists that her hearing loss hasn't had much of an impact on her life. But her father, Harvey, a former NBA center, disagrees. "I think the fact that people considered it a disability really pushed her," says Harvey, a mortgage broker in Chicago. "Where others might use a disability as an excuse, she used it as a driving force."
Whatever it was that drove Tamika, it took hold early. Her mother, Wanda, recalls second-grade softball games in which Tamika would deliver a pitch and then sprint to the outfield in an attempt to catch the fly ball. "She'd try to cover the whole field, be the whole team," says Wanda. "She'd get so angry at the kids who couldn't catch, throw or hit as well as she could. She couldn't accept that this was just supposed to be recreation."
Tamika was particularly serious about basketball, which Harvey had played professionally from 1974 to '86 and which her siblings had excelled at. Kenyon, now 23 and working in marketing for Motorola, showed great promise until he began suffering from an intestinal disorder at 16 and had to quit playing. Tauja, Tamika's older sister by 21 months, was good at hoops as well, but she had other interests, such as dolls. Not Tamika. "Basketball was everything to me," she says. "Whenever I got mad, I would play basketball; whenever I was happy, I would play basketball. Anything I was feeling, I'd play basketball."
When Tamika was in elementary school and junior high, she and her siblings regularly accompanied Harvey to his weekly pickup games at a high school gym. Wanda stayed home, waiting for the phone to ring, as it inevitably did. On the line would be Tamika demanding, through furious sobs, to be picked up and taken home because Harvey wouldn't let her play with the men.
Tamika's most frequent opponent was Tauja, and the two were so competitive that their one-on-one games usually turned into fights. Whenever the girls started scrapping on the driveway, Harvey would have to take the ball away. Tauja would then storm into the house, but Tamika would remain outside, pretending to play without the ball. "Scary, isn't it?" says Harvey. "I used to think there was something wrong with my baby."