Q&A: Tamika Catchings on WNBA social justice, building team culture

Indiana Fever GM and VP of Basketball Operations Tamika Catchings. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

When the WNBA came into existence on April 22, 1996 — exactly 25 years ago today — Tamika Catchings was still in high school. But she was already well on her way to becoming a hoops legend.

She would go on to star for Pat Summitt at Tennessee before becoming one of the WNBA’s greatest players as a member of the Indiana Fever — a 10-time all-star, seven-time All-WNBA First Teamer, a league MVP, and a Finals champion and MVP.

Since retiring, Catchings has stayed in Indianapolis, serving as both GM and VP of Basketball Operations for the Fever, and purchasing the local Tea’s Me Café — which has become a virtual venue for vital dialogue. In May, she’ll be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

We caught up with Catchings ahead of the league’s 25th anniversary to talk about leadership on and off the court, the social-justice efforts intertwined with the WNBA bubble (the “Wubble”) in the summer of 2020, and what it takes to build a team.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You’re a four-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion being inducted into the Hall of Fame. You’re a huge role model in your community. You’re a business owner and entrepreneur. But I look at what you’ve done away from the court and your constant push for social justice, and equality in sports for women in the coverage that they get. At what point did you realize the impact that your voice had?

Tamika Catchings: I’m still learning every day. I’m still learning.

Dawn Staley — I always talk about her, because watching her, she taught me what it was like to be a leader on the floor. Up until that point, I’d always just lead by example. I get to the gym earlier. If I stay after, you should stay after during practice. If I go hard, you should go hard. But I don’t think I realized how much my voice mattered until I saw Dawn and watched her with Sheryl (Swoopes) and Lisa (Leslie), myself and Tina (Charles). And, like, all the players that we had on our team, she was so good at being able to get us to fall into line.

So I think that’s the beginning of my leadership…. They nominated me to be the president of the WNBA for the Players Association. So for a majority of my career, that’s a role that I carried. But even then it was always behind the scenes. Even though we were doing a lot for the players, there was never (a situation where) I’m on a stage or on TV or on a platform talking to everybody, like, “Hey, we’re going to do this.”

And then you fast forward to this past season — last year, 2020, and George Floyd’s killing. Immediately, I said, “We’ve got to talk about this. We’ve got to not just talk about it — we’ve got to do something about it.” … So we started doing the Tea’s Me Community Conversation, and getting the conversation started.

But at the same time, the WNBA, the players — I am so thankful to be a part of a league. Strong women. We all have our own platforms, our own voice. But how we came together collectively, used the platform that we had, used the summer that we had to … celebrate women and really to honour those that we’ve lost [and] bring recognition to some of the things that sometimes we try to, like, sweep under the rug.

I’m so proud to be a part of a league. Cathy Engelbert, now WNBA president, I mean, even sitting down with her and the players … and for her to be open enough to say, like, “I know … there’s going to be some sparks from this,” right? “There are going to be people that love it. There will be people that hate it. There will be people that are indifferent.” But … we all went into the Wubble and we came together as a collective unit, and I’m extremely proud.

[But] I’m still learning. Last year, going to the riots, you know, I’ll be honest — at first, I was like, “I can’t go to a riot.” But then through the Tea’s Me Community Conversations and the more that I learned about different people’s struggles and different people’s journey, I knew that I had to step up. And you almost have to speak for those that can’t, that don’t have the platform or don’t have the avenue to be able to speak for themselves.

I look at your role with the Indiana Fever — what has been that big adjustment for you from going from the court to now being a front-office worker and kind of representing the players?

Oh, the most surprising thing — I think I’m a routine person, because to be good at basketball, to be great at basketball, you have to have a routine. And so, like, the surprising thing for me, the hardest thing, has been trying to find a routine. But the thing that I also love about all the different jobs that I have is that every day is different. And so you get opportunities to make an impact in different ways. And you start at V.P. of basketball operations, general manager of the Indiana Fever, owning Tea’s Me Café. And, you know, the fact that we — my sister and I — have the Catch the Stars Foundation. I commentate. I’m still doing work with USA Basketball.

Like, I get to do a lot of really cool things. I’m grateful for all of the opportunities that I’ve had. And, yeah, I get surprised every day when I look at my calendar for sometime tomorrow. “Where did this meeting come from?” Surprise! Here we are. (laughs) But I love it. I love my job. I love waking up every morning and getting to serve other people like that. I am definitely a servant leader.

A lot of teams — you know, coaches, GMs — they’ll focus on the player’s basketball skills or whatever it may be in that sport. But you’ve made a conscious effort to focus on the culture first. Why did you take this route?

I think culture is one of the biggest things when you talk about building anything. You know, the WNBA, the culture that the players that came before me (created) — they set the stage to allow me the opportunity to play. And I feel like it was the same thing (for me) as a player. It was my duty to make sure that I set the stage for the players that come after me.

And now in the role that I’m in and the front office… now I’m on the other side. And so for me, it’s really just about creating a culture, creating a pipeline for players to be able to follow policy and have the opportunity. You know, sometimes you feel like, “I don’t have I don’t have a degree for this. I don’t have the education. I can’t speak the language. I don’t have the marketing degree.” … But there are things that we do have.

I love — I absolutely love — the WNBA and what it stands for, (and) the women that I get to serve…. Being able to help them shine, being able to help give them a platform, being able to help give them a voice, being able to teach them how to use their voice sooner than I did. Right? To be able to fight for things like this.

As we’re developing the right culture for our team in Indiana and the players that are here, we have three C’s that we focus on: commit, compete, contribute. And, in my mind, that will lead to a championship mentality, and that’s both on and off the court. So, you know, really the big thing, the thing that we’re striving for is, “How do you create the best people?”

At the end of the day, you know, Pat (Summitt) always told me, “I want you to be a great person.” And I’ve taken that and said the same thing for the players. How do we … help them become the best version of them?

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