Tamika Catchings honored as trailblazer, but never forgets those who paved the way for her
Every time Tamika Catchings walked onto Tennessee's campus, she feels like a freshman again.
She hasn't played for the Lady Vols in 20 years, but Knoxville still feels like home. Catchings was here over the weekend to be honored for her year of Hall of Fame inductions – both the Naismith Memorial and Women's Basketball.
"Coming onto campus brings the emotion back, every time I come, I feel the same way I felt when my mom dropped me off my freshman year," Catchings said on Sunday. "It’s literally like you’re coming home. Being here, being engulfed in what the city is about, what the university is about, and of course the Lady Vol family.
"I’m ready, I’m ready to play. I don’t know if I have another year of eligibility, I don’t know if KJ (Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper) will suit me up, but if she needs me, I’m here for it."
Catchings was a freshman on the 1997-98 NCAA championship team with Harper, and she still calls her KJ for Kellie Jolly. Harper joked after the overtime win against Texas on Sunday that she looked over at one point and considered getting Catchings on the court.
"I was thinking if I tried to sneak Tamika Catchings in the game, we could probably get a play," Harper said. "But I would say that (Texas coach) Vic (Schaefer) wouldn't have liked that too much."
Watching the Lady Vols practice, Catchings saw a lot of their former coach, Lady Vols legend Pat Summitt, in Harper.
"The way she stand, the way she kneeled, the way she looks – there's so many Pat-isms in what she does," Catchings said.
Catchings was honored at halftime with a tribute video of her time as a player at Tennessee (1997-2001), 15 years in the WNBA with the Indiana Fever and four gold medals in the Olympics for the United States. A number of former Lady Vols coaches, staff and players joined her on the court, including Holly Warlick.
When Catchings' name was announced, Thompson-Boling Arena erupted with applause, and when Summitt made an appearance in her video, the roars were even louder.
Catchings is considered one of the greatest women's basketball players, but she never forgets the people before her that paved the way for her to be a trailblazer herself.
"Next year, we're celebrating 50 years of Title IX," Catchings said. "Just the impact, even talking to the alum, the impact (they had) – those young ladies allowed the opportunity for me to play, who allowed the opportunity for the player that we have nowadays, who now are looking at the WNBA as their next step and overseas basketball.
"So it's surreal for me to be a part of the journey, and in a sense, be a trailblazer, knowing that I'm not that old. But just to be a trailblazer, and to be able to set that path and have these young ladies that want to come behind Candace (Parker), want to come behind myself, want to come behind a lot of greats, whether it's on or off the court. That's what it’s all about."
Providing the next opportunity is important to Catchings, and she's able to do that with a scholarship endowment in her name at Tennessee. There's one for students based on family income and there's another through the UT Audiology and Speech Pathology Center for students who want to pursue a career in that field.
Along with the scholarships is the Amplification Assistance Fund, which awards money to children that need hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Catchings was born with a hearing impairment in both ears and a speech impediment. Summitt was the one who convinced her to embrace it, and inspire others through it.
"For me, it's just an honor," Catchings said of the scholarships. "It's an honor to be able to bless kids with an opportunity that you know, thank God for a lot of people that came before me and gave me that opportunity. "