By Brendan O'Shaughnessy (ND '93) | Spring 2024

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Basketball star Tamika Catchings (EMBA ’25) aims to expand her business and nonprofit.

When Tamika Catchings (EMBA ’25) set her sights on basketball greatness, she was in seventh grade and the WNBA did not exist.

So she told her parents she wanted to play in the NBA. Their response? If anyone would be the first woman to play in the men’s league, it would be Tamika. 

Tamika's gold medals on a black backgroundCatchings went on to conquer the WNBA (established in 1997), retiring in 2016 as the league’s second-leading scorer and rebounder and a four-time Olympic gold medalist.

During a break from her classes in Mendoza College of Business’ Stayer Center, Catchings glides down the hall like she could step back on the court and hold her own. She delays an interview and postpones phone calls so she won’t miss her classmates’ presentations over a working lunch.

Catchings’ “can’t be stopped” spirit has driven her to achieve dreams that most people would be content with in a lifetime — a legendary basketball career, gold medals, a charitable foundation, a growing business. But instead of slowing down, she is returning to school for a Notre Dame Executive MBA to backfill her early experience with the underlying knowledge that can lead to even greater success.

“I jumped into owning a business, and I didn’t go to school for nonprofit management,” Catchings said during an EMBA residency on campus in November. “I’ve had all these opportunities, but no one has really taught me how to do those things. So you’re learning on the go, which is fine, but there are things I could have learned earlier that might have set me up for more success. There are things that I want to do down the road that I’m learning here.”


Unstoppable Will

Catchings’ father, Harvey, played in the NBA, so the family moved with his career. She was born in New Jersey, grew up in Milwaukee and Chicago, and finished high school in Texas. She described herself as an introvert, though she learned how to be an extrovert from her 6-foot-10-inch father, an unmissable force. Her love of organization and detailed scheduling comes from her mother, Wanda. She credits much of her success with being forced to overcome early obstacles.

Tamika Catchings standing in her tea shop wearing her medals“I was born with a hearing disability,” Catchings said. “I wear hearing aids; I have a speech impediment. So when I was younger, that’s really a big reason why I got into sports, because sports allowed me an avenue to not get made fun of for the way that I talked or hearing aids or just not being able to understand.”

She became so tired of the teasing that she threw away her hearing aids in second grade and didn’t use them again until she was in college. She learned to read lips, sitting up front in the classroom and asking teachers to help fill in her notes when they turned away to write on the board. 

“I feel like everything started with my hearing disability and being told so many times, ‘Oh, you can’t talk. You can’t do this,’” Catchings said. “Having dreams and people saying, ‘Yeah, OK, but you can’t even hear.’” 

She tried several sports, including soccer and softball. Eventually, as she said in her 2020 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, “Basketball chose me.” It was such a part of the family’s fabric that she always found solace, and acceptance, in basketball.

How did the doubters motivate Catchings? She achieved a rare quintuple double in high school — meaning that she reached double digits in five categories: scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. She was invited to the Junior Olympic tryouts in 1996 and realized she could excel even with the best in the country.

The year after setting her sights on the NBA, she saw her first college women’s basketball game on television. “I just saw this intense pair of eyes on the TV, and as it panned out, I saw orange everywhere. I saw women on the court playing, and I was fixated,” Catchings said. 

The eyes were those of legendary University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. “What I learned from her, it’s more than basketball,” Catchings said. “Excellence was something that we all aspire to, but she knew how to get the best out of everybody, and how to carry yourself through success with grace.”

Catchings experienced the full spectrum of emotions at Tennessee, from winning a championship her first year to tearing her ACL as a senior. She won four awards for player of the year as a junior. The injury likely dropped her to the third pick of the 2001 draft with the Indiana Fever, where she played for 15 seasons.


Ultimate Pro

When Catchings tore her ACL, her sister Tauja was playing basketball in Sweden. Tauja immediately quit and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to help Tamika recover. Eventually, Catchings settled into professional basketball from a new home base in Indianapolis. With nothing to do but physical rehabilitation, she volunteered for any civic engagement appearances that were requested of the Fever. 

A wall display of tea and inspirational signs in Tamika Catchings' tea shop“The first ones we did were with Riverside Family Center, and the park director said, ‘You’re amazing with kids. Have you ever thought about doing your own camp?’” Catchings said. “That’s really the beginning of Catch the Stars, which we [Tamika and Tauja] officially made into a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2004.”

Catch the Stars provides youth fitness, literacy and mentoring programs that encourage kids 7-18 in metro Indianapolis to set goals and achieve their dreams. It has had an impact on about 20,000 youths through its camps, fitness programs, back-to-school celebrations, reading corners and scholarships worth more than $850,000. Her goal is to cross the $1 million mark this year in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Catch the Stars.

She also played basketball — really well.

Catchings won the 2002 Rookie of the Year Award, the start of a string of recognitions that includes a dozen All-WNBA team selections and five Defensive Player of the Year awards. She led the Fever to the playoffs 12 times and retired first in the league in steals and free throws. 

In one dominant stretch, she won the 2011 Most Valuable Player, her third gold medal and the 2012 WNBA championship, including the Finals MVP award. The Fever had to overcome an injury to their best outside shooter as well as a Minnesota team featuring a bevy of Catchings’ Olympic teammates. That’s a favorite memory, though she loved playing in the Olympics, too.

“There’s something about putting on that USA uniform and knowing what it represents,” she said. “How we talk, how we carry ourselves, what we do over here — everything is in a microscopic view. There’s a privilege that comes along with knowing that when somebody sees an American for the first time, this is the view they get. But then, of course, when we get on a court, we want to dominate.”

She was also the president of the WNBA Players Association from 2002 to 2016, a leadership position for which she was nominated by her fellow players. 

Today, Catchings realizes that a lot of the children in Catch the Stars never saw her play. She makes sure to tell them she’s back in school now. “To be able to change the trajectory of the lives of the kids we get to serve, it shows them the endless possibilities of what they can do,” she said.


New Opportunities

After retirement, Catchings was named director of player development and franchise development at Pacers Sports & Entertainment, which runs career and community programs for the Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever and Indiana Mad Ants. She was later promoted to vice president of basketball operations and general manager of the Fever. 

Tamika Catchings in her tea shop helping to make tea for a customerShe also began working as a television analyst for women’s basketball games on the SEC Network. This involved directly confronting her biggest insecurity, which is why she declined three times before relenting. 

“What if I missed something I should hear? What if I stumble on a word or stutter?” Catchings said. “My producer said they’d put me on three games and take me off the schedule if I didn’t like it. Most of the places I went, the coaches asked me to talk with the players. I enjoyed that connection to the game in a different way.”

Also in 2017, Catchings bought her favorite local tea hangout, Tea’s Me Cafe, where she had been relaxing for about a decade. The previous owner asked her to help him find a buyer. When she couldn’t find anyone, she told him that the cafe came up in her dreams every night. 

“I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about me?’ and he was like, ‘I was waiting for you to say that,’” she recalled. “I love how everything connects from the Catch the Stars side to the Tea’s Me side. Community is a huge part of everything we do. In every capacity that we have, it all aligns.”

Catchings has expanded the business to three locations. More recently, the company launched its own line of bottled tea available in grocery stores such as Kroger, Meijer, Fresh Thyme, Needler’s and Market District, with more outlets to come. 

During the immersion week that kicks off the EMBA program, Catchings and her fellow students faced questions about why they were starting this journey. She remembered that her grandparents owned a supermarket in Jackson, Mississippi, that was unusually integrated for that time period.

“I’m an entrepreneur,” she said. “Just look at the path set by my grandparents to my dad and his path, and now here we are today. That’s why I’m here. And I think that first week really opened my eyes to thinking beyond surface level. I will not fail. I will do everything I can to make sure this is a priority.”

Catchings said that building her employees into leaders is also a goal. She chose not to apply for a liquor license even though that’s how restaurants make most of their money. This limits what employees can be paid, but her leadership program aims to teach young people from her staff the important soft skills.

Tea pot at Tamika Catchings' tea shop“Looking somebody in the eye when you’re talking, what you wear, how you talk — there are things that you should know that they just don’t know,” Catchings said. “I love coaching, not basketball coaching, but cheering for people to be successful.”

Despite announcing games and running a business and nonprofit, Catchings still found time recently to train and compete in a Ninja Warrior competition. She also serves on major boards in Indianapolis, such as the Indianapolis Airport Authority and Merchants Bank of Indiana. 

As part of a speech about “gold medal mentality” for the latter group at a national meeting, she took her four medals out and handed them around. She didn’t have time to return the medals to her safety deposit box before a weekend of classes at Notre Dame, so she asked marketing professor Frank Germann if she could share them with the class.

“She’s a great student, and she was very humble,” Germann said. “Having her in class, you wouldn’t know she’s a four-time gold medalist.

“People were excited. There are not too many people who have won four gold medals at four consecutive Olympic Games.”

Germann hopes the EMBA program will help Catchings expand her nonprofit and company. “Hopefully, we can equip her with some great knowledge that she can use to ‘Grow the Good’ in her business,” he said.

Catchings agreed. She said she has learned how to streamline her thought process and only take on new opportunities that align with the projects she is most passionate about. Like her parents and husband predicted, Catchings is betting she will achieve whatever she sets her mind to, so she’s investing in her future. She expects to graduate in spring 2025.

“I don’t know what my next job, per se, will be,” she said. “But I know that I’ll go out of here with more knowledge and more understanding about how to make more qualified decisions, which is what I really want.”


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