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Tuesday Bullets

8/29/2006
  • Marc Stein says Don Nelson is about to become coach of the Warriors.

  • Carnival of the NBA!

  • AOL gets in on some corporate sports blogging, NFL style, spearheaded by Jamie Mottram who hosts SportsBloggersLive.

  • Dave's Football Blog karaokes with Charles Barkley: “'That was the worst karaoke singer I’ve ever heard!', he bellowed into the mic. 'Don’t you let him near that microphone again.' He then announced that he was paying for everyone’s drinks for the next 30 minutes." via Deadspin.

  • Better late than never: NCAA head Myles Brand sounds amenable to the idea of fundamental changes to our busted model of basketball development. He is quoted by Eric Prisbell (of the Washington Post, which has been a real leader on this issue): "Maybe working together with the NBA and lots of others -- USA Basketball, the [Amateur Athletic Union], the National Federation of High Schools -- and including key elements such as the shoe companies working all together, is there something we can do to help improve that pre-collegiate environment?"

  • Rasheed Wallace in purple haze.

  • The Bakersfield Californian on Robert Swift: "Swift was driving a BMW south on Sandy Lane at 7:45 p.m. when, as a result of excessive speed, he crossed over and struck a parked 1996 Jeep Cherokee on the northbound side, California Highway Patrol officers said. The BMW sustained major damage and the Jeep moderate damage, but Swift, 20, and his brother Alex Swift, 19, came away with only minor injuries, Officer Greg Williams said... Alcohol was not a factor in the crash, Williams said." Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel--this kind of thing basically never happens.

  • Sonic draftee Yotam Halperin, it appears, is about to become the first Israeli in the NBA. Allon Sinai reports: "Halperin's agent, Jason Levien, arrived in Israel Monday afternoon with a contract signed by the Sonics. He was due to meet Halperin Monday night. 'We will sit together and decide what to do,' Halperin said. 'He hasn't come to Israel for nothing. I think we all want to follow our dreams, and as long as the contract isn't too risky, I will go for it.'"

  • Chris Broussard covered Stephon Marbury as a beat writer for the Nets. He reflects: "He may not be highly-educated or diplomatic, but he's intelligent. On the court, his reputation for being a selfish chemistry-killer is not completely undeserved. Sadly, he just doesn't seem to get it in between the lines. But off the floor, while he's no saint, I think Steph has a good heart." Reviews of the new Starbury shoes.

  • Should male college athletes get time off for paternity leave?

  • Sam Vincent deserves a lot of credit for the work he is doing with the Nigerian national team. Vincent tells Fran Blinebury about it: "'I had to establish some key relationships and try to impress upon them what it takes to put a team together that can be built for sustainability over years,' he said. 'I think after key people bought in on that plan, we were able to identify players and put things in place, and we're in pretty good shape right now.' Vincent ruffled a few feathers by leaving veteran Olumide Oyedeji off the team and going with younger players. He also mined the United States, choosing nine of the 12 players on his roster who were born in America. 'Was there a little resentment?' Vincent said. 'Maybe. But when you have change, there are always some people for it and some against it. The idea is to have a solid plan to go forward.'"

  • You can help write a preview of the Blazers season. Also, TrueHoop readers get praise.

  • Party with the Nets.

  • Brian Windhorst says Team U.S.A. is really unselfish. Doesn't that make you feel good?

  • And more Travels with Brian Windhorst and Chris Sheridan, from Windhorst's blog. There are two competing dance teams at the Worlds. The Red Foxes from Ukraine, and EuroDance from Lithuania. Do not mixt them up. "While walking outside the arena in between games, travel confidant and ESPNer Chris Sheridan and I encountered a group of them. 'Hello Red Foxes!' Sheridan cooed. Much to his surprise, he was quickly upbraided in old Soviet fashion. We'd actually come across a Euro Dance faction. Before we could comfortably procede, we had to swear allegiance to the Lithuanian entry. (Shhhhh, I think the Foxes might be better)."

  • Steve Nash talking to himself, shooting jumpshots, in an empty gym. Or, maybe it's a training video.

  • The Women's World Championship are about to start. Tamika Catchings for MVP. She's my favorite woman player ever since I wrote the following article about her  in 2002. Forgive the footnotes. It's just something Inside Stuff used to do.

Great Catch

A lifelong hearing impairment, a surgically repaired knee, and a busted nose weren’t nearly enough to stop Rookie of the Year Tamika Catchings in 2002. Look out, 2003.

by Henry Abbott

Last March, renowned coach Van Chancellor was thrilled that players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Dawn Staley had come to Houston to try out for his 2002 World Basketball Championship team. But he wasn’t so excited to see Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings walk into the Westside Tennis Club on her surgically repaired right knee. A former national Player of the Year at the University of Tennessee, Catchings hadn’t played regularly in close to a year, and Chancellor doubted she could make the team. “People had to talk me into inviting her to the tryouts, to tell you the truth,” he says.

Five minutes into the two-week tryouts, he had seen her nail enough three-pointers, haul in enough tough rebounds, and defend well against enough top players to know with absolute certainty that he had made a colossal mistake. “Oh, can she play!” he exclaims months later, after Catchings started at power forward for a national team that won nine straight in rolling to gold in China, thanks in large part to the 23-year-old Energizer Bunny of a power forward who more than held her own in a lineup of legends. Chancellor is amazed at the thought he almost cut the team’s second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. “That was nothing but bad coaching right there,” he admits, “because I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone like her.”

Chancellor was just one of many to learn how special 2002’s Rookie of the Year is. A few months later, in the Fever’s in training camp, her teammates watched her play for a few minutes, and then nicknamed her The Truth. “Everybody just had their jaws on the floor watching how hard she plays,” remembers Fever coach Nell Fortner. “A lot of players are talented—everybody can shoot, everybody can rebound—but it comes down to how bad do you want it? There’s just a relentlessness to Tamika’s game that really blows you away.”

One person who doesn’t seem blown away is Tamika herself. “I’m not a spectacular player,” says Catchings, who finished her rookie campaign first in steals, second in scoring, fourth in rebounding, sixth in blocks, and tenth in assists in the entire league. “I just get the job done. Whatever the coach wants, I just try to go out and do it.” Towards the end of the season, Coach Fortner asker her to lead the historically weak Fever to nine wins in their final ten games to give them a chance of squeaking into the playoffs. “Nobody believed we would make it,” says Catchings, but somehow or another, they did.

Even though she has won NCAA championships and gold in the World Basketball Championships, Catchings calls making the playoffs with the Fever her proudest basketball achievement to date. Fortner says it changed the team: “It left us with a great taste in our mouth, and at training camp I expect we’ll all be really motivated to do better.” Asked if there is a player in the league Fortner would trade Catchings for, Fortner screams, “NO WAY! NOT IN A MILLION YEARS!”

Chancellor understands. He says Catchings has “all the talent and the tools” to be MVP, but thinks her personality may outshine her skills. As evidence of that, he keeps the letter she sent him this summer. He had been tough on her in a game and in practice, telling her that he expected her to be a great player, and great players have to get back on defense better. “So I wrote him a letter thanking him for thinking of me as a great player,” explains Tamika “and saying that wanted to achieve the things he has achieved.” Chancellor, who led the Houston Comets to four WNBA titles, is still amazed.

“You and I both know that we would never write that letter,” says Tamika’s father Harvey, who played in the NBA1 and has worked for the league for years. Ironically, his job has often involved encouraging NBA players to have the kind of dedication like Tamika’s. “She works constantly to get better. That’s something you just can’t teach.”

Tamika learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Juanda Catchings remembers clearly the day she learned that little Tamika had a hearing impairment. “I was devastated,” remembers Juanda, “I was crying.” It first showed up in a standard preschool hearing test, and it led to hearing aids, speech therapy, even learning to read lips a little—none of which were fun things for three-year-old Tamika to think about.

After a good cry, Juanda got over her own sadness quickly. She had been volunteering with a charity that helped children with cancer. “I just thought about visiting those kids that are not going to make it,” she recalls “and they had such tremendous attitude and positive spirit. All of a sudden, ‘Mika’s hearing just didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.”

In the big picture, Tamika’s hearing problem really wasn’t that bad. She certainly isn’t deaf. Harvey says it can be tough for her when she has her back turned to people, and Juanda points out her inability to hear certain sounds, like “th” and “ch”. Her sister Tauja2 points out that since their brother Kenyon has the same hearing problem “I was the oddball really, because they both went to speech class all the time.”

Tamika says sometimes, “people would just all of a sudden be asking me ‘dang, can’t you hear me?’” As far as Tamika was concerned, the worst thing about her hearing impairment was how uncool her big, dumb-looking, early 1980’s hearing aids made her feel in grade school. She already had to wear glasses. “I had a lot of problems socially,” she remembers.

That’s why, one day in the third grade, she carefully removed one of her hearing aids and chucked it into a field on the walk to her grandparents’ house from Reagan Elementary school in Abilene, Texas. “I looked for a place where the grass was high,” she says, “so that we wouldn’t be able to find it again no matter what.”

She knew they’d come looking—hearing aids are expensive, and as Harvey points out, “NBA players back then didn’t make anything like what players make now.”

When she got home, Tamika told Juanda she had lost the hearing aid, but Juanda’s intuition told her otherwise. “Eventually she let out with what really happened,” remembers Juanda, who led the search party. Harvey, who remembers that as “the day we almost killed Tamika,” says that the crafty Tamika didn’t even lead them to the correct spot.

Except for special occasions, like trips to the audiologist’s office and, more recently, speaking engagements, Tamika hasn’t worn hearing aids since, even though it has meant extra work. In the classroom, she had to find a seat in the front row to be sure she’d be able to hear. “I would always read the chapter before class, so that I would know what the teacher was going to be saying, then I would stay after class and ask the teacher questions. I made straight A’s,” she says.3

School being the way it is, strong academics didn’t exactly solve her social problems. For that, she turned to sports. “I just wanted to play sports all the time,” she explains. “I played softball, soccer, I ran track a little.” But it was really basketball, the game her father taught her to play in the driveway, that gave her a way to fit in. “When you step between those lines, nothing else matters,” she says. “On the court, I was considered cooler. People noticed my talent, instead of any of those other things,” so she started working hard to get even better, and put herself on a track to one of the nation’s top programs, and a sparkling professional career.4

To this day she refuses to be outworked. “In practice, in games, it’s always the same. She just never stops working,” says Coach Fortner. “It’s awesome.” And it works. Consider August 16, 2002, when Tamika led the Indiana Fever to their first-ever playoff game. Moments after collecting her Rookie of the Year trophy, she dropped 29 and 11 on the Liberty in a blowout victory. Smiles all around. Or just a few weeks later, when she stood on a podium in China, gold dangling from her neck, after she proved herself to be not just a worthy starter on Team USA, but one of the world’s most dominant players at the tender age of 23.

So, in many ways, Tamika’s tossing of her hearing aid worked perfectly. Except for one thing: she says she did it to be normal, and she has turned out to be anything but. She has played some of the best basketball in the world, while hurdling a number of obstacles with rare grace, including her ongoing hearing impairment, her parent’s divorce, the broken nose she played with half the season, and the torn anterior cruciate ligament that kept her on the bench for a year. Tamika readily admits that some things in her life may not have gone the way she wanted them to5, but feel sorry for herself? That’s just not the way this woman’s brain is wired. “You can’t dwell on it,” she says. “Honestly? I just feel blessed.”

NOTES

1 Harvey Catchings played in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Italy. Even though he was a professional player for many years, Harvey says he didn’t pressure Tamika to follow in his footsteps. “I expect her to have fun,” he says. “When she stops enjoying the game of basketball, it’s time to stop and do something different.

2 Tauja and Tamika have always been almost inseparable, and Tauja even picks out a lot of Tamika’s clothes for her. “Tamika was sort of a tomboy who always wore baggy shirts and jeans in school, but these days she wants to look a little fancier and more professional. She gets Tauja to help choose her clothes, because Tauja has always taken her appearance very seriously,” says their mother Juanda. But that doesn’t mean Tauja’s any kind of sissy—she has played professional hoops in France, Sweden, Italy, and Greece.

3 Tamika’s still young now, but when her playing days are over, she says she definitely wants to have a family, stay active running camps like the ones she runs now, and own her own WNBA team.

4 Juanda Catchings remembers that when she was young Tamika always said she would play professional basketball in the United States—even before there was professional women’s basketball here. “If there isn’t a women’s league, I’ll play with the men,” she remembers her saying.

5 Tamika says that dealing with difficult challenges as a youngster “made me stronger. Now I am able to deal with different things, and as an adult you have to deal with a lot of things that you can’t change.”