Hall of Fame-bound Tamika Catchings and our conversation that affirmed everything

Tamika Catchings, who is the WNBA's all-time steals leaders and third in both points and rebounds, will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend. Yiorgos Doukanaris/Getty Images for Laureus

LET THE RECORD show that I came prepared for my interview with Tamika Catchings. I whiled away days on Lexis Nexis and pored over hazy box scores hoping they'd whisper something new.

I did my job -- until I didn't.

Fourteen minutes and 52 seconds in, I hadn't asked her one question pertaining to the reason this piece was greenlit, the very impetus of our talk: Catchings' induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend.

"We should probably talk about that a little bit," I note sheepishly at the 14:53 mark. "The Hall."

"Is that why we're talking?" Catchings chuckles.

We'd rambled on with the rapport of old friends. First, about my sweatshirt promoting a foundation for Black equality, about my years as a soccer goalkeeper at Fordham and Southern Connecticut State universities, my mom's point guard days at the University of Bridgeport.

Catchings wanted to hear about my "journey," because of course she'd shine the spotlight meant for her on someone else.

She was supposed to be enshrined last year, before the undiscriminating uppercut of COVID-19 canceled the ceremony and subdued the 2021 edition.

"I'll still have my family and friends there," Catchings says. "It's still going to be great. You don't go into playing a sport to be a Hall of Famer. I just wanted to be the best that I could be, because I love it -- not to be compared to anybody else."

She isn't anybody else, though. The odds were stacked against her from the start.

Before everything else, I asked about her hearing loss, possibly Catchings' most marked trivia. I ask what it will mean standing at the Mohegan Sun podium on Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App) as one of basketball's all-time best, knowing what she had overcome.

As a child, hearing aids -- "clunky brown boxes" she once called them -- and her gangly frame drew a target on her back. The speech impediment didn't help either.

She longed for invisibility. In third grade, her frustration boiled over. One unremarkable day, she threw her hearing aids into a meadow on the walk home from school. They never turned up, and replacements were expensive, so Catchings had to learn to read lips.

"I looked at it as a curse," Catchings says. "But now I look at it as a superpower. I'm locked into people's eyes more. I was always seeing plays before they happened."

"You've turned your weakness into your weapon," I nod.

"Well..." Catchings smiles. "We both have."

THERE WAS NO one moment when I realized something might be wrong.

I was a curious toddler, fascinated by dinosaurs and books, terrified of death -- or, rather, what comes next, if anything.

My parents say I was talking at nine months and started relentlessly asking "why" soon after. It would seem, given my profession, I've never stopped.

Around kindergarten the ear infections started, accompanied by spiking fevers. I was befuddled that pain could start that far inside my head and work its way outward. I'd take antibiotics, the symptoms and torment would subside, and do it all over again soon.

Not long after, I had tubes put in my ears. I remember sitting upright in the hospital bed, coming to, every noise stentorian and shrill, including my own cries.

Then came earplugs, clutched like cash on summer days when I was blessed to have a pool-owning friend. For a while, I couldn't get into water without them.

The infections, the fevers, the tubes and plugs, all eventually went away, with them, a portion of my hearing. And, whether related or not, so came a lateral lisp -- fumbling my esses and zees.

Sometime early on in elementary school, there was a lesson on the anatomy of the ear. A friend of mine had his palms cupped to the side of his head, eyes closed. He turned to me and asked: "Dan, do your ears ring, too?"

"Yes!" I shout-whispered, thinking I'd found a compatriot. "Every second of every day!"

"Oh," he said, embarrassed. "Um...not just...a little?"

I turned back to the blackboard, sullen. He uncupped his ears and did the same.

I didn't yet know what tinnitus was. That the ever-present ringing in my ears was not only not normal, but irreparable. For as long as memory allows, the inside of my head has sounded like a chorus of cicadas.

"Mild to moderate hearing loss," my audiologist had decreed, worse in my right than my left. But mine was a strange case. The tinnitus was unusual at my age. Sensorineural hearing loss typically results in loss at low or high frequencies; mine is at the conversational level, which is why hearing aids were deemed useless.

One thing was for certain: It would be a secret. Unless they had to, no one outside family, teachers, and coaches would know. I don't recall openly confiding in a friend until just before high school.

Maybe if I ignored it, it would go away.

It didn't.

But finding a hero helped.

Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of two college athletes, UConn women's basketball was woven into the culture, especially after '95. My two-sport athlete mom's best friend, a basketball and softball teammate from UB, is a lifelong Tennessee fan. They'd lightheartedly rib each other while catching up, one in Pat's corner, the other in Geno's.

It would be sacrilege not to root for the Huskies.

But, by 1997, I'd developed a clandestine affinity for the Lady Vols.

There was this freshman All-American from Texas. Well, Texas by way of Illinois, and New Jersey before that -- even Italy for a bit.

She wore hearing aids.

"SEE," CATCHINGS SAYS, "I didn't realize I was hearing-impaired until we moved back to the States from Italy. I was in second grade and, up until then, I thought I was just normal like everybody else."

Dan, do your ears ring, too?

Catchings falls into the play-by-play. The bullying, the clunky brown boxes, casting them out into tall grass that would mythologize them and her.

Her mom wouldn't let her take Italian because of her speech impediment. (Spanish never quite took with me, either. Funny how that goes.)

She had to focus on English. Catchings thought she'd white-knuckle it.

Without asking, she knew I had, too.

"You read lips, right?" she asks. "You didn't want it to be the flaw."

I didn't. I still carry a recommendation for a hearing aid exam in the pocket of my Moleskine. It shouldn't get any worse, he'd said -- and they'd always be there if it did -- but it won't get better.

"So, you learn how to live with it," Catchings continued.

Or, you do until Pat Summitt gets wind of it.

Catchings had gone without hearing aids until freshman year of college. She studied lips with the tenacity that would make her a two-time Gatorade state player of the year. She dived into textbooks and, despite sitting in the front row of classes, asked teachers to fill in what she missed when they'd turned to write on the board, her notes punctuated with blanks and TBDs.

A dance I knew intimately.

Summitt wasn't having that.

"I remember walking to the training room [after practice] one day, like the long walk to the principal's office," Catchings chuckles. "I'm thinking, OK, I know I'm not hurt. Is there something I didn't do right?"

"Pat asks, 'When people can't see, what do they need?' 'Glasses,' I say."

"'If someone walks with a limp, what do they need?' 'Sometimes a cane, sometimes a lift in their shoe.'"

"Then she says: 'When people can't hear, what do they need?'"

"'Oh,'" Catchings replied. "'I need hearing aids.'"

"She'd had a conversation with my mom, felt it was really important for my future. 'One day, your story will impact thousands, maybe millions of people.'" Catchings says.

It's nearly five years since Summitt's death and she's alive again on Catchings' tongue.

"You have people that speak into you, or believe in you so much," she says. "Sometimes you might doubt yourself, but she was always one of my biggest supporters. ...

"...My hero."

I forgot to tell Catchings about my own hero, my fifth-grade teacher Mr. Clapp, who encouraged my fledgling writing habit, who'd calm me after I missed key notes and erupted in tears, who never once allowed me to feel less-than when most everything else did.

She must have felt it, how lidded I'd been. That I didn't tell some people I worked with until a year ago, when masks were making it impossible to read lips. That only in the age of Zoom buffering and shoddy Wi-Fi did I fully realize how much I rely on context clues and lip movements. That when I finally tweeted about it last October, just shy of my 31st birthday, coworkers and friends reached out, saying they'd never have known.

Yeah, I thought. I worked hard at that.

"The masks," Catchings says. "The masks kill me!"

We don't talk about the scars. I don't tell her about the physics professor at Southern Connecticut who told me I'd have to retake his class to graduate if I couldn't hear his lectures, who rejected note-taking accommodations from the school's disability resource center. I don't mention the editor I had trusted early in my career who introduced me to a hearing-impaired colleague, muted his TV, and challenged us to see who could read lips better.

Instead, I tell her there are people I've known for a decade who, when reading this, will hear my secret for the first time.

Catchings understands.

"I'll tell you this," she says. "I turned down the [SEC Network] commentating job three times. I was scared [of messing] up, stuttering. I was scared [about sounding] right, if I couldn't hear, miss something..."

She trails off. She seems to know that I know. Of course, I would.

"The thing that holds most of us back from opportunities is the fear of [failure]," Catchings says. "And you have to overcome that fear."

"How?" I ask.

"You're standing at the edge of a pool. Is it cold?" she asks. "Just needed to put my toe in."

CATCHINGS' IMMORTALIZATION IN Springfield is hardly a shock. As a senior at Texas' Duncanville High School in 1997, she recorded the first quintuple-double in basketball history: 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks.

A four-time All-American at Tennessee, Catchings fell to third in the 2001 WNBA draft after an ACL tear, then became the all-time WNBA steals leader and is still third in points and rebounds.

I note that it's not up for debate: She's one of the greatest to ever touch the court, man or woman.

"There have been a lot of ladies that have been inducted prior to me," she counters.

On weekends like this, the focus is on her. She'd prefer it elsewhere.

The rest of the enshrinement class, for example. A class in which one looms larger than most: the late Kobe Bryant, a fellow 2021 inductee.

It will be a weekend fittingly cloaked in purple-and-gold, with omnipresent 8s and 24s -- the numbers synecdoche for a singular greatness. But they're also reminders of her lifelong friendship with the one who wore them.

In so many words, I ask if it'll feel empty without him.

"There's chapters in this book, right?" Catchings says. "Basketball has been our whole lives -- from the beginning with our parents, then going to Italy. [Then Kobe] comes into the NBA and I'm in the WNBA, our careers intertwining."

"This [feels] like closing that book and starting a new [one]."

Few athletes held the attention of their sport so drastically for as long as Kobe did. And less than two years after his retirement, he'd summited an entirely different vocation: an Oscar at the 90th Academy Awards, the first Black man or woman to win for best animated short film. He was writing books, his investments and production company were ascendant.

But his most marked trait? "Girl dad."

"When we're standing on the stage and all of our jerseys are hung right next to each other, it's going to be surreal," Catchings says. "But it's going to be a moment of celebration, because him and Gigi will be remembered forever. He made women's basketball cool for guys and now you see so many guys trying to emulate what he was doing."

"He made it a point to be present, and for his daughter to be present. That's his legacy."

"And yours?" I pivot.

Catchings is silent.

"Damn, Dan, you've gotta ask me that right now?"

Catchings is the GM of an Indiana Fever team itching for a playoff run, their first since Catchings retired in 2016 after 15 seasons with the team. Her literacy and youth development foundation, Catch the Stars, turns 17 this year. Her café, Tea's Me -- voted best tea house in Indianapolis -- just opened a second location. Catchings prides herself on being an advocate for women, particularly Black women, and for, of course, those with hearing disabilities.

"I want to help. I want to see everybody succeed and help everybody succeed."

She shrugs.

Suddenly, I see it: the superpower.

I never told a soul until Catchings, but I always thought I'd had one, too. I'd always thought my focus, my attention to detail, made up for what I lacked. I thought it helped me become a journalist, was the reason I ended up being a Division I goalkeeper.

But I'd never actually heard someone like me call it that, to reclaim autonomy in such a way.

Earlier, waiting for Catchings to join the call, I'd been pacing around my dining room with waiting-room panic.

Accepting my disability, unconditionally, is relatively new. I've struggled with panic attacks and crippling anxiety for a good segment of my three decades. Suicidal thoughts, the most definitive quieting of the noise in my head, weren't uncommon once.

Catchings, as blasphemously as I idolized her, was a clarion call to keep going.

She weaponized her hearing loss on and off the court, defied its desire to define her.

I followed suit.

She was open about it with the support of family, friends and her faith -- the last of which "kept [her] sane."

I'm getting there.

She looks at it for what it's given, rather than what it's taken. "God gave me this gift," Catchings says. "And it is a gift, to be able to impact so many people."

I smile and nod, living proof that she has.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.