Could This Court Legend Become the First Female NBA GM?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she could run an NBA team or zag somewhere else.
By Matt Foley
Sitting in her favorite tea shop on Indianapolis’ near north side in late 2016, Tamika Catchings tried to clear her mind and focus on the excitement that life after basketball would bring. After 15 seasons as a star forward for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, she had retired. A cup of Tea’s Me Cafe’s finest would help with the stress of her new reality.
Then she found out that the shop was being sold.
Months before being named the director of player programs and franchise development for Pacers Sports & Entertainment (PSE) in April 2017, Catchings quietly took on a new business venture away from the hardwood. She bought Tea’s Me Cafe — her “safe haven,” as she calls it — where she’d been a customer for more than a decade. If nothing else, Catchings had her tea. Now, it’s safe to say, her other options are heating up.
I felt like [coaching and broadcasting was] what players did when they weren’t prepared for anything else.
The idea of the first female NBA head coach or general manager has been gaining steam in recent years. Since joining the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff in 2014, Becky Hammon has steadily earned more responsibility and status under Gregg Popovich. Meanwhile, the Pacers in December named Kelly Krauskopf assistant general manager, the first woman in such a role in NBA history. Krauskopf was the Fever GM and president for the entirety of Catchings’ playing career. “The Pacers organization has always been progressive and invested in building a winning culture,” Catchings says. “Hiring [Krauskopf] is the latest example.”
Krauskopf is higher on the ladder to a historic GM posting, but Catchings, 39, is rising quickly. As director of player programs and franchise development, Catchings works with all three PSE teams — the Pacers, Fever and the G League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants — as an off-court resource for players while gaining valuable experience on the development of a professional organization. She’s building a front office–worthy résumé, but her ultimate career path is fluid. Between her role with PSE, the tea shop and a budding broadcasting career, Catchings is enjoying the flexibility after being so narrowly focused for decades as a player. “I always thought I wanted to be a GM,” Catchings says. “At some point, that shifted to wanting to be that bumper between management and the players.
“But I’m learning all facets of the business so that if an opportunity to run a team does come along, I’m prepared for it.”
Born in New Jersey before moving to Texas, Catchings has been rewriting record books her entire career. At Duncanville High School in Texas in 1997, she became the first player — male or female — at any level to record a quintuple-double, with 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks. (A Pennsylvania high school girl accomplished the same in 2012.) Catchings won a national title and National Player of the Year honors at the University of Tennessee. In the WNBA, Catchings was a Rookie of the Year, five-time Defensive Player of the Year, 10-time All-Star, League MVP in 2011 and Finals MVP in 2012. She’s the league’s all-time leader in steals, playoffs scoring, playoffs rebounding and playoffs steals.
Needless to say, Catchings navigated the hardwood just fine. But she soon realized that life after basketball required advance planning. “That’s where players struggle,” she says. “When you’re done playing, the resources go away. So it’s about taking advantage of everything you can.”
Like most WNBA players, Catchings supplemented her WNBA income by playing overseas during the off-season in China, South Korea, Russia and Turkey. These days, the maximum salary in the WNBA is just $115,500 — a fraction of the $838,000 NBA minimum salary (the max approaches $40 million). With her rare free time, Catchings interned at the NBA league offices in New York, meeting regularly with the marketing, communications, sponsorship and production departments with an eye toward a player development role.
With retirement in sight, all she knew was what she didn’t want to do. “No coaching or broadcasting,” Catchings says. “I felt like that’s what players did when they weren’t prepared for anything else.”
After a months-long courting process, ESPN persuaded Catchings to reconsider, at least partly. After two games of a “test run” as an analyst on the ESPN-owned SEC Network in 2017, Catchings was hooked. Catchings “was a legend on the court,” says ESPN producer Pat Lowry. “Her passion and basketball IQ have been a major asset for our coverage.”
While Catchings loves the energy that comes with calling a game, the most rewarding part comes from meeting the college players prior to tipoff. And while Catchings says she would certainly entertain a full-time broadcasting offer, helping further the careers of young players is clearly where her heart lies. “When Tamika walked away from the game, she was ready because she had so many options,” says Stacey Lovelace-Tolbert, a former WNBA player who now works in NBA player development. “That’s the situation we want to put young players in, but it’s a two-way street.”
Indeed, it’s up to the players — from the WNBA to the NBA to the G League — to reciprocate the interest. Professional athletes don’t typically seek out more off-court distractions, but today’s ballers are taking a more active role in media, entrepreneurship and investing. This year, Catchings’ efforts are focused on the Mad Ants, where the G League’s more accessible “family feel,” she says, encourages hands-on connection with the players. And while more G Leaguers are making the NBA than ever before, most have much smaller windows of access to the resources that Catchings can offer — including connecting them with internships, financial planners and sponsors.
Ultimately, Catchings has a challenge ahead of her too. Krauskopf has broken through the glass ceiling of NBA management, but the path forward for a female general manager remains riddled with obstacles. In her current player development role, Catchings has no scouting or player evaluation duties, an important aspect for any aspiring team builder. Should she want to pursue that path, she’ll need to focus on one career moving forward rather than juggling.
If she has it her way, there’s one larger opportunity that Catchings hopes to see basketball executives pursue as well. With so many WNBA stars with international followings, Catchings believes it’s time to broadcast directly to markets like Russia, China and Italy. “I’m excited about the ability to use technology to globalize the WNBA,” she explains. “We need to tap into our international fan bases and markets where we can make the game more global year-round.”
Maybe it’s time to meet with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver over a cup of tea.
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