How WNBA star Tamika Catchings is flipping the script on the athlete farewell tour

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES —  One part elaborate marketing promotion, one part performance art and all parts exhausting, the season-long athlete retirement tour has seen a rebirth in recent years.

Derek Jeter earned half a year’s worth of #RE2PECT at ballparks across the country. Nike gave Kobe Bryant his own holiday. Forty-year-old David Ortiz is currently making his long trek around league, picking up plenty of interesting parting gifts along the way.

Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings didn’t want anything of the sort. No elaborate branding campaign, no pregame ceremony celebrating her many accomplishments, no odd presents from opposing teams. Instead, Catchings, a league champion, MVP, 10-time All-Star and five-time Defensive Player of the Year who is going for her fourth Olympic gold medal, is flipping the script.

Like Jeter before her, Catchings is doing it her way, and her way means instead of honoring herself, she’s using her 15th and final go-around the league to give back. In every WNBA city, Catchings hosts a postgame party for fans and raffles off rare collectibles like game-worn jerseys and custom Nike shoes. Catchings’ goal is to raise $100,000 for her Catch the Stars foundation and give $2,000 to charities across the league’s 12 cities.

The concept came about two years ago, shortly after Catchings decided that the 2016 season would be her last. She conferred with family, friends and foundation board members about how to best represent her legacy, one that has never been about herself and always been about giving back to others.

“I started thinking … I want to be able to play the game and enjoy it and I know teams want to honor me, but I want to do it in a way that is just not about me,” she told Yahoo Sports. “We were thinking, ‘What can we do to allow teams to be able to take part in what we’re doing, but not necessarily be something that we have to do in front of everybody?’”

That was the scene earlier this month at her Los Angeles stop, as fans young and old, many of whom wore Sparks jerseys, piled into a Nike-owned space outside the Staples Center to celebrate one of the legends of the sport. They bought $20 raffle tickets and signed a giant poster of Catchings while a DJ played music and volunteers passed out appetizers.

When Catchings entered the room, it was impossible to tell that her Fever had just fallen short against the Sparks. She flashed an electric smile, gave a brief hello to the group, presented a $2,000 check to a local charity and worked her way through the crowd, snapping photos and signing autographs with anyone that asked.

The fans “appreciate that we’re doing it this way and appreciate that they can still give back to me, although it’s not ultimately me, it’s my foundation,” Catchings said. “I think overall, at the end of the day, we all want to be able to make a difference and this is a way of being able to make a difference.”

Doing it this way also allows Catchings to expand the reach of her foundation. Next year, Catchings will return to each WNBA city and hold a youth basketball camp or fitness clinic, keeping true to her foundation’s mission of providing fitness, literacy and mentoring programs to underprivileged kids.

“With everything that is going on now, it’s really something that our youth need,” Catchings said. “They need positive role models. They need positive people in their lives. Through our mentoring program, we’re able to touch a lot of kids that otherwise wouldn’t be able to be touched. We give them opportunities to be able to experience new things and enter new environments, get out of the things that they’re having to deal with at home.”

As important as it is to make an impact through her foundation, Catchings also knows it’s equally crucial to make sure the next generation of WNBA stars understands this message and can carry it on. That’s why at each stop on her tour, she invites members of the opposing team. In L.A., Sparks players Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike were among those who paid their respects.

“Sis, I’ve grown up idolizing you on and off the court. Love you!” Parker, a fellow Tennessee Lady Volunteer, signed on the portrait of Catchings.

“My legacy even on the court is one that I hope can continue to live on through my teammates, through the players that I’ve been able to impact on other teams,” Catchings said. “I think them seeing what I’m doing has definitely opened their eyes to what they’re able to do and what they could accomplish in helping other people.”

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