Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 5, 2020

Two Timely Additions To The Basketball Hall Of Fame

The selection process for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is somewhat opaque, especially as compared to the voting by writers for the Baseball Hall of Fame, in which any member is free to publish his or her vote. But the good news, especially for anyone writing about sports these days, is that the Basketball Hall is able to conduct its annual election without the need for in-person meetings, which made the announcement of this year’s inductees the rare bit of genuine sports news.

Headlines understandably focused on the three former NBA titans who were inducted – Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. The three combined to win eleven NBA titles while coming to symbolize greatness at their respective positions. Garnett and Bryant started the modern wave of players drafted directly out of high school, while Duncan will forever be a reminder that it is possible to achieve sustained greatness in the NBA after first dedicating oneself to the full four-year collegiate experience. But the Basketball Hall’s 2020 class numbers nine members, and among those who in most accounts appear in a sentence that begins “also elected were” are two women whose stories resonate with particular power in these uncertain times – Tamika Catchings and Kim Mulkey.

For all the three NBA stars accomplished, Catchings, who played for Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee before a fifteen-year career with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, is the only one of this year’s Hall inductees to have a NCAA Division I title, an Olympic gold medal, and a professional championship on her resume. After leading the Volunteers to the 1998 NCAA title, one of eight won by the legendary Summit, Catchings was a WNBA star at a critical time for the women’s league, as it sought to gain legitimacy and a foothold with fans in a sport long reserved for men at the professional level. She was a ten-time All-Star and won five Defensive Player of the Year Awards, while becoming the fastest player in league history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals. The Fever won the WNBA title in 2012, the same year Catchings played on the third of her four gold medal winning USA Olympic squads. Since her playing career ended in 2016, she has remained loyal to Indianapolis, where she now serves as the team’s general manager.

But the compelling part of Catching’s story doesn’t appear on a list of career achievements. It’s the simple fact that to do all this she had to overcome a hearing disability. Her family first recognized the issue when she was just three, and quickly had her fitted with hearing aids. But the boxy devices naturally made Catchings the subject of constant childhood teasing and worse, exacerbating an already difficult time for a little girl who was taller than her peers and always the new kid in the class, since her father played professional basketball and the family frequently moved.

Finally, walking home for school one day while in the third grade, Catchings removed the hearing aids and threw them as far as she could into a field. With the family unable to afford a new pair, her story might have gone badly awry. But Catchings dedicated herself to studying hard, learning to read lips, and, eventually, excelling on the basketball court. It was not until her freshman year at Tennessee that, at Summit’s urging, she finally was again fitted for hearing aids. By then she had already demonstrated that her disability was no obstacle to success.

The year before the Fever made Catchings the third overall choice in the WNBA draft, Kim Mulkey was offered what many aspiring college coaches would regard as a golden opportunity. Having played at Louisiana Tech before serving for fifteen years as an assistant coach to the great Leon Barmore, Mulkey was in line for the head coaching job upon her mentor’s retirement. But while Louisiana Tech had been a power in the women’s game, Mulkey believed she needed some time to rebuild the program and put her personal stamp on it. However, the school’s administration wasn’t willing to give her the five-year contract she sought. Rather than settle for a shorter term, Mulkey opted for the head coaching job at Baylor, a school that was coming off a seven-win season and had never qualified for the NCAA tournament.

It was a decision that few would have made, and one that could have blighted Mulkey’s coaching career. But the 37-year-old believed that if given adequate time to put her teachings in place she could turn any program into a winning one. Two decades later, Mulkey’s election to the Hall is the ultimate validation of that self-belief. In four trips to the Women’s Final Four, Baylor has won three titles. With the cancellation of this season’s NCAA tournament, the Lady Bears will remain the defending national champions for another year after last spring’s thrilling 82-81 victory over Notre Dame. And Mulkey is certainly not done. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not intervened, 28-2 Baylor would have been a certain #1 seed and one the favorites for the women’s title.

The plan – the hope – is that this year’s induction ceremony will take place in late August. Whether it’s then or sometime later, as was the case with this week’s announcement the focus at the Hall in Springfield Massachusetts will be on three deserving NBA superstars. But at a time of disarray and doubt, the inclusion of Tamika Catchings and Kim Mulkey among this year’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductees reminds fans that even the most daunting of challenges can be overcome, and that big dreams do come true.


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