Ever since Tamika Catchings bought Tea’s Me Cafe, WNBA fans have flocked to the north side of Indianapolis to catch a glimpse of its famous owner. On any given day, though, it’s impossible to know where to find her.
The former Indiana Fever forward could be brewing the Earl Grey. Or delivering the Darjeeling, or busing dishes, or working the cash register. “Whatever it takes, whatever needs to be done, I’ll do it,” Catchings said. “I absolutely love it.”
Though she never expected to go into the restaurant business, Catchings started planning for a post-WNBA career long before she retired in 2016. Some players find that second act in coaching or broadcasting. Others, though, choose paths that carry them far from the gym.
Lynx center Sylvia Fowles is 18 months away from completing her degree in mortuary science. Angel McCoughtry of Atlanta owns an ice cream shop, and Indiana guard Cappie Pondexter already has a thriving business as a fashion stylist. Alana Beard of Los Angeles and Marissa Coleman of New York — who played together in L.A. and Washington — own a pizza restaurant, the Mellow Mushroom, in Virginia.
To encourage that kind of preparation, the WNBA is giving players more avenues to explore post-basketball careers. Its training programs include a Harvard Business School course that Lynx guard Seimone Augustus participated in last spring.
“Young players should have fun while they can, and enjoy the game,” Augustus said. “But they should know in the back of their mind that basketball doesn’t last forever. You want to plan ahead to make sure your next career path is something you love, too.”
Catchings is trying to spread that message. When she isn’t at her tea shop, she’s helping other players — in the WNBA, NBA and G League — explore future employment options as the director of player programs and franchise development for Pacers Sports & Entertainment.
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“We ask so many kids what they want to be when they grow up,” said Catchings, who ranks third in WNBA career scoring (7,380 points) and second in rebounding (3,316). “When they say, ‘I want to be a professional athlete,’ we need to ask, ‘OK, what else?’ Because this will be over, and you’d better be thinking about what’s next.
“When I look around the league, there are a lot of players who have no idea what it is they’re going to do next. And the time to start thinking about that is not when you’re done. Now is the time to figure out what you like and set yourself up to be prepared.”
After basketball, then what?
For Fowles, the process worked in reverse. She knew she wanted to be a mortician before she became a good enough player to star at Louisiana State and in the WNBA.
Fowles began taking online classes in mortuary science seven years ago, when she played in Chicago. Her twin passions haven’t always fit together easily. She has taken exams during the WNBA Finals and squeezed in study time amid the relentless demands of league life. Her goal is to finish school before she retires, so she can immediately embark on her second career.
“Sometimes, it’s tough, having to focus on two different fields and give as much attention as you can to both,” said Fowles, the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2017 and a five-time All-Star. “But being a mortician, that’s what my heart took me back to. I’ve always known basketball was temporary, and I’m comfortable with that.”
Like former Los Angeles star Lisa Leslie, who did modeling and acting during her WNBA career, a handful of active players already are making the transition to off-court work. Pondexter founded 4Season Style Management, which does personal shopping and fashion styling, in 2006 with business partner Lisa Smith-Craig. McCoughtry’s Ice Cream opened last year in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood and serves specialties such as a sweet potato waffle with butter pecan ice cream.
It’s a wise move in a profession that can be fleeting. Catchings said many players enter the WNBA expecting to play 10 years. But the average career is only 3½ years, and 2018 salaries range from about $41,000 to $115,500. Those who play overseas during the offseason can make more, though not enough to retire on.
Augustus joked that her career plan is to “become the first billionaire WNBA player.” League money won’t get her there, but the program at Harvard Business School just might. Last winter, Augustus and six other women became the first WNBA players to complete a course started by the NBA in 2017.
She has ideas for several business ventures, including a WNBA-inspired clothing line, a holistic health store and a service to get young Louisiana players more visibility with college recruiters. The Harvard program matches players with MBA student mentors, who help them understand how to turn those musings into moneymakers.
“It was cool to talk to people who are actively doing what I want to do,” Augustus said. “I’m interested in fashion, so we talked about, how do you figure out what you want to make? How do you make it? How do you sell it? It really opens your eyes to what’s involved.”
Applying lessons from league
The WNBA, NBA and G League now offer a variety of post-basketball training opportunities through their “Career Crossover” initiative. Some of the leagues’ corporate partners invite players to do job shadowing. There is an apprentice program in which former players work at the NBA’s New York headquarters for a year, with some earning full-time jobs there.
“We’ve really increased our focus on how to support athletes as they transition,” said Bethany Donaphin, a former WNBA player who is now head of league operations. “Whether you’ve prepared for a long time or not at all, when you stop playing, it is a shock. You have to reorient yourself, and we’ve put resources in place to allow players to do that more easily.”
Catchings hadn’t planned to buy a cafe when she retired from the league, but she now clears tables as effortlessly as she used to clear the boards. As a longtime tea connoisseur, Tea’s Me had been one of her favorite hangouts. When the owner decided to close it because he was moving, she took the plunge into entrepreneurship.
Running her foundation — Catch The Stars, which serves underprivileged youth — taught Catchings some basic business acumen. She has also found the interpersonal skills she honed in the WNBA have translated to the tea shop, something Fowles and Augustus have recognized, too.
Catchings is a better boss because she knows how to communicate, resolve conflicts and lead a team. Fowles said the patience learned in the league will help her deal with bereaved families, and Augustus expects her fearlessness and perseverance to come in handy when she’s launching new business concepts.
The WNBA will always be part of them, Catchings said. But she hopes every player understands that life can be even better after basketball.
“There are thousands of former pro players who have no idea where they are and what they’re doing,” Catchings said. “Some might be saving the world, for all we know. It’s just so cool to hear all the stories about what people plan to do next.”
WNBA All-Star Game 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Target Center (Ch. 5)