Tamara Tatham never set out to be a trailblazer, but she’s taking the label in stride.
Last August, Tatham made history as the first Canadian woman to be named to a coaching staff of a North American professional men’s basketball team when she was hired as a mentor coach with the Toronto Raptors’ G-League affiliate, the Raptors 905. It’s an honour that many would take pride in by itself. And while its significance isn’t lost on Tatham, it’s simply one piece of a much larger picture of her athletic achievements.
Two Olympics appearances. Over 150 games played during a sparkling 11-year Team Canada career. A cabinets’ worth of team and individual awards during a decade-long pro career in Europe and Australia. Currently, the assistant coach of the Varsity Blues women’s basketball team. At just 33 years old, Tatham, from Brampton, is in elite company.
Undoubtedly, her remarkable achievements cement her legacy as a veteran who helped build Team Canada’s national women’s program from the ground up to become one of the world’s most competitive. The accolades alone, however, leave out the profound impact of her drive, work ethic, and faith required to get her there.
The kid is alright
Tatham grew up as the middle child in an active family of seven that included her three brothers — Patrick, Tyan, and Kenroy — and her sister, Alisha. Tamara dabbled in a bit of everything in her childhood, including swimming and piano, and showed great athletic promise in track & field specifically — much to the delight of her parents, who were familiar with the sport due to its popularity in their native country of Jamaica.
Incredibly, it wasn’t until the ripe age of 13 that Tamara picked up a basketball for the first time. Following in the footsteps of her brother Patrick — just one year her senior — who was already playing, Tamara decided to give the game a try.
As fate would have it, the love was instant — and intense.
“Right when I started playing, like, the week after I started playing,” Tamara reflected in an interview with The Varsity, “I was like, ‘I love this.’ That’s where I started getting passionate.”
Drawn to the competitiveness of the game and the chance to play with peers who quickly became close friends, Tamara’s whirlwind love affair with basketball quickly established itself as a permanent fixture in her life — a cause to which she could apply her work ethic and drive, and an outlet through which she could showcaseher gift of athleticism. Alisha quickly followed suit, resulting in a sort of ‘Tatham sister’ dynasty that would become a fixture in the Canadian and international basketball scenes for years to come.
Tamara saw her stock rise through a stellar career at Chinguacousy Secondary School, where she led the Timberwolves to the Peel Region championship twice and posted a double-double average — 23 points, 10 rebounds — in her senior year, 2003. College coaches took notice, and eventually, Tamara found herself headed south of the border to the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a full-ride athletic scholarship.
Reaching new heights
Heading into UMass, Tamara admits that while she didn’t approach her university career with grand expectations, both at school and in the long-term, she was fully prepared to work hard and see where it could take her.
Tamara had an instant impact on Marnie Dacko’s Minutewomen, with a consistently high performance level that carried her throughout four seasons. Over the course of that time, Tamara started all but three of the 115 games she played in, averaging nearly 31 minutes per game and giving the squad a solid presence in the front court, finishing three of four seasons as the team’s second-leading scorer and her final two as their top rebounder.
Eclipsing 1,000-point and 700-rebound career totals, Tamara also holds a spot in several categories of the UMass record books, including the third most games started, as well as top 10 positions in total steals, rebounds, minutes played, and free throws made.
The girl who fell in love with the game as a teenager — not with expectations or entitlements but simply the will to work — saw her sweat pay off. By 2007, she had graduated with a degree in Sport Management and had also earned a roster spot on Team Canada, which was gearing up to try to qualify for the Beijing games the following year. When it didn’t pan out, Tamara found herself packing her bags for Europe, where, little to her knowledge, a lengthy and decorated career awaited her.
In the decade to come, Tamara padded her basketball résumé with European league honours. Multiple player of the year and top defender awards punctuated her time overseas, which included stints in Finland, Slovakia, Australia, Russia, and most notably, Germany, where she spent five seasons, from 2008-2013.
Her pro career coincided with her tenure on the national team. Tamara was part of a group of women who revived Team Canada women’s basketball, transforming the team a from struggling squad to international contender, and helping the squad to its first Olympic appearance in 12 years when they qualified for the London Games in a victory on Canada Day in 2012. They made a second appearance in Rio in 2016.
Tamara holds fond memories from her time with Team Canada. She shared many of her years on the squad with Alisha, including at those 2012 Olympic games. Meanwhile, Tamara described her squad’s so-called “golden summer” — including a pair of historic gold medals over the United States at the Pan Am Games in Toronto and the FIBA Americas in Edmonton — in 2015 as one of the highlights of her career.
The next chapter
Like many other elite athletes who spend decades involved in high-level sport, there was a point when Tamara wasn’t sure what her next chapter would be, after her playing career came to a close. Tamara credits her Christian faith for keeping her grounded, saying that it was a reminder that sports didn’t define her entire identity, and that it helped her to develop trust in herself and her journey.
“[My faith] helped me change the way I thought about basketball and sport in general. I just played more free… I have to be able to trust that whatever happens, happens, and be able to just be ready to go with it.”
And just as her brother Patrick got her hooked on basketball, she credits her sister Alisha for sparking her interest in a new passion: coaching. After returning home one February following the conclusion of her pro season, Tamara decided she would help her sister out with the JUEL team Alisha was coaching at the time.
“I was like, “whoa, this is pretty cool. I like this!” Tamara chuckled.
Tamara and Alisha would go on to set up their Live Love Hoop camps, tailored toward young female basketball players to give them opportunities to “get mentored… by role models in the community,” through the provision of basketball and life skills training. Their brand’s current moniker, “The Tatham Sisters,” essentially caters itself toward the same ideals: mentorship for “the next generation” — especially young women.
Familiar surroundings amd new sights
While Tamara no longer spends her waking hours working on baseline jumpers, she hasn’t exactly removed herself from the familiar surroundings she’s grown accustomed to on the court.
These days, Tamara is still typically found around the gym, whether she’s decked out in her signature UofT blue tracksuit at the Goldring Centre as the assistant coach of the women’s team, or donning the black-and-red of her 905 squad. Affectionately known as ‘T’ to players, friends, and mentees alike, Tamara Tatham’s imposing, athletic 6’1 frame contrasts a quiet yet assured, confident energy about her — the kind developed only through the sense that your achievements are the direct and purposeful result of years of hard work.
Tamara credits her parents as a guiding force in her life, and strives to become a role model for other young women in sport — something she didn’t necessarily have growing up.
“When it came to sports [growing up], I looked up to male basketball players… When the WNBA came around, it was cool, because there was finally gonna be some women you could look up to — it wasn’t just men. I want to give young women the opportunity to see women they can look up to… I think it’s really huge for girls to see strong women.”
Tatham credits her work ethic, of course, to helping her reach the place she’s at today. For younger players, she stressed that “we need to know there’s no ceiling when it comes to what you want, what you can attain, and what you can be successful at.” Emphasizing that “it is 120 million per cent okay to fail,” she offered a simple piece of advice:
“Just dream big, and have the audacity to do it.”