By: Ethan Fuller
Walter Whyte compares his mother to Vince Carter.
No, Catherine Hammie cannot throw down highlight-reel dunks. She has never even played organized basketball. Whyte instead sees the long-term impact of his mom, and the long, productive career of Vinsanity, as strikingly similar.
“She’s a hard worker, she sticks to the grind and is gonna ride with you till the wheels fall off,” he said.
Whyte and Hammie share a Hall-of-Fame level of trust. The bond stems from Hammie’s two decades as a single mother of three boys, balancing a grueling career as a social worker while guiding her children away from the inner-city pitfalls of New Haven, CT. In turn, Hammie’s faith in Whyte has withstood several school changes, basketball opportunities and solo cross-country flights.
“Just from that beginning, she was all I had, so we kinda just knew that we got each other, and we’ll always have each other, ” Whyte said.
Catherine Hammie cried before her second son’s first day of high school.
She did not cry just because of the milestone, or because Simsbury High School was nearly an hour from her home in New Haven, CT. Hammie cried because Walter Whyte would soon start school in an educational system she did not know while living with a host family she had barely even met.
On a late summer Friday in 2012, Whyte was accepted to Simsbury High through A Better Chance, a program designed to help inner-city kids find access to quality education. The school wanted him in Simsbury by Sunday.
In those 48 hours, Whyte and Hammie made the decision to enroll, bought everything he needed for school and living, packed it into a car, and drove up the Connecticut highways.
“That was one of the hardest things I did in my life,” Hammie said. “Cause you think, okay, college, that’s when they’re going. You don’t really think that in high school. It just happened so fast.”
In a weekend, Hammie had to trust that her son would be safe in an unfamiliar environment. As a (now former) investigator for Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, she had witnessed some of the darkest home lives imaginable.
“I was totally skeptical – literally it’s like, forget it,” she said. “I just keep my kids as close as I can.”
But Simsbury — like nearly every school Whyte had previously attended — offered a way out of the city. New Haven averaged nearly 16 violent crimes per 1,000 residents when Whyte was growing up, according to 2010 data. At the time, it was one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. One day after getting off the school bus, Whyte and his older brother Wayne told their mom that strangers had tried to recruit them for local gangs.
“It’s very territorial,” Hammie said of New Haven. “Different neighborhoods have their own turf. It’s always been like that, even when I was younger.”
Hammie grew up in New Haven herself, the daughter of a guidance counselor and a self-made businessman. Like her parents, Hammie knew the best way to keep her kids out of trouble was to get them involved in something else.
Sports became an easy distraction for Walter Whyte — first on the soccer field, then on the basketball court. But if you told Hammie her ten-year-old would be a Division I star, she would’ve brushed it off.
“I didn’t even think anything of it because he was so clumsy,” she said, suppressing a laugh. “If there was a floor to fall on, or dirt or a field, he was down. He would be the dirtiest player, lips busted.”
As Wayne and Walter transitioned to the court, the younger Whyte began to flourish. He was excelling in math at the Engineering and Science Magnet middle school, and Hammie saw that Whyte could continue to balance academics and hoops in the right opportunity.
Simsbury became a last-minute gift — Whyte’s host family remains friendly to this day. However, it was just one step in an increasingly wild basketball journey. Whyte joined the AAU scene, and upon recognizing his potential, realized that Simsbury could not be his final stop.
“I was playing there, and I knew that’s not where I would be the best player I wanted to be – where I would see myself actually wanting to play basketball,” Whyte said.
After his sophomore year, Whyte sat down with his mom and the two decided to transfer Whyte out of Simsbury. He spent a single day at the local public school — then St. Luke’s School accepted Whyte, and 24 hours later, the family completed another whirlwind sendoff to a private school 45 minutes away in New Canaan. The transition challenged Hammie; it was difficult “letting go and just letting him make the decision.”
“He was, like, adamant that this was what he wanted to do: basketball and academics together,” she said. “I said, ‘Okay.’ So I went with his lead and I said, ‘I’ll support you.’”
That does not mean Hammie just let St. Luke’s sweep her son away.
“It was kinda my first lesson in recruiting,” said Drew Gladstone, the former head coach at St. Luke’s who joined the program the same year as Whyte.
“I don’t think I did enough to convince her that coming to St. Luke’s was the right move, he said. “I didn’t do enough to make her feel comfortable about the situation, so I had to kind of double back and convince her to sit down with me towards the end of the summer right before school started.”
Gladstone understood, though, that Hammie was asking all the right questions.
“It was tough,” he said. “Tough in a good way that she was saying, ‘This is a sacrifice my son’s gonna have to go through to go to school far from home, commuting every day. Is this gonna be worth it? Is he gonna be with the right people?'”
Of course, Whyte exploded at St. Luke’s, ranking as high as the second-best player in the state. The opportunities flowed in: Nike EYBL, the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn, invitational leagues in California, and a hailstorm of offers from colleges.
Hammie faced her next test. She still worked, and with a third son, Adam, in the house, had additional duties as a mom. Walter would have to make many of these journeys alone. Trains to New York City, buses to games upstate, even a flight to California that required a stop in Atlanta — Whyte navigated the world of high school basketball and earned the trust of his mom in the process.
“He literally had a backpack on his back for probably two years straight,” Hammie said. “Living out of a bag. He’s so good at packing at the drop of a time – it’s amazing.”
Colleges pelted Whyte and Hammie with afterschool phone calls, letters and spokespeople. Hammie learned the mind-bending rules of NCAA recruiting on the fly, knowing in the back of her mind that one accidental violation could wipe her son’s college career away.
“You gotta be real careful not to mess up your kid’s career because somebody wants to take you to lunch and you don’t even know that he’s not supposed to be taking you to lunch,” she said.
Then she laughed. “I just don’t go to lunch with anybody.”
Eventually, they settled on the first school to ever send Whyte a basketball letter: Boston University. Whyte ran the decision-making process, but when it came down to the end, he needed his mom’s blessing.
“My mom was definitely the last say because she knew the type of person I was and who would challenge me to be better,” he said.
Hammie challenged Whyte throughout his basketball journey. At one point during his freshman year at Simsbury, Whyte fell behind on his academics. His mom had zero tolerance; she pulled him straight off the basketball team until his grades picked up. Hammie said her son missed two games — Walt testifies six or seven. Either way, it sent a message.
“I was like, I’m never doing that again,” Whyte said.
Make no mistake — Hammie trusts Whyte to manage himself. But she was unafraid to run the show.
“The parents,” she said, “it’s so funny – they were like, ‘That’s so good that you took Walter out and made him understand that his grades were important.’ They were commending me as if that’s something that they wouldn’t do. Their kids ran the house, and I was like, uh, no.”
The Whyte family grew up without their father. Hammie and Wayne Whyte Sr. were married, but some “poor decisions” took Whyte out of the picture when Walter Whyte was just a year old.
While Hammie adapted to raising three children on her own, and did her best to attend every sports game possible, she also worked for the state, which didn’t exactly offer a flexible schedule. Her role as an investigator for the Department of Children and Families meant that if a case came in, Hammie was first on the scene.
“If you get a bad case, you could almost look at it and be like, ‘I’m gonna be out late,’ depending on how bad it is,” she said. “If you get a drug bust, you already know you’re gonna be out past 5:00. I had a pretty good support network with my family. You have to kinda humble yourself in those situations and ask for help.”
The emotional taxation is tough to fathom. Displacing children from their homes due to abusive parents, as just one example, requires a level of detachment and focus on doing what it right for everyone. That doesn’t mean Hammie was not affected by her work.
“You wanna bring that five-year-old home and risk your job, but you know you can’t,” she said. “So leaving a five-year-old who’s like, a baby, somewhere and going home is the worst.”
Working with the court system taught Hammie about people — how to read them and how to understand their motives. The skills came in handy during her son’s recruitment.
“You learn how to talk to people, you learn how to do what you have to do, cause if you don’t, the judge will let you know in front of people and embarrass you,” Hammie said. “So you don’t want that smoke. You have your [expletive] together, you know your case, you learn how to talk to people, you learn how to play the game.”
Hammie now works for New Reach Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps provide supportive housing for women and their families. She feels she is impacting people more directly, versus the waterfalls of paperwork she dealt with while working for the state.
Despite her efforts to conceal some of her work, Hammie knows that her kids learned about a lot of dangerous situations from her. But it helped Whyte in particular appreciate the good his mom does for other people. Hammie has inspired Whyte to major in sociology at BU, as he hopes to become a social worker himself.
“Children are our future,” Whyte said, “and they kinda move around with that. It’s pretty tough to see and pretty tough to kinda deal with, but you know you’re making a difference long-term. I respect my mother for that and I respect all social workers like that.”
Walter Whyte is splayed across the hardwood of Cotterell Court. His arms are out and his eyes are closed in a mix of joy, relief and exhaustion. The Terriers have conquered Colgate University and won the Patriot League championship.
Whyte bounces up, his scarlet uniform appearing magnetized to the other teammates on the court. But after celebrating for a few seconds, he sprints to the baseline to hug his mom and younger brother.
Whyte is now 21, Wayne is 23, and Adam is 12 years old. The trio, with Hammie as general, have come a long way together.
“It was the best feeling ever,” Hammie said. “To have him work so hard and to get to this point, and you know, from last year to now. Literally a year later.”
A year prior, Whyte was preparing for surgery on his ankle. Complications with a bone bruise and bone spurs had sidelined him for the entire 2018-19 season. His doctor’s appointments were located at Patriot Place in Foxboro. Hammie made the trip from New Haven every single time.
“She was just there,” Whyte said. “When I was at my lowest point, she was right there to bring me up and say everything’s gonna be okay.”
Hammie saw Whyte struggle with a battle out of his control. He faced depressive moods, uncertainty and self-doubt. He spent a year tortured on the sidelines in suits, unable to jump into a game with his teammates.
One day in the office, the 6-6, cool, level-headed Whyte broke down in tears — every mother’s nightmare.
“To see a giant of a giant – he’s a soft giant – just cry, it was crazy,” she said. “I said, ‘You can’t give up. If you start feeling defeated, it’s gonna show. You gotta keep going. If you give up, it’s gonna consume you.'”
Behind his mother’s love, Whyte fought through the recovery and broke out as a redshirt sophomore. He scored 23 points in each of his first two games last season and averaged 13 points and 7.4 rebounds over the course of the year, earning a spot on the All-Patriot League Second Team in the process.
When Whyte woke up after surgery, Hammie was the first face he saw. She attended nearly every home game of the comeback season, and cheered in the stands at each playoff game. In his toughest trials and his joyous victories, Whyte trusts his mom to have his back.
“She’s always been there, she’s the rock, so I’m super grateful for that,” he said. “If I didn’t have her, I don’t know what I would be like.”