Back in the late-90s, when women’s pro basketball was still in its infancy, respect for a certain 6-foot-3 Tennessee forward’s game ran so high that Slam magazine featured her on its cover in a Knicks jersey with the headline, "Is the NBA ready for Chamique Holdsclaw?" The Astoria, Queens native had just led the Lady Vols to their third straight national title and Holdsclaw seemed ready to assume the greatest-women’s-player-of-all-time mantle.
“I remember everybody being like, 'Is she gonna play her senior year of college?' ” says Holdsclaw, 37, over lunch at a downtown Atlanta hotel in April, looking more like a player grabbing a leisurely bite before tip-off than one who’s been retired for nearly four seasons. “But I’d always be like, Hell no, my grandmother would choke me! She made me promise I’d get my degree!”
She earned that diploma with a degree in political science in the spring of 1999, shortly after the WNBA’s Washington Mystics picked her first overall. Lon Babby -- the Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations who represented basketball stars such as Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Ray Allen as an agent -- added Holdsclaw to his client roster. Nike inked her to a five-year endorsement deal with a reported annual payout of more than $500,000, or about 10 times her WNBA salary. Holdsclaw was young, talented and had the basketball world at her feet. Some even wore her signature shoe, the BBMiqueShox.
Fast forward to June 2013. That was when Holdsclaw was charged with two counts each of aggravated assault, criminal damage to property, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. It was the latest, and most serious, outward sign of the depression that she has struggled to control ever since she became a pro player.
Mental illness still carries a stigma, especially for athletes. So Holdsclaw hid her feelings as long as she could. As a rookie she was the Mystics’ second-best scorer (16.9 ppg) and top rebounder (7.9 rpg), as well as the Eastern Conference’s top vote-getter in the WNBA’s inaugural All-Star game. The following season she led Washington to the playoffs and won a gold medal with Team USA at the Sydney Games. (She was unable to participate in Olympic games because of a stress fracture in her right foot.) Holdsclaw ranked in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding in her first six seasons. But the Mystics lost many more games than it won and cycled through five coaches.
For a player whose identity stemmed from her reputation as a winner, the losing stung. And Holdsclaw desperately missed the support network she’d had while playing for Pat Summitt at Tennessee. “No one ever asked me, ‘How are you? How are you handling things?’” Holdsclaw says of those first years as a pro. “It was just tough. I kept a lot of feelings bottled up.”
At the same time, Holdsclaw’s personal life was unraveling. The worst blow came on May 27, 2002, when her maternal grandmother, June Holdsclaw -- the woman who had raised her, who “I could talk to, who helped keep me balanced,” she says -- died of a heart attack.
Just getting into uniform became a chore for Holdsclaw. “I started to sleep more and move into high levels of irritability,” she recalls. Winning another gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games became the least of her priorities. Rather than lock down her spot on the national team, which had just opened training camp for the ’02 world championships, she forfeited it.
In May 2004, the passing of another relative -- her paternal grandfather, Thurman Holdsclaw -- caused Holdsclaw to plunge into an even deeper funk. A psychiatrist who consulted with the Mystics had recommended that Holdsclaw take lithium as a mood stabilizer, but the drug made her feel numb and she lost her competitive drive. “I’ll never forget,” she says of a game that season against Detroit. That’s when I was like, Man, I can’t do this. I’m not myself. It was like an out of body experience. That’s when I just left.”
Holdsclaw missed Washington’s final 11 games and at season’s end the Mystics announced that they had traded their all-star forward to the Los Angeles Sparks. Three months passed before she finally cleared the air and publicly disclosed a diagnosis of clinical depression. But even that didn’t feel like a resolution. “They had me taking medication, and I was feeling better,” she says, “But something still seemed wrong.”
The change of environment appeared to help -- at first. Playing alongside another perennial all-star, center Lisa Leslie, meant Holdsclaw didn’t have to carry the team. In their first year together, the Sparks went to the playoffs. But in 2006, basketball would take a backseat to two more Holdsclaw family crises: Her stepfather, Fredrick Clark, revealed that he had esophageal cancer and would be undergoing chemotherapy in North Carolina. Her father, Willie Johnson, who suffered from schizophrenia, stopped taking his medication and would disappear for months at a time.
Holdsclaw reacted by holing up inside her Marina del Rey apartment and swallowing 10 or 11 Wellbutrin tablets. A neighborhood friend, to whom she had been talking on the phone, quickly arrived and shuttled to her to the ER. After a brief hospitalization, Holdsclaw returned to action and contributed mostly from the bench. (The team said she had been excused to handle a family matter.)
She was poised to reclaim her place in the starting lineup in 2007, but after weathering so many family crises in such a short times, she was running on fumes. The depression “was eating me alive,” she says. When Leslie announced six months before the season that she was taking a year’s leave to have her first child, Holdsclaw didn’t want to stick around either. Five games in, shortly after re-signing with the Sparks for another year, she pronounced herself retired at age 29, citing a desire to pursue other interests.
By that time Holdsclaw had begun dating Atlanta Dream forward Jennifer Lacy, and she eventually moved to Atlanta to be closer to Lacy. In 2009 Holdsclaw signed with the Dream, effectively ending her retirement, and they became teammates. (Holdsclaw would retire for good at the end of the 2010 season, with the San Antonio Silver Stars, after suffering a ruptured right Achilles tendon.)
The relationship became public on the afternoon Nov. 13, 2012, when Holdsclaw attacked Lacy in Atlanta. After stalking Lacy from her gym to a friend’s house, Holdsclaw bashed Lacy’s car with a baseball bat and fired one 9 millimeter round from a handgun across the back seat before speeding off. (Lacy, still behind the wheel, was unhurt.) As for what motivated the attack, Holdsclaw only says, “I got angry and I just blanked out.”
She turned herself in to the police two days later and spent a night in jail, where heckling inmates challenged her to games of one-on-one. Holdsclaw finally decided to deal with her depression. “This wasn’t the court saying that I had to do therapy or anything of that sort,” she strains to note. “This was all me trying to get things right in my life.”
On her lawyer’s recommendation, she hired a forensic psychologist to audit her medical records; he referred her to another psychologist who, after a 15-minute review, revealed that she didn’t just have clinical depression she also had bipolar II disorder. “And I’m like, Man, you got all that in 15 minutes?”
The news was upsetting but also came as a relief. Now there was and explanation for the the emotional swings she had experienced. Furthermore, the psychologist noted, Holdsclaw was not only taking the wrong drugs to treat the wrong ailment, but also taking them at the wrong times. After switching to a new drug, Depakote, a mild mood stabilizer, and a new therapist with whom she meets with once a week, she has noticed a major difference. “Looking back,” she says, “I really should’ve been in therapy more. It’s changed my life. It’s like you come in one person and leave another.”
Holdsclaw’s sentencing judge saw a change in her, too. In June 2013, seven months after the incident with Lacy, he granted her a plea deal that would only require her to serve three years of probation, pay a $3,000 fine and perform 120 hours of community service. It was an extremely sympathetic sentence, and there’s no question that the initiative Holdsclaw took in addressing her mental health challenges had an effect.
Part of Holdsclaw’s healing process has involved repairing her relationship with her mother, Bonita, a recovering alcoholic. The two women appeared on the OWN TV reality show Iyanla: Fix My Life and brought decades of tension out into the open -- especially Juanita’s resentment of the relationship Chamique had with June. Once those feelings were fully unpacked, “Me and Chamique became closer,” says Bonita. “I’m happier now, and she’s happier now. You can see the happiness in her. She’s doing the things that she wants to do.”
One of those things is a career as a public speaker, which allows Holdsclaw to raise awareness about mental health issues. She hopes to make it the cornerstone of her non-profit organization that will focus on building mental health wellness programs and expand her audience beyond the faith-based groups in the southeast with whom she frequently visits.
When Holdsclaw isn’t speaking, she surrounds herself with friends who know to call in the mornings to make sure she’s out of bed by 7 a.m. and drop by with food or a plan to get out and do something if she betrays the slightest hint of having a rough day. The gun range, a place she often frequented to blow off steam -- is now off-limits. She sold her gun after she was arrested and has no intention of replacing it. “I will never, ever own a firearm,” she says with a laugh. “No.”
Her main focus right now is on keeping her storm clouds at bay. Experience, therapy and routine have made her more vigilant than ever. Seeing her so at peace, so comfortable in her own skin, it’s natural to consider what might have been if Holdsclaw had gotten the help she needed earlier in her career.
“It’s the fisherman’s story,” says Michael Cooper, the former Laker who coached the Sparks for eight seasons. “She’s the one I always talk about, and I’ve caught a lot of fish. I’ve got a lot of trophies, but you always remember that one that got away. For me, she’s the one. There was so much potential.”
Even though Holdsclaw looks like she could still give a team 10 minutes a night -- “Nah,” she says, “I could give ‘em 20” -- she’s enjoying her life now. When her audiences ask her about her regrets, she speaks not of lost opportunities to win WNBA titles or Olympic gold medals but of “not understanding that life happens.”
She’s ready for it now, though. For real this time.