If it were up to Los Angeles Sparks center Pam McGee, she
wouldn't be mired in a legal battle that has become a cause
celebre for a single working mother's child custody rights, and
her three-year battle with her former husband over shared
custody of their four-year-old daughter, Imani, wouldn't be
playing out publicly in excruciating detail, with ugly
allegations flying and daytime talk shows clamoring for McGee to
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 1998 issue
Had it been up to McGee, there would have been no need for
lawyers. There would have been no 1996 divorce judgment
dissolving her marriage to the Reverend Kevin Stafford, Imani's
father. There would have been no 325-page court file laying open
her life, and there would have been no reporters' questions
about the two nights in May 1995 when she was voluntarily
hospitalized for treatment of depression while her marriage was
crumbling, or about the night last January that she spent in a
Sacramento jail for refusing a judge's order to turn her
daughter over to Stafford. "I said, 'Judge, you do what you have
to do,'" McGee says. "I said, 'I'm not giving up my baby.'"
Because of basketball McGee has a 1984 Olympic gold medal, two
NCAA title rings and an economics degree from USC. However, for a
snarl of reasons--many of them related to McGee's playing in the
WNBA the past two summers--Stafford won temporary sole custody of
Imani in a hearing last December. Since then the child has lived
primarily with her father in Mount Clemens, Mich., a small town
about 60 miles southeast of Flint, where McGee and her twin
sister, Paula, grew up and their mother, Dianne, still lives.
On Sept. 21, at the Mount Clemens Greater Morning Star Baptist
Church, where Stafford is the pastor and Pam attended services
when she was still his wife, Stafford held a press conference in
the basement to explain why he had asked a Macomb County circuit
court to give him permanent sole custody of Imani. Flanked by
two lawyers and speaking in his resonant baritone voice and
deliberate preacher's cadence, Stafford said he wasn't trying to
deprive McGee of a role in the rearing of their daughter. "Not
at all," he said. Asked if McGee was a bad mother, one of
Stafford's lawyers, Peter Lucido, quickly said, "Never."
Stafford and Lucido told reporters the custody fight for Imani
isn't about a single working mother's ability to be a good
parent or McGee's decision to resume her basketball career. But
in papers filed with the circuit court, that's precisely the
argument Stafford has made. A motion for temporary custody filed
on Stafford's behalf last Dec. 12 contends, "The level of
[basketball] achievement accomplished by [McGee]...impairs her
ability to parent her daughter." Stafford's most recent filing
states that awarding custody to him would be in the best
interest of the child "in light of [McGee's] rigorous travel
schedule, unstable living environment and lack of permanent job
stability." Four weeks ago Lucido told the Associated Press,
"The whole problem right now is her career."
The case attracted national attention beginning on Sept. 14,
when Macomb County circuit court judge Peter Maceroni granted
Stafford's request for continued temporary sole custody of Imani
while county friend of the court officials investigated whether
McGee's career diminishes her ability to be a good parent.
Maceroni's ruling is enough to send chills through any single
working parent, let alone a pro athlete who is a single parent:
Could a judge take away your child because your job requires you
to travel part of the year?
"If I have to provide for my children, as a mother and as a
woman," McGee says, "I should have that option [to play pro
basketball] and not be penalized."
The irony is that McGee, 35, wouldn't be playing pro basketball
if Stafford hadn't walked out on her in August 1995, after 18
months of marriage, leaving her with two children (JaVale
Montgomery, now 10, her son from a previous relationship, and
Imani) and no source of income. "I went to the friend of the
court office and said, 'What do you recommend I do?'" McGee
says. "They said, 'The only thing we can advise you to do is go
on welfare.' I've always been a woman of dignity. I said, 'No. I
am going to get on my feet. I'll do whatever I have to.'"
Another irony is that while McGee's travel schedule is under
scrutiny by the court--she spends a total of about four weeks on
the road during the WNBA's 30-game summer season--Stafford's
travel schedule is not at issue, even though he told the court
in a Jan. 30 filing that his ministry requires him to travel
seven to eight weeks a year. Stafford also uses day care and
babysitters to help look after Imani, practices for which he
criticizes McGee in his court filings.
When she married Stafford in January 1994, McGee planned to be a
stay-at-home pastor's wife and mother. In court documents McGee
maintained she was the sole provider the first six months she
and Stafford were married, supporting him on savings from her
five-year European basketball career while he finished studying
at a seminary in Atlanta.
In a five-page narrative she filed in September as part of her
competing request for sole custody of Imani, McGee wrote that
Stafford became emotionally abusive toward her almost
immediately after they were married. McGee claimed Stafford
continually called her stupid, criticized her parenting and
homemaking, discouraged her from cultivating friendships and
insisted she call him whenever she left the house. She charged
that he refused to help her care for Imani or JaVale, claiming
that he had said, "I don't babysit." McGee wrote that Stafford
was especially harsh toward JaVale, sometimes using a belt to
discipline him or forcing the then seven-year-old boy to wear a
diaper after he wet his bed.
In a July 1997 custody and visitation recommendation, a Macomb
County Friend of the Court investigator wrote that Stafford
"confirmed there was emotional abuse in the marriage, however,
[he] indicated it went both ways." Stafford's attorney Lucido
declined requests to make Stafford available to comment on
McGee's characterizations of their marriage before a
court-mandated Oct. 1 gag order required all parties in the
dispute to refrain from discussing the case. In a 1997 Detroit
News interview, Stafford said of McGee, "She was accustomed to
being in the spotlight, and when that didn't carry over into our
life together, she felt like a shadow."
Stafford moved out of the apartment he shared with McGee and the
children in August 1995, returning a week later with a U-Haul
and four men who helped him carry out most of the family's
furniture. "I saw it--he left her and those kids to sleep on the
floor, without even a bed," says Nathaniel Peterson, a former
Greater Morning Star deacon who resigned his position following
Nevertheless McGee, a deeply religious woman who has begun
studies to become a minister, says she loved Stafford and didn't
want a divorce when he filed for one in September 1995, citing
irreconcilable differences. Imani was 11 months old at the time.
A month later McGee's agent landed an offer from a team in
Spain, and McGee grabbed it--but only after the club agreed to
provide a full-time nanny to help care for Imani and JaVale
while they were living in Spain. She played in Brazil the
following season under a similar arrangement. In 1997 the
Sacramento Monarchs made the 6'3" McGee the second pick in the
inaugural WNBA draft and gave her a two-year contract worth
$90,000. She started 23 of 27 games at center for the Monarchs
that summer and averaged 10.6 points. After the season she was
traded to Los Angeles and averaged 6.8 points as a starter for
the Sparks during the '98 season. She expects to sign with L.A.
again next year.
McGee's lapses in judgment and procedural errors helped open the
door for her career to become a custody-case issue. She
occasionally ignored the terms of the joint parenting agreement.
She has sometimes chosen to represent herself rather than hire a
lawyer. "I always have to tell these people I play in the W-NBA,"
says McGee. "I don't make N-BA money."
Neither she nor her lawyer appeared on her behalf at a hearing
in Macomb County circuit court last Dec. 17, when Stafford
protested that McGee had deprived him of his alternating
weekends of visitation with Imani by remaining in Sacramento
after the 1997 WNBA season ended in August. A judge agreed,
granting Stafford's request for the temporary sole custody he
now has and ordering McGee to return Imani to Michigan.
McGee is not the only single mother playing in the WNBA. For
instance, league MVP Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets has
one adopted child and six others for whom she's the guardian.
One difference between McGee's and Cooper's situations: Cooper
lives in Houston near her mother, who along with Cooper's sister
cares for the children when Cooper is on the road. In the case
of McGee, she makes her primary residence in Englewood, Calif.,
and when JaVale is with her, she takes him to practices and
games and spends most afternoons and evenings with him. When
she's on the road, her sister Alayna, who also lives in the Los
Angeles area, stays with JaVale.
JaVale's father is George Montgomery, a former University of
Illinois basketball player who is now a high school coach in the
Chicago area. He says his informal shared custody arrangement
(JaVale stays with his father during school vacations) with
McGee works because "Pam's willing to be there for me, and I've
been there for her. She's always been a good mother as far as
But Stafford believes he can give Imani a more stable, nurturing
environment than can McGee, while McGee believes that by
competing professionally she's raising both of her children to
"make a mark on this world." McGee has spoken of telling Imani
traditional nursery rhymes, like Cinderella, but with a '90s
twist: Cinderella doesn't rely on a fairy godmother to turn a
pumpkin into a carriage--she rides in on her own white horse
after working her way through law school and starting her own
A fitting end to the story for McGee, who probably could use a
good lawyer herself.
to travel sometimes?
offered a full-time nanny.