Back On The Ball After taking a year off to deal with depression, North Carolina's Nikki Teasley promises to be as flamboyant as ever--and more effective

November 19, 2001

The phone call came late on the afternoon of Jan. 5, 2000. North
Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell was about to
leave her office to board the team bus for a trip to play
Virginia the following night. On the other end of the line was
Nikki Teasley, the Tar Heels' flamboyant 6-foot junior point
guard. Teasley, a former high school player of the year who had
been a preseason Naismith Award candidate, had the transcendent
skills to put an excellent North Carolina team in her slipstream
and pull it deep into the postseason. Yet on this winter
afternoon something was very wrong.

"I don't want to go to Virginia," Teasley told Hatchell.

"What's wrong?" Hatchell asked.

"I just don't want to go."

"Come over here. Let's talk about it."

Within a half hour Teasley was sitting on the soft powder-blue
couch in Hatchell's Carmichael Auditorium office. Her face
betrayed a terrible anguish; her greenish-brown eyes were blank
with sleeplessness and fear. "I don't want to be Nikki Teasley
anymore," she said. "I don't like who I am."

The words sent a chill through Hatchell, who had been a coach for
25 years, the previous 14 at Chapel Hill. "The sounds were coming
out of Nikki's body, but it wasn't Nikki," recalls Hatchell. "She
was really struggling."

During her three seasons at Carolina, Teasley had been at times a
dominant player and at other times average. Her personality would
change abruptly from sweet and joyful to deeply withdrawn. Same
in the classroom: up and down. Yet however down she got, she
always surfaced and moved forward. Not this time. "I'm listening
to Nikki," says Hatchell, "and a big red flag goes up."

The more the two of them talked, the redder the flag became. The
message recurred again and again: I just don't want to be Nikki
Teasley anymore.

Teasley is now a fifth-year senior. She missed seven games that
winter of 2000 with what her psychologist describes as symptoms
of depression and anxiety, and then sat out the entire 2000-01
season, taking a long break from the pressures that had triggered
her condition. She has therapy sessions twice a week and takes
the antianxiety medication Paxil. She sees life through calmer
eyes--"I'm getting help, and I'm making things happen for myself,"
she says--and her game has never been better. Best of all, she
doesn't have to be Nikki Teasley anymore, at least not in the way
she was.

Her given name is Michelle Nicole Teasley. She was born to
Ernestine Teasley and Nathaniel Johnson, who never married, in
March 1979, and she was reared, along with a brother and three
half brothers, by Ernestine in the Carver Apartments in
southeast Washington, D.C. "Right off MLK," says Teasley. "You
know what Chris Rock says about MLK, don't you?" (Rock says that
Martin Luther King Jr. stood for nonviolence, but if you're
standing on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard anywhere in the
U.S., there's some violence going on.) It would be many years
before anybody addressed her as Michelle. In school she answered
to Nicole. Her brothers have always called her 'Cole.

She was nine when her half brother Ernie, 10 years her senior and
a janitor, signed her up for a basketball rec league and paid her
$200 registration fee. Having learned the game by watching her
older brothers play and by practicing alone in the parking lot of
a church ("Two points for hitting the pipe on the wall," she
says), she dominated older boys and girls. They started calling
her Little Nikki, because there was an older Nicole on the team
and because Teasley played like a Nikki, not a Nicole. She would
be great someday--if someday ever happened, because her life would
be the familiar struggle between sport and street.

At 14 she was arrested for stealing a car. (The case has since
been wiped off her record.) Shortly after that, random gunfire
outside the Teasleys' apartment shattered its windows. "Four of
us at home, lying on the floor, covering our heads," says Nikki.
Ernestine had resisted moving away in fear, but in the fall of
1993, when Nikki was 14, Ernestine and the kids moved in with her
sister, Lorretta Gaines, in Frederick, Md., 51 miles northwest of
Washington. It was as if Nikki had relocated to another planet.
"Cows and horses, that farm smell," she says. "Totally different
from D.C. There were some hard times. My school was predominantly
white. When we played games at some other schools, I heard the n
word more than once."

Her school was St. John's at Prospect Hall, a parochial school in
Frederick with powerful boys' and girls' basketball programs.
Nikki found strength in basketball; she was the Maryland girl
player of the year three consecutive seasons. Her ball handling
and panache became the stuff of local legend. She was NBA guard
Jason Williams in braids. "She could do more things with a
basketball than any player I've ever coached, male or female,"
says Stu Vetter, who coached St. John's nationally prominent
boys' team when Nikki was there and who now coaches at Montrose
Christian School in Rockville, Md. During clinics Nikki would
perform a ball-handling drill in which she walked the length of
the court with two basketballs, simultaneously dribbling them
through her legs, right hand to right hand, left hand to left,
back to front. "Picture that," says Vetter. "It was mind-boggling
to watch. The guys would be on the side of the court slapping
hands, going nuts."

The guys, however, wanted no part of Nikki on the floor. "She'd
make you look stupid," says Jason Capel, now a senior forward at
North Carolina. "I refused to guard her, because I didn't want
her to make a fool out of me."

Teasley took her game to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1997, and if
she wasn't consistent, she was breathtaking. "Let me put it this
way, she broke a lot of ankles in the ACC," says Georgia
Schweitzer, Duke's All-America point guard who graduated in 2001.
In her first three seasons Teasley averaged 14.5 points and
nearly six assists a game and left a long trail of Nikki Moments:
a right-hand-to-right-hand behind-the-back pass to herself for a
finish against Illinois as a freshman; an
I-can-do-better-than-you, over-the-shoulder look-away feed to
teammate Jessica Gaspar after Gaspar had passed behind her back
to Teasley as a sophomore; a 360-degree reverse baseline bank
against Duke as a junior in 2000.

"She can see the floor and make everybody better," says Chanel
Wright-Greene, who played with Teasley on the Tar Heels for two
years. "And you talk about flair...." Often Teasley punctuated
her play with a stop-action shimmy that came to be known as the
Teasley Shake.

Yet that flair obscured a daily torment that finally broke
Teasley on that January afternoon in 2000. She felt her control
slipping away. "I wasn't doing well academically, basketball
wasn't going great, my social life wasn't the greatest," she
says. "A lot of problems. I started thinking of ways to hurt
myself. Not necessarily suicide, but messing up my ankle or
taking some pills and putting myself out of commission for a
month or six weeks. Then I thought, Whoa, this is bad!"

Teasley didn't make the trip to Virginia. Hatchell left her with
the team's academic counselor, and before daybreak Ernestine,
Nikki's brothers and her friend Jill Vaughn, a 31-year-old bus
driver and part-time hairstylist in Frederick, had all arrived in
Chapel Hill.

On Jan. 12, Teasley had a consultation with Bradley Hack, the
clinical psychologist who is director of sports psychology in the
university's department of sports medicine. Teasley and Hack sat
in his small square office on the fourth floor of a downtown
building, and she let loose a young lifetime's worth of emotions.
She talked about her childhood, during which she and her brothers
were often left alone by Ernestine, who was trying to find her
way through troubles of her own. (Nikki's father, who died in
May, did not play a role in her upbringing.) "Two, three days
with no food in the house," says Teasley. "I'd just go in my room
like nothing bad was happening, and I'd stay there."

"It's true," says Ernestine, now 54 and a social worker. "There
were nights I didn't come home to my kids. I was having a hard
time. It hurts me so bad now to think about it. I hope God and my
children can forgive me." (The children say that they have, and
that the family is tighter than ever.)

In Hack's office Nikki also talked about her half brother Ernie's
death at 26 in a 1994 car accident. "I'd never accepted it," she
says. "I didn't cry at the funeral. Ernie got me started in
basketball. I still have a hard time with his absence. I have a
dream, and Ernie's there, talking to me, saying, 'It's O.K.,
'Cole, I just had to hide out for a little while.'" Nikki always
takes the court with Ernie's driver's license tucked into her
spandex undershorts.

She told Hack about the pressure of being the fabulous Nikki
Teasley. "Always in the spotlight since I was a little girl," she
says. "I know I'm not Michael Jordan, but you always have to be
on your toes or you'll disappoint people. I wasn't strong enough
to deal with it. I needed help."

She had never talked with anyone the way she talked with Hack.
"She had always withdrawn," says Hack. "That was her coping
strategy. Eventually her boat got swamped, and she felt
overwhelmed."

Vaughn called Teasley's episode a breakdown. Teasley prefers to
think of it as a breakthrough. It was Hack who offered the
diagnosis of "symptoms of depression and anxiety." He stresses
that "she's not bipolar, and she's not mentally ill. She needed
to learn coping strategies and how to manage her moods." Therapy
gives her an outlet for her emotions, and Paxil helps keep her
calm, although she admits to not taking her dose daily, as
prescribed.

Her recovery, like most, hasn't been seamless. Teasley returned
to the Tar Heels in late January 2000 and played through the NCAA
tournament, but in the spring she stopped going to classes,
workouts and therapy. At Hatchell's behest Teasley took the
2000-01 year off from school and basketball. "She wasn't
academically ineligible," Hatchell says, "but she had broken so
many team rules that we had no choice."

Teasley could have left college behind and turned pro, but she
resisted the temptation to sign with a European team. Instead she
went home to Frederick and took two jobs. During the day she
worked for a construction and paving company, and at night she
was a sales clerk in the children's clothing department at J.C.
Penney's in the Francis Scott Key Mall. "At Penney's everybody
called me Michelle," says Teasley. "I liked that."

She returned to Chapel Hill full-time this fall and is on track
to get her degree in African-American studies in May--a fact that
left her brother Michael and her mother weeping with joy in
Hatchell's office at the start of this school year. Her teammates
have met a sweeter version of the old Teasley. "It used to be I'd
walk into the locker room, see Nikki and say, 'Hey, Nikki,'" says
junior guard Corretta Brown. "Now I see her and it's, like,
'What's up, girl!'" The four freshmen who joined the Tar Heels
this fall have taken to Teasley as if she were their den mother.

"Nikki is playing the best she's ever played," Hatchell says.
There's one change: Teasley plays on the wing instead of the
point, where the talented Brown now plays, but Hatchell expects
both to handle the ball.

Every day is a gift, every word a message. Teasley loves her
teammates for accepting her, and she calls Hatchell a second
mother. "They helped me when I needed it," she says. "I hope
other athletes know it's O.K. to struggle and to ask for help. I
hope they don't hold it in."

She won't. On the floor, you'll see the no-look and the Teasley
Shake, because they are part of who she is. On Halloween
afternoon she hit the Carmichael court with the waistband of her
blue practice shorts pulled down to her knees--her long jersey
went almost that far--emulating a full-on ghetto roll. "I'm a
thug," she yelled. "I'm a thug for Halloween."

Teammates howled as she grabbed a ball and pounded out a
blinding series of dribbles through her legs and behind her back
before flipping a soft shot that fluttered through the net and
dropped peacefully to the floor.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER Teasley is pleased to feel in control again on and off the court, but her family is happiest that she's on track to graduate in the spring. COLOR PHOTO: JON GARDINER/THE CHAPEL HILL NEWS Before she took her break, Teasley (here in '99) was alternately dazzling and disappointing on the court, her play mirroring her moods. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER "Nikki is playing THE BEST SHE'S EVER PLAYED," says Hatchell (below). Every day is a gift, every word a message.

In high school she was JASON WILLIAMS IN BRAIDS. "She'd make you
look stupid," says Capel. "I refused to guard her."

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