One of the first things that Chamique Holdsclaw, a self-described "East Coast girl," noticed after moving to Los Angeles is that it can be a touchy-feely town. "When she got here, Mique said to me, 'Man, people out here sure do hug a lot,'" says Penny Toler, the general manager of Holdsclaw's new team, the Los Angeles Sparks. "I told her to get used to it, because this team is like a family. We hug just to say hello."
The Sparks have wrapped their arms around Holdsclaw in a figurative sense as well, welcoming her back to the WNBA after she abruptly left her old club, the Washington Mystics, last July, a month before the end of last season. The reason for her departure was shrouded in mystery--even her teammates and then coach Michael Adams didn't know why she left--until Holdsclaw acknowledged three months later that she was suffering from clinical depression, brought on, she says, by the 2002 death of her grandmother. She gave up basketball for several months as what she called "a darkness" enveloped her and she became increasingly withdrawn, sitting in her D.C. apartment alone, unable to bring herself to even turn on the TV to watch her former teammates.
Eventually Holdsclaw received psychiatric help for her illness, and she began to rediscover her passion for the game when she played for a Spanish team, Valencia, last winter. But it wasn't until the Mystics fulfilled her request for a fresh start by trading her (L.A. gave up forward DeLisha Milton-Jones and a 2006 first-round draft choice in the March deal) that Holdsclaw, 27, decided to return to the WNBA.
Now the Sparks are not only favored to dethrone the defending champion Seattle Storm, but they also can boast of having two of the league's best-known players--Holdsclaw, a 6'2" forward who has a scoring title (2002) and two rebounding titles (2002, '03) on her résumé, and 6'5" center Lisa Leslie, who earned two MVP awards in leading L.A. to a pair of championships. Los Angelenos will be relieved to know that this promises to be a much less acrimonious pairing than the last high-profile basketball duo that shared the Southern California spotlight. "After playing with Lisa for a while, all I can say is, Kobe was kind of stupid for getting rid of Shaq," Holdsclaw said after the Sparks opened the season with a 68--50 road victory over the Storm last Saturday. "Having that big person in the middle that the other team has to focus on makes everything easier."
Leslie and Holdsclaw showed only flashes of the kind of brilliance they may eventually produce together, but Leslie still finished with 23 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots, and Holdsclaw, who played all 40 minutes, led the team with 14 rebounds in addition to scoring 16 points. Though Holdsclaw hit only 5 of 17 from the floor, her poor shooting didn't seem to bother her. After the game she sat in the visitors' locker room with one ice pack on her right knee and another on her right foot, relieving soreness that seemed familiar to her, even welcome. "I guess I'm back," she said. Her numbers on the stat sheet could have been bigger, but her smile could not. ‚ñ†