Atlanta's Piedmont Park is lightly populated as Chamique Holdsclaw strolls unnoticed behind her panting Yorkies, Riley and Doogie, on an overcast afternoon in mid-May. Then a middle-aged man getting out of his car recognizes her mass of pulled-back braids and her lean, 6'2" frame. "Hey, baby," he shouts, "I'm glad to see you back playing again!" It's the sort of greeting she's been hearing from strangers a lot lately. "Good to see you smile!" "Keep fighting!" "We love you!" Most who follow the WNBA are aware that depression caused Holdsclaw to withdraw from the league, but only a few close friends understand how deeply she despaired. And whereas she once kept her darkest moments locked inside, she now shares her insight into those experiences as a form of therapy—for herself and for others. "I got one letter from a guy who tried to kill himself twice," she says. "Then he heard the story of my depression and the strength I've shown, and now he's working on getting his life back. That's big."
Holdsclaw knows how big because in June 2006 she had suicidal thoughts that led to an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant, the low point she had not talked about in detail until a few weeks ago. For now, though, her head is clear again. She wants back on the court.
A six-time all-star, Holdsclaw was last seen in a WNBA uniform five games into the 2007 season, just before she abruptly left the Los Angeles Sparks. A new season begins this weekend, and she'll start at forward for the Atlanta Dream. Just as many fans and players have expressed support for her, there are others, she expects, who are thinking, Will Holdsclaw walk away again?
"I would put anything on that not happening," she says. "I've been broken. I can't be broken again."
Holdsclaw seemed indomitable at Tennessee, where she won three straight NCAA titles (1996 through '98), was twice the national player of the year and came to be known as the female Michael Jordan. She barely broke a sweat during Pat Summitt's grueling practices. Yet all her gifts were not enough to lift the Washington Mystics, the team that made Holdsclaw the No. 1 pick in the 1999 WNBA draft, out of mediocrity. She was Rookie of the Year and a perennial All-Star, but the team was young and unstable—a new coach every year—and the Mystics lost almost twice as much as they won. Then, the losses started to mount for Holdsclaw off the court as well.
On May 27, 2002, her maternal grandmother, June Holdsclaw, who had raised Chamique and her younger brother, Davon, died of a heart attack. Living with June in her Queens, N.Y., housing project had given Holdsclaw stability, discipline and an escape from her parents' alcohol-fueled fights. Davon eventually returned to their mother, Bonita, but Chamique stayed with June, who became her legal guardian. "She was my rock," says Holdsclaw, who didn't take the time to properly grieve. She had GRANDMA tattooed over a cross on her right ankle, swallowed her sorrow and kept playing.
That season, when Holdsclaw was the league's top scorer (19.9 points a game) and rebounder (11.6), and the next were her best as a pro. But in May '04 there was another big loss: Chamique's maternal grandfather, Thurman, died of prostate cancer. Again she pushed aside her grief and tried to play through it, but this time she could not overcome all her pent-up emotion.
In public view she was averaging 19.0 points and 8.3 rebounds through the first 23 games, but on the inside, she says, "I was losing it." Teammates started to notice a change. "Chamique is a people person," says former Mystics guard-forward Stacey Dales. "She's blunt, sarcastic, funny, direct. When you walk in the locker room, she might ask you the most deep-end question. When that interest in others stops, something's wrong."
Holdsclaw would retreat to her apartment, draw the curtains and sit in the dark, eating Fruity Pebbles from the box. The phone rang, the light on the answering machine blinked. She ignored them. "There was a weight on my shoulders so heavy I couldn't move," she says.
On July 28 Holdsclaw played in her final game of the '04 season, and the Mystics' front office cited undisclosed "medical reasons" to explain her departure. Rumors swirled: Was she pregnant? Addicted to drugs? Suffering from cancer? Three months later Holdsclaw went public with her diagnoses of clinical depression, discussing it with reporters in her lawyer's office.
"Looking back, I wish I had gone up to somebody in the front office earlier and said, 'Look, I'm having a tough time. I need some time off,'" she says. "But I saw my situation as embarrassing. There's a stigma, especially in the African-American community. We're such prayerful people, the answer is always, 'Let's go and pray.'"
Looking for a fresh start in 2005, Holdsclaw asked the Mystics to trade her, so they dealt her to L.A. The Sparks helped her find a therapist, who prescribed Wellbutrin XL, an antidepressant that didn't drain her energy. With Holdsclaw leading the team in scoring, the Sparks made the playoffs and she made the All-Star team again. "Things were great," she says.
But with her grandmother gone, Holdsclaw had become her family's go-to problem solver, and as the '06 season got under way there were developments that brought a lot of pressure on her. Holdsclaw's stepdad, Fredrick Clark, had esophageal cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy in North Carolina, and his marriage to Bonita was crumbling. At the same time Holdsclaw's father, Willie Johnson, who suffers from schizophrenia, had stopped taking his meds and would disappear for months, sending his family in South Carolina into a frenzy of worry. "You're the only one he'll listen to," relatives told Chamique.
Holdsclaw took a two-week leave from the team and traveled East to fix what she could. She returned to L.A. in early June emotionally exhausted. One night, as she sat in her Marina del Rey apartment angry and despairing, she stared at her bottle of Wellbutrin. How many would it take to end it all? She called a friend who lived nearby.
"I don't want to do this anymore," Holdsclaw said.
"What do you not want to do anymore? Do you not want to play?" asked the friend.
"I don't want to play," Holdsclaw responded. "I'm tired, I just want to be at peace.... I want to be at peace with my grandmother."
By the time the friend arrived, Holdsclaw had swallowed 10 or 11 Wellbutrins. The friend took her to a hospital. What followed that night comes back to Holdsclaw in chaotic vignettes: being forced to drink activated charcoal; vomiting repeatedly; crying hysterically because she was hallucinating that a cowboy with a lasso was chasing her. "I felt like I was going to die," she says. "It was the worst night of my life."
Holdsclaw remained hospitalized for a few days. The only teammate who knew she was there was her good friend Murriel Page, and Holdsclaw told her she was suffering from dehydration. The few who did know about the overdose chastised her. "They told me how stupid I had been, how anything could have happened," she says. "I vowed to myself: I can never let this happen again."
Holdsclaw swore off meds and returned to the team, coming off the bench to contribute 15.0 points and 6.1 rebounds as the Sparks put up the best record in the West before losing in the first round of the playoffs. She was looking forward to the next season.
That optimism was shaken in the spring of 2007 after star center Lisa Leslie announced she was pregnant and would sit out the season, and coach Joe Bryant was replaced by Michael Cooper, who had led the Sparks to WNBA titles in 2001 and '02. Cooper asked Holdsclaw to try point guard, a position she had never played and then, she says, rode her hard. "It was like he felt he had to be extra tough on me," says Holdsclaw, who was also bothered by tendinitis in her knees. "He was pushing me, and my body couldn't handle it." Attempts to discuss her frustration were met with "a deaf ear," she says. She started to dread going to practice. "I was so excited to play for Coop, but after a while, I was like, Man, I don't know. I don't want to go to the place I've been." (Cooper declined to comment for this article.)
Five games into the '07 season Holdsclaw abruptly retired. The main reason she gave at the time—"I just didn't feel it anymore"—struck many as insufficient. The rumors and judgment began anew: She was selfish. She was a head case. She was depressed again. "I was one of those people who was saying, 'What the hell?'" says Page. "I was hurt that she didn't tell me beforehand, and as a teammate, I was angry. How could she just leave the team like that? But as her friend, I understood she wasn't happy."
In the fall, as she had in many off-seasons, Holdsclaw played in Europe, but her WNBA days appeared to be over. For the first time in years she had summers to herself, and she enjoyed them. She traveled, explored museums, entertained friends in her new home outside Atlanta. "It was the greatest two years of my life," she says.
Among Holdsclaw's diversions last summer was watching Atlanta's new WNBA expansion team, which had strong support from fans despite only four wins. After attending a game one day, she told coach and G.M. Marynell Meadors, "You just need a finisher." When Meadors asked if she was interested in the job, Holdsclaw said yes.
In December the Sparks agreed to trade Holdsclaw's rights to the Dream for the 13th pick in the '09 draft. When Meadors asked if she wanted a one- or two-year contract, Holdsclaw said three. "I feel comfortable with this situation. I feel at home," says Holdsclaw. "Actually, I feel like a rookie again."
At 31, she has some wear and tear issues. Seven months ago Holdsclaw had a scope to clean out loose cartilage in her right knee, and she still has frequent swelling behind that kneecap, but she has no doubts that she can have a powerful impact on her new team. Meadors plans to start Holdsclaw and play her as many minutes as her knee will tolerate. "She can be a great player and a great leader for us," he says.
Off the court Holdsclaw is equally confident in herself. "I know now that when I have something bad going on in my life, I can pick up the phone, call a friend and not be ashamed," she says. What's more, her family is a source of strength rather than despair. Her relationship with Bonita, who has been sober for more than 15 years, is so tight "we're like sisters," says Chamique. Clark is cancer-free. And Johnson may not always know what year it is, "but he's happy in his world," says his daughter.
Holdsclaw has found happiness in her world too. Asked what she would like to be remembered for, Holdsclaw doesn't mention her outsized success at Tennessee or any accomplishments that have come—or might still come—in the WNBA. She thinks a moment. "I persevered," she says. "Things happen in life, and you either stay knocked down or you work through them. I can really say I've worked through them. I became a stronger person and a better person."
"There was a weight on my shoulders so heavy I couldn't move," says Holdsclaw.
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Photograph by LYNN JOHNSON
SOUTHERN COMFORT After walking away from the Mystics and Sparks (left, in '07), Holdsclaw has a Dream to play for beginning this Saturday.
DARRYL DENNIS/CAL SPORT MEDIA
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO
SPRINGBOARD Holdsclaw left Tennessee with three national titles and great expectations.