Katrina Price seemed to have all the answers-until she left friends and family with one unfathomable question
There are things no one will ever know-not fully anyway-and things no one should have to see. But still we feel compelled to know, and so we force ourselves to look. Not long ago, in Oakwood, Texas, more than 500 people packed a nondescript, peach-brick building, many of them struggling to make sense of the unknowable. Between rocking hymns and passionate speeches, urgent wails of anguish went up as, one after another, they realized it was impossible. They would never understand why this woman they loved put a shotgun to her right temple and pulled the trigger. They would never be able to reconcile the facts of her life-the MVP awards, the academic honors, the smiles and high fives-with the ugly reality of her death. In fact, they might have refused to believe she was dead if not for the open casket. Inside the white, shiny box lay the remains of Katrina Price, only now her veil-covered head looked strangely misshapen and somehow fake, as if it were reconstructed from Play-Doh.
Go back one week. Katrina is sitting inside the William R. Johnson Coliseum. Her team, the one from Stephen F. Austin State University, is on the court, and the faithful are fired up. When the announcer calls Katrina's name, they cheer as if she's going to take the floor. She's not, though this is her house. She bought and paid for it with four years of fast breaks, off-balance buckets and gamechanging steals. "Our offense was basically, give it to Katrina and get out of the way," says coach Royce Chadwick. "With five on the clock, it was like, 'Where is she?'" Anitra Davis, a former roommate, remembers it well: "We leaned on her quite a bit. It was like a safety net. We always knew she'd do whatever it took to win."
As Katrina sits and watches, maybe she can't help but think about those days. Maybe she thinks about the 84 straight double-digit scoring games, or the dozens of times she tipped in the winning bucket. Maybe she thinks about one game in particular, the one in her senior year-1997-98-when the pressure was closing in on her and she still got the job done. The Ladyjacks had a two-game home stand and it seemed like all of Nacogdoches was caught up in the drama. Friends. Family. Professors. Even the cashier at Eckerd drug store. Katrina was inching toward the Ladyjacks' all-time scoring record. An enormous purple and white tote board stood at one end of the Coliseum, keeping track of the countdown: 8E7E 6 ... 4 ... 2 ... 1 .... On her 2,063rd point, SFA called a timeout to give her the ball. Katrina shook hands with the school's athletic director and wanted to get back to the game. "She was surprisingly humble," says Anitra.
Or maybe Katrina's thinking of a different game. Maybe she's thinking about the one she missed in December of her senior year, after her father died of a heart attack. On the day of the funeral, the Ladyjacks were scheduled to host Houston. Katrina wanted to play. "Was it an important game?" asks Chadwick. "It didn't matter if you were playing pinochle, it was important to her." That game may have been more urgent because it offered a chance to grieve. Four years earlier, when her mother, Daisy, succumbed to cancer, Katrina learned that playing ball helped ease the pain. "When I'm on the court, I can block everything out," she explained. Faced with yet another funeral, she argued that her team needed her. The coaching staff disagreed. She missed one game and one practice. Three days later, in a tournament in Las Cruces, N.M., she carried whatever demons she had onto the court and beat the smack out of them. She returned home as MVP.
If Katrina thinks about those things-the awards, the records or any of the 122 games in her college career-who can blame her? It's not like she came back to Texas to sit in the stands. No, Katrina Price graduated cum laude, with a teaching certificate and a BS in kinesiology. She played pro basketball. When the ABL folded in December, she enrolled in graduate school and started teaching in a school for troubled teens. Naturally, she drifted back into her circle of friends, the players on her old team. Only now, as they're playing, she's watching. And as the clock winds down, she's watching them lose by one lousy point. A year ago, she could have-no, would have-saved the day. Not now. The game ends, and Katrina consoles her old coaches in the locker room. She leaves for Anitra's place with the players, just like old times. They sit around and argue about what could have been. Soon they're thinking about going to a party.
"The mood was light, everybody was joking around," says Anitra. "That's why everything seemed so odd. That was not even 48 hours before."
For as much press as suicide gets, it's rare. In a nation of 272 million people, fewer than 32,000 take their own lives in a year's time. Eighty percent of all suicides are men. Ninety percent are white. Of the small group that's left, very few resemble Katrina Price, who was healthy and successful and only 23 years old. In 1996, the last year for which government statistics are available, only 36 of 30,903 suicides were black women in their early 20s.
So what made Katrina do it? Was she frightfully alone? Not likely. All she had to do was look around the Coliseum. The players thought of her as a teammate. The coach was like a proud father. Look at his shoes. At a game he'd wear a suit and sharp shoes, but he normally runs around in a pair of black and white adidas. Forget that Stephen F. Austin has a deal with Nike. Those adidas were a gift. "I went around saying, 'Look what she sent me,'" says Chadwick. "In practice, I kept saying, 'With these shoes, I'll be able to run and jump and do all the things she did.' The players roll their eyes and say, 'Look at this short old man.'"
If that family on the floor wasn't enough, Katrina had eight sisters. All were close. The youngest, Lucy, doubled as a roommate. When Katrina played in college, she often had family in the stands. They sometimes wore purple The Price Is Right T-shirts. In December, the whole crew-sisters, brothers-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews-assembled in Waco, where, much like Coach Chadwick, they reaped the rewards of Katrina's good fortune. Call it an adidas Christmas. For Katrina, though, the holidays were tempered by the uncertain new year that lay ahead. When the ABL folded on Dec. 22, Katrina was upset, and what player wasn't? She called her college coach, her agent and her friends. She sounded concerned but not crushed. Besides, as an older sister points out, Katrina had climbed so many mountains. She thought about playing overseas, but didn't want to leave her family. And ABL players were restricted from playing elsewhere until ABL lawyers finished up in bankruptcy court. What Katrina wanted most, it seems, was to give pro ball one more go, but she couldn't try out for the WNBA until April. In the meantime, she decided to enroll in school and get a job.
In no time, she did both. On Tuesday, Jan. 12, she started work at the County Alternative School. On Wednesday night, she went to class. Thursday, she left work sick but made it to class. Friday, she called in sick again. Nothing serious, just flu symptoms, but she told her boss she wasn't coming in. Maybe that was the day she started craving her old life. And maybe it was then that she realized she needed strength to continue on with her new one. She started calling Josh Belson, her old conditioning coach, who now manages a health club in Nacogdoches. She had trained with Josh four or five times a week during her senior year, because student teaching conflicted with team workouts. They never discussed personal things-Katrina had no steady boyfriend-but between all the squats and chest-presses, they covered a lot of ground.
Three days into grad school, she wanted to talk to him. She called four times and left four messages. Belson was out of town. She tried again Saturday. Three more times. Three more messages. That night, she made her last trip to the Coliseum for the Northwestern State game. "She seemed so upbeat," says Ladyjack center Danielle Ramsay. On Sunday, Katrina called Danielle to invite her old teammates to watch football on TV. The Ladyjacks had to practice. "Oh, I didn't know," Katrina replied. She started calling Josh again.
Was it only 10 months ago that she told him how much she enjoyed teaching, that she thought coaching would be great? It was spring '98 when she told him of her dreams of playing in the WNBA. In April, the more glamorous league overlooked her. If Katrina was upset, she bounced back well. Just six days later, the Long Beach StingRays made her their first pick, seventh overall, in the ABL draft. She had a deal with adidas and a contract worth nearly $80,000 from the league. "She bought a new car and came by to show me," Josh says. "Nothing flashy, a sport-ute like a 4Runner or something, but she was really happy."
So maybe on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 17, she's thinking about those days when she phones Josh again. He had been there for her before life got so complicated, before the ABL crashed. She had driven her new car to California to start a new life. The StingRays folded in August before her first game. She moved to Philadelphia to start another new life with the Rage. Once the season started, Josh kept tabs on her mostly through the newspapers and friends. She would tell them she was feeling positive even though she wasn't getting much playing time behind Teresa Edwards, the best 2-guard in the game. "She's a veteran, so you know Coach is going to play her," Katrina would say. "But I'm doing good. If it weren't for Teresa, I'd be playing 40 minutes."
Maybe that's what Katrina is thinking about on the last Sunday of her life. She leaves three messages for Josh, then dials Dan Moye, her adidas rep. She asks him to send shoes because she's going back to the gym. At 7 p.m., she tries Josh once more. He answers. "I'm so sorry I haven't called back," he says.
"How are you doing?" she gushes.
Pretty soon, they're talking basketball. She never mentions teaching or coaching. Instead, she tells him she's worried about the competition in the WNBA. Josh tells her not to worry. "You know what? We had a quarterback who was mediocre at best, but he got drafted. It wasn't because he was some big stud superstar but because he had potential. It doesn't matter that you averaged only 2.6 points in the ABL, you have potential."
"I know, I know," Katrina says. She asks if he will train her. Josh agrees to find her old workout records and to meet with her in the morning.
"Great, see ya at 7," she says.
The next morning, Martin Luther King Day, Josh is ready, but Katrina's a no-show. At two minutes to 7, her neighbors in the Chevy Chase apartment complex call the police. "They heard voices, something more than normal conversation," says Acting Lt. Ralph Ervin. It was Katrina's younger sister, Lucy, pleading with Katrina to put down a 12-gauge shotgun. She would not. And, although she misfired twice because of the gun's recoil, Katrina pulled the trigger a third time. When the police arrived, she was lying on the living room floor in a pool of blood. They never called an ambulance. There was no need.
The news spread like fire across the parched Texas landscape, leaving behind that one question-why? Details came later: She had called an older sister an hour earlier to say she was depressed. She had left a note-its contents still undisclosed-to her family. But the known details don't solve the mystery of why a woman with all that talent, with all those friends, with all those sisters and all those options, would decide to kill herself. Was she sick? No. Was she pregnant? No. Did she owe anyone a significant sum of money? No.
And, according to experts, even if any of those questions could be answered yes, it would not likely explain her death. Victims are almost always suffering from some deeper, emotional pain. Edwin Shneidman, author of The Suicidal Mind, explains: "Suicide is the condition where ending your suffering from the unbearable pain is preferable to life." It's not unusual for a suicide victim to plan for life at the same time she plans for death, he adds. While Katrina Price was planning for a new career, she was also searching for a gun. Lucy had never seen it before Jan. 18. Police are still tracing its origin, but that information isn't likely to solve the mystery either.
Sports psychologists say athletes often have trouble settling into ordinary life. Retirement, especially an involuntary one, poses a triple threat: Athletes lose the game they love, a family of coaches and teammates, and part of themselves. No longer able to say, "I'm an athlete," they don't know what to say. For women, it can be especially tough. "There are so many more obstacles for female athletes," says Temple sports psychologist Carole Oglesby, "that once a woman has achieved an athletic identity, letting go is so much more difficult."
Maybe Katrina couldn't let go. Maybe, without basketball, she didn't know who she was. Maybe she lost the one outlet for her frustration, the one activity that allowed her to make sense of all others. Maybe after reaching the top of one career, she couldn't face starting over at the bottom. And maybe, without ball, she had time to think about the loss of her mother and of her father, and of the expectations of everyone who knew her as a champion.
No one knows what one thing pushed Katrina Price to pull the trigger. Her friends spent the days after her death racking their brains for the telltale sign they missed. They battled guilt and they battled anger. "The person who commits suicide always puts her skeleton in the survivor's closet," says Shneidman.
Katrina Price left some shoes. And clothing. And furniture. And a relatively new car. She left trophies and awards and thousands of brilliant basketball moments. She left memories of smiles and laughter and love. And she left friends and family with one last view of her face-inside a coffin.