When the game is over

When the game is over

Chamique Holdsclaw's All-Star basketball career allowed her to mask her mental illness. Until it didn't. After hitting her lowest point, she walked away from the court and found a higher purpose.


Chamique Holdsclaw carries herself like a woman accustomed to attention. Six-foot-2, willowy, with locs that drape to her elbows and high cheekbones that make her appear far younger than her 40 years, Holdsclaw is someone folks notice. When she glides into rooms, eyes follow. When she pauses -- to order lunch, buy detergent, pump gas -- questions come. About her height, her career, who she is, or was, or might be. 

Eventually, inevitably, she is remembered. 

"Just this weekend, this guy asks me, 'What's your name?' I tell him. And he's all, 'Oh my God! I gotta take a picture. You're the best!' Within minutes, everybody in the room knew who I was."

Holdsclaw says the unbidden recognition unnerves her. 

"I don't like to be singled out." 

Being singled out has been a fact of Holdsclaw's life since she was 12 years old and the only girl asked to play on the boys' athletic teams. Soon after, her storied basketball career began. She became a three-time All-American at Christ the King High School in New York City. She then led Tennessee to three consecutive NCAA championships, becoming the school's leading career scorer and rebounder (male or female), prompting Knoxville to name a city street after her and legendary coach Pat Summitt to call her the best player she'd ever seen. 

"Everyone said she was the female Michael Jordan," remembers WNBA veteran Murriel Page, who met a teenage Holdsclaw when the two played at a USA Basketball event. "Even then, she dominated. I was like, 'Wow, this girl is still in high school?' She's killing us and we're freshmen in college."

Slam Magazine put Holdsclaw on its October 1998 cover (the only woman athlete ever featured) dressed in a Knicks jersey. She was the first pick of the 1999 WNBA draft, and Nike signed her to what was then the largest endorsement deal in the league. She inspired unprecedented expectations for a rookie player. 

"Chamique came into the league with a target on her back," recalls Page, who played six years with Holdsclaw on the Washington Mystics and two more with the Sparks. In Washington, Holdsclaw earned Rookie of the Year. She was averaging 20.5 points and 10.9 rebounds a game by 2003, her style a delight to watch, buttery ease combined with lethal execution. Page recalls a play against the Houston Comets in which Holdsclaw faked a pass, hiding the ball behind Cynthia Cooper's head before scoring on her. Such crowd-pleasing moves swiftly made Holdsclaw the face of the franchise, her smile adorning billboards and buses, her name recognition up there with NBA greats. 

Over her 11-season, four-team career, Holdsclaw would ultimately be awarded All The Things, among them, six WNBA All-Star nods, as well as an Olympic gold medal.

"Back then I was always chasing something," Holdsclaw says as she eats breakfast at a trendy Atlanta diner. "I wanted to be the first person from Christ the King to play for Pat Summitt. I wanted to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. I wanted to get my own shoe. I always wanted to be first, first, first."

She leans over the table, lowers her eyes. "Ask me: Do I remember a lot of those things?" 

She pauses, shakes her head. "No."

Relaxing slightly into her chair, Holdsclaw takes a fork, pushes a bit of soggy egg to the corner of her plate. She clarifies that she's not being rhetorical, that she genuinely doesn't recall pivotal life events or moments of glory. The memory gaps are a consequence of the battle her brain was waging with itself at the time, a struggle of such pernicious and exhausting intensity that entire swaths of her life dissolved before her eyes as if written on an Etch A Sketch, shaken and lost forever. 

This was before she knew what was happening in her mind. When she knew only how to pretend that it wasn't.

 

The unspoken promise of excellence is that being "the best" will be enough, that any hole you feel inside can be filled with adulation and accomplishment. And so it was for Holdsclaw, until one baleful afternoon, seven years after going pro, when the best woman to have ever played the game attempted to kill herself with an overdose of pills. 


Vols legend Pat Summitt, with Holdsclaw in 1999, remained a guiding force for her star long after their time together at Tennessee. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo

"I HAD PARENTS that drank, so I had a lot of free time," Holdsclaw says bluntly of her childhood in Jamaica, Queens, with her mother Bonita Clark, a data-entry clerk who had Chamique at age 18, and her father, Willie Johnson, a mechanic, age 22 when she was born. 

At home, calm often erupted into chaos without warning, so Holdsclaw learned early to stay alert, be ready. To feed herself, she took cash from her mother's purse to buy food for her and her younger brother, Davon, at the local store. Sometimes she added a toy to surprise him. "Chamique was used to being the mother of the house," Bonita, now living in North Carolina, admits of the years before her sobriety. 

In her head, Holdsclaw fantasized she was living in an episode of "The Cosby Show," that her world wasn't in fact so different from the gauzy comfort of the Huxtables'. It was a story she told herself, and she found if she believed hard enough, it felt true. On good nights, she and her dad would have pillow fights, watch Giants games together. Willie taught her how to ride a bicycle, took her to the arcade.

Holdsclaw was 11 when the state decided it was in her and Davon's best interests to live with their maternal grandmother, June Holdsclaw, in the Astoria projects. The final straw: an incident in which neighbors alarmed by a burning smell called the police, who burst through the door to find Willie unconscious on the couch, music blaring, dinner scorching dangerously on the stove top. The move was a relocation and reckoning that infuriated young Chamique. "I was ashamed, a very angry kid," she says. "My parents would say they were going to come visit. I'd wait, and they wouldn't show up."

June put an end to Holdsclaw's unsupervised and unlimited freedom. She became the disciplinarian and North Star that Holdsclaw needed to thrive. "My grandmother was all about structure and discipline, academics. Everything was centered around church. I had to get in line with that." 

The transition, though stabilizing, didn't come easy. Holdsclaw asked to paint her bedroom walls black, got into fights with other kids. "I would have temper tantrums, tear up my room. I isolated myself." 

Outside her window was a basketball court. When church failed to provide the steadying hand June hoped for, she advised her granddaughter to leave her aggression and anger out there on the pavement. Holdsclaw did just that, the court quickly becoming both refuge and escape hatch.

"Kids would say, 'Yo, man, your mom's always on a park bench, passed out.' But after I stepped on the basketball court, they didn't talk about that anymore." Any chatter shifted to her promise, then to the fulfillment of that promise, then to almost nothing else. 

"The perfect mask," she says. 

From high school forward, Holdsclaw used basketball not just as a path out but as a shield to avoid confronting her reality. "Basketball supplied structure to my life," she explains. "My mind focused on the task. It wasn't all over the place." 

Holdsclaw hid her mental health struggles from most of the people around her.

Holdsclaw ran herself like a rabbit, the exertion a sort of medication, a way to exhaust her body and brain, keep the wolves too weary to claw the door. Playing also corralled her mania -- conflagrating euphoria and superheroic feelings of power that made Holdsclaw feel invincible. In college, she competed on three hours of sleep. Told no one. She also kept quiet about her dad. 

During her sophomore year at Tennessee, June phoned Holdsclaw to tell her that Willie had been institutionalized with schizophrenia. "I was too embarrassed to ask anybody what that was," Holdsclaw remembers. "I went to the library and looked it up in a book."

Throughout her college years, Holdsclaw would drive to visit her father when she could, the two taking in the air on an outdoor bench, eating Burger King, chatting about football or whether he needed new boots, anything other than why he was in that place. She'd pretend not to notice the deadness in his eyes, how he was there, but not, the heady joy of his youth replaced by a leaden calm. 

Then she'd hug him goodbye, drive back to school and play basketball better than any player before her.

Holdsclaw understood the rules of athlete image maintenance. How the truth was messy, and when you are being groomed for greatness, messes are a distraction. "I was living two lives," she says now. Lives that grew further disassociated the more she advanced in her career. 

"I always thought that she was just moody," says Page, recalling Holdsclaw's WNBA years. "She'd come into the locker room one day, 'Hey, how's everybody doing?' And the next day, not say anything to anybody. I used to call her Sybil."

Page recalls getting a phone call, "'Chamique's locked herself in her house, she's not coming out.' And I'm like, huh? What? I just saw her, we just played a game. What could be wrong?"

"You're put into the sports world, you learn what image is," Holdsclaw says of the way gifted athletes are spotted young, then monitored, monetized, media trained. "I used that image to protect myself. I wasn't honest about needing help. I was just going through the motions, trying to keep stuff together."

In time, Holdsclaw would be diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. But until those determinations were made, she suffered silently, welcoming the manufactured star-athlete shell, the shiny, candy-coated sheen of the sound bite, the controlled narrative, the performance of performance. The bigger she became, the larger the shadow she cast, the less of herself she revealed.

"As athletes, the last thing you do is ask for help," explains Page, who adds that even after they became tight, Holdsclaw never mentioned her despondency or anxiety. "For Chamique, it was especially hard for her to tell anyone, 'I'm struggling, I can't take this.' And a lot of players wouldn't dare say anything to her because she was Chamique Holdsclaw." 

On May 27, 2002, Grandmother June died of a heart attack while she slept. Her passing unraveled Holdsclaw. Her anchor gone, depression set in like an industrial fog, choking out any light. As months bled into years and Holdsclaw bounced from Washington to L.A. in 2005, then Atlanta in 2009, then San Antonio in 2010, with international play mixed in, she found herself too weary to exorcise the cyclical thoughts that chased their tails in her head. For the first time, basketball wasn't drug enough. 

"[NBA player] Steve Francis actually called me around then," recalls Page of Holdsclaw's stint with the Sparks. "They'd had a conversation that didn't sit well with him. He told me to keep an eye on her, make sure she's not by herself."

"Chamique was movin', movin', movin' after my mom died," Bonita recalls. "She was struggling."

In 2006, Holdsclaw was rushed via ambulance to the hospital after swallowing several pills. She survived but kept the suicide attempt largely private. 

"The official story was she was sick and dehydrated," Page says. The team told the media that Holdsclaw was out to take care of a "family matter."

Months later, Page was one of the few peers to whom Holdsclaw confided. "She said she kept it from me because she didn't want to be a burden."

Even after trying to end her life, Holdsclaw believed she owed it to her grandmother, her teammates, her coaches, everyone who banked on her, to keep up the facade. 

"I didn't want to seem weak in anyone's eyes. I put this cloak around me." 

And then six years later, on Nov. 13, 2012, the cloak dropped for good.


Holdsclaw shares a laugh with her grandmother, June, left, and her mother, Bonita, during a pregame ceremony honoring Vols seniors in 1999. Byron Small/Knoxville News-Sentinel/AP Photo

HER NAME IS Chamique Holdsclaw.

She's a basketball player.

She's mentally unstable.

The 911 call came seconds after Holdsclaw smashed the windows and fired a 9 mm gun through the Range Rover of her ex-girlfriend, then WNBA player Jennifer Lacy. The news spread like ants on a sugar cube. The female Michael Jordan was wanted by the police. 

After her arrest, Holdsclaw phoned her mother from jail. "She said, 'Ma, I can't do this, I can't be in this place," Bonita recalls. "And I was telling her, 'Chamique, you just pray.' I don't even believe she knew what was going on because she was so out of it."

When Holdsclaw relives the incident, she says her vision tunneled on the gun in her hand, something inside her urging her to lift the muzzle to her own head and pull the trigger. Then her mind blanked, and it did not come clear until hours later, when she had to be told what she'd done. (Lacy did not respond to a request for comment.)

Released on $100,000 bond and wearing an ankle monitor, Holdsclaw went home feeling as if she'd detonated her entire life. She would plead guilty to two counts of aggravated assault, one count of criminal damage in the first degree, two counts of criminal damage in the second degree and possession of a firearm in commission of a felony. She was ultimately sentenced to pay $3,000 and complete 120 hours of community service. 

"People abandoned her after that," Page says. "Chamique really struggled with the fact that friends she used to talk to every week weren't returning her calls, didn't want to have anything to do with her."

"It was a scary time in Chamique's life," attests Lakia Reid, an Atlanta friend to whom Holdsclaw reached out earlier on the day of the shooting. "She felt so much remorse about letting people down." 

Holdsclaw watched as everything she'd labored since childhood to obscure and deflect was thrust naked into the glaring sunshine for the world to gawk at. Decades of respect and dominance on the court giving way to the laziest of insults. 

"'Oh, her? She's f---ing crazy,'" Holdsclaw says, parroting what she heard from colleagues and former confidants. 

This time, instead of trying to ram the media-unfriendly genie back in the bottle, Holdsclaw decided to come clean. She spoke out about her mental illness to anyone who asked. "I was tired of trying to be something that I'm not."

However noble, there was a cost. 

When you allow people to see the real you, when you demolish your carefully crafted veneer, you forfeit control. You become unsparingly real. Consequences of radical honesty can include, but are not limited to, derision, humiliation, divorce, job loss, loneliness, existential crisis. Friends flee from you as if you're a human Titanic. 

Holdsclaw experienced nearly all of the above, with the added bonus of tabloid headlines edited to make her appear maximally unhinged. 

“Everything that happened, going through it was the worst thing. But it was also the best thing. Because I could finally wake up with no secrets.”


Chamique Holdsclaw

At her lowest point, she drove to visit Coach Summitt, a woman she had come to rely on as a mother figure. The two sat down at Summitt's Knoxville house, the coach wasting no breath on any nonsense. 

"Mique, talk to me. Are you taking care of yourself?"

"Coach, I'm trying. This is hard."

"Mique, not everybody is your friend. You have to deal with people that know you, know your character, know who Chamique is. Me, I know who you are." 

Holdsclaw pushed back, reminded her of that horrible day, the gun, the loss of control, a thousand what-ifs galloping across her conscience.

"Mique," Summitt interrupted kindly, firmly. "You just had a bad day."

At that, Holdsclaw felt decades of shame slip from her shoulders. 

"When I got home, I did everything Coach told me to. I changed my phone number. I deleted contacts. I blocked emails. I got the help I needed."

Holdsclaw entered weekly cognitive behavioral therapy. Started new meds. Took them consistently. She pruned her social circle to single digits. 

"The old me always wanted to make people feel part of something, you know?" She struggles to finish, her voice hitching. 

"Everything that happened, going through it was the worst thing. But it was also the best thing. Because I could finally wake up with no secrets."


Holdsclaw, going up against her former Washington Mystics and Katie Smith in 2010, made her final WNBA stop in San Antonio. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

"IMAGINE BEING ONE of the greatest and never going near it." 

Cara Wright is glancing at Holdsclaw, brows raised, as the two sit side by side, prepping for a business meeting. Wright, 34, met Holdsclaw in 2011 at an NBA event, and the two are now a couple.

Wright wishes Holdsclaw would find her way back to the sport she helped put on the map. Herself a former player for Dayton, Wright remembers watching Holdsclaw compete, how she made everyone else look as if they were running with lead shoes. "To this day, people compare themselves to her. She set the standard." 

"She doesn't understand," Holdsclaw says of her choice to leave basketball behind for her present career of public speaking and mental health advocacy. She pats Wright on the thigh, shimmies a bit in her seat. She talks about how everyone assumes she's still playing ball. How after setting the game behind her, she has never been happier. 

Holdsclaw chooses not to hang memorabilia at the couple's house, basketball being her profession, "not my identity." The only traces of her celebrated past are a few scrapbooks fans made as gifts while she was at Tennessee. She looks at them about once a year, says they help her recall events she wouldn't otherwise. They also contain images of her grandmother, two women celebrating their shared success, dreams no longer deferred, or so it seemed at the time. 

"The happiest I was? The safest I felt?" Holdsclaw ponders. "Living with my grandmother in a three-bedroom, small-ass apartment in the projects where the elevator smelled like piss." 

She says she wishes she could do as Wright suggests, rejoin her sport in some capacity, maybe as a coach or recruiter. But for now, it's a non-starter. She worries about the expectations that would come with her returning to the hoops spotlight, what picking up a basketball could cost her. 

"I feel like I'm living my authentic being," she explains of her present life. "I don't have to hide." 

For Holdsclaw, her current path is not about ball but rather about being a "person of service." She is going to make some lemonade out of all this if it's the last damn thing she does. "The mental health component of sports is missing," she says. So she talks to kids of all ages, in every state, telling the whole truth, leaving nothing out. "I work harder at this than I ever did at basketball." 

Holdsclaw -- who finds company among Metta World Peace, Delonte West, Royce White and Brandon Marshall as professional athletes who have gone public with mental health struggles -- is transparent about her suicidal ideation, her dark times, about what others might call "weaknesses." 

When she speaks, students linger for hours after she wraps, standing in long lines to ask their own, intimate questions, share their most paralyzing fears. Often they cry, fall into her like bowling pins.

"She makes herself vulnerable because she knows firsthand that any interaction can be life-changing," Reid says. 

Holdsclaw also understands how much mental illness scares people. The loss of control, the intricacies of brain chemistry, the notion that someone of such magnitude and physicality can be leveled so completely. 

If the mighty can fall, what awaits the rest of us? 

Holdsclaw is careful to explain that, while she has a handle on her mental health nowadays, the myth that all it takes is the right prescription or the right therapist to fix the human brain irks her. It's a trap she fell into herself, with demonstrably negative results. 

"The kids she talks to all want to know how she got over it," Wright says.

"And I explain, you don't," Holdsclaw interjects. "You're never cured. I have days where it's still so difficult. But I'm in touch with my feelings now."

Since she has stopped playing, Holdsclaw has turned her attention to her relationships. "I had a lot of repairing to do," she admits candidly of her past. She visits her father in South Carolina, where he is looked after by extended family, checking to see whether he needs cash or clothes, bringing him his favorite meals. She misses the charismatic figure he was when she was a kid -- "like Teddy Pendergrass," Bonita swoons -- but accepts where he is now. 

Holdsclaw acknowledges that reconnecting with her mother has "taken time." ("It's like '50 First Dates,'" she jokes.)

Holdsclaw remains wounded and wary, but says she has found empathy for her mom, realizing that our weaknesses don't make us monsters, even if we behave monstrously when we're weak. 

"People forgave me," she says with a shrug. "I can't judge her anymore." 

Holdsclaw sees the path she could have traveled, had her bipolar disorder continued to have been ignored, how mental illness takes the grand and makes them small.

It's a lesson she learned from decades of watching her father struggle, a lesson reaffirmed in 2012, after she ran into former ACC Rookie of the Year Schuye LaRue at a Jimmy John's sub shop in Washington, D.C. LaRue, dressed in ill-fitting black clothes, asked Holdsclaw for her autograph. It took a minute before Holdsclaw recognized the woman she'd once played pick-up games against. LaRue had been homeless for years, sleeping in various parks, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Until that jolting encounter, Holdsclaw had no idea. 

"I bought her a sandwich and a drink, then went back to my hotel room." As Holdsclaw gazed out her window, she spotted LaRue sleeping on the street. "That f---ed me up, because that could have been me. She was as good as I was."

"Mental illness is something that athletes and coaches push to the side because we're always told that we're fighters and we can overcome anything," Page cautions. "But we can't."


Now a mental health advocate, Holdsclaw speaks to a crowd in Los Angeles earlier this year. Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Laureus

THESE DAYS HOLDSCLAW practices vigilance. When she feels the mania rising, she removes herself from the scene. Where she used to shoot hours of hoops to ease her nerves, now she checks her medication, takes deep breaths. More often than not, she'll head home, sit in the cool quiet. No music, no television. She also finds solace on her bike, cycling miles through the rolling hills, nothing but open road ahead of her.

Before her 40th birthday, Holdsclaw ventured to Singapore alone, the trip on her bucket list. She spent nine days touring temples, waking at 6:30 a.m. to meditate.

Even there, strangers inquired whether she played basketball, but it didn't bother her as much. At one temple, she performed a ceremony of wishes. She keeps the red and gold paper envelope, where she listed her secret desires, folded in her wallet. 

Holdsclaw says she returned stateside grateful for the journey, the spiritual uplift, even though she is less about organized religion than she once was. 

"I used to know the Bible like the back of my hand," she quips, having learned at the insistence of her grandmother, who also saw fit to baptize Holdsclaw at Trinity Lutheran Church when she was 11 or 12. "Pastor Meyers burned my hand with the candle that day," Holdsclaw recalls, laughing, as she takes a sip of coffee at a bustling espresso bar. "Then he prayed over them, saying, 'Your hands are anointed. They're going to be a blessing to you in your life.'" 

Holdsclaw rolls her eyes good-naturedly, drains her cup.

"When I was the best, I didn't want to be," she confesses, standing up, her unfolding body attracting fresh stares from nearby strangers. "I didn't know who I was then. I do now."

Holdsclaw spoke at the 2017 espnW: Women + Sports Summit. Click here for more coverage.

Award-winning journalist Allison Glock is a senior writer for espnW. Her writing also has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ and many others. She has written seven books, including her latest, the fourth in her YA series, "Changers."