Hold the Holdsclaw criticism

Recently, I was at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as Kansas legend Lynette Woodard was inducted. The Naismith Hall did not induct its first female player until 1992, but the exhibits in the new building -- which opened in 2002 -- were put together with a clear intention of being inclusive of women and girls.

The Hall honors its enshrinees in the dome that is the centerpiece of the hall. The second floor is a museum of the game's history, starting with the 1890s. There are exhibits for the top coaches, players and teams.

And Chamique Holdsclaw is a frequent presence.

There's her No. 23 jersey in the glass-cased tribute to Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Holdsclaw is also in the players' section. And one of the televisions in the hall shows an interview with Holdsclaw, as she talks about not allowing herself to be intimidated while honing her sport on the playgrounds of New York.

It's so odd, then, to think that as the WNBA playoffs begin this week, Holdsclaw will be conspicuous by her absence.

Her Washington Mystics will be playing, but Holdsclaw won't. Out due to a medical issue that has not been made public, Holdsclaw has been part of the strangest plot-twister of this WNBA season.

Not that it's any surprise that "strange" and the "Washington Mystics" would be linked. They have been the most baffling WNBA franchise. That's why when Holdsclaw first missed games this season, many assumed it was because of disenchantment with the Mystics.

But she has said that's not the case. And, for the record, she has stated a lot of other things that are NOT the reason she left the team. Which has led everyone to speculate all the more.

Summitt was at the Hall of Fame, too; she coached Woodard in the 1984 Olympics. I asked Summitt if it was time for everyone to just leave Holdsclaw alone.

"It's past time," Summitt said.

Of course, she also said she understood why reporters attempted to uncover what was going on.

"It's the media's job to find things out," Summitt said. "But, you know, if you keep hitting rock, stop digging."

This is where you get into the whole "public-figure" debate. Some have said that Holdsclaw, as a prominent sports personality in a major market, can't have an expectation of privacy about an issue that takes her away from her team during the season.

Others contend that it's nobody's business but Holdsclaw's, and the media have no business prying.

Truthfully, my impulse as a sports writer is to leave athletes alone if they want to be left alone. I'd just as soon take Holdsclaw at her word. But nobody wants to be duped -- or appear to have been duped.

If Holdsclaw indeed had a quarrel with the franchise, that's news that needed to be reported. And the Mystics have been problematic enough as an organization that such speculation was warranted.

But again, Holdsclaw has said that's not the issue. Which means that whatever the medical problem is, it really does NOT need reporting -- unless Holdsclaw decides to talk about it.

Holdsclaw's individual production in the WNBA has been tremendous, even when she has not had the ideal cast around her. And at least every time I've ever talked to her in the nine years since she began her college career, she has been polite, intelligent and insightful.

Yet in noticing the arctic-like chill in the Mystics' locker room earlier this season, I had to wonder how much of it Holdsclaw caused and how much of it she could change.

She's out of the picture for now, and rookie Alana Beard has stepped in as the Mystics' star. Behind Beard, Washington clinched the playoff spot. What does that mean for Holdsclaw's future with the Mystics? Does she want/need a fresh start somewhere else once she's able to play again? Would Washington benefit from that as well?

It seems ridiculous, just looking at her numbers, to say any team could be better without her. But sports has those chemistry situations that sometimes make numbers less important.

What it comes down to is that I feel both wistful -- and hopeful -- about Holdsclaw.

I dug up a transcript of interviews I had with Summitt and Holdsclaw in the summer of 1996, after Holdsclaw's national championship freshman season at Tennessee. Summitt explained about the time during that season when she knew Holdsclaw had become the team's true go-to player even as a rookie. She came over to Summitt on the bench during a game, tugged on her jacket and said, "Coach, get me the ball!"

Holdsclaw talked about getting up early for summer track workouts, and how Summitt had pushed her so hard (for which she was thankful), and what she needed to work on for her sophomore season.

And she talked about her grandmother, June, the woman who raised her and has since passed away.

"Sometimes, she'll say, 'Chamique, no matter what you get, it's never enough,' " Holdsclaw said then.

And that's always stuck with me. I thought about it the night of the 1998 national championship game, when Holdsclaw got her third title in a row. She seemed very perfunctory about it afterward, as if an NCAA title had become simply an expectation she had to meet, not something to rejoice.

The next year, though, she had the worst game of her college career in her last NCAA game, as Tennessee fell to Duke in the Elite Eight. And that's when maybe it first really became clearer to Holdsclaw how much it did mean to win it all.

I don't think, though, that even now she truly understands why she means so much to women's basketball.

While in the Hall of Fame, I thought about those women enshrined, the latest being Woodard, who played with such passion despite so little fame and external motivation.

When Woodard scored a career-best 49 points in a 1979 game, her feat received one paragraph the next day inside The Kansas City Star's sports section. I looked it up on microfilm and mentioned it to her last weekend. She laughed, saying, "Hey, but that was one more paragraph than I expected to get. So it meant something."

Holdsclaw could fill 100 scrapbooks with all that has been written about her. She still has many years ahead of her if she wants and then might be enshrined herself in the Hall of Fame.

In the end, it doesn't matter if we know what the problem was that caused Holdsclaw to leave this season. What matters is that she comes back next season.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.