LOS ANGELES More than a month has passed since Chamique Holdsclaw slipped into a Los Angeles Sparks uniform and embarked on a new journey in a new city with a new team and a new coach.
That's a lot of newness, but Holdsclaw, who requested a trade from the Washington Mystics, the team that drafted her out of Tennessee in 1999, is embracing her new life in hopes of reemerging from a season of discontent and rediscovery.
She has a flat in Venice Beach and on her off days, the native New Yorker enjoys mixing and mingling with the plethora of eccentrics, eclectics and crazies that populate the city's boardwalk. She's also having fun exploring the rest of Los Angeles.
"I'm still trying to find my way around, but I really like the Beverly Center and Century City [Mall]," she said. "As far as restaurants, I'm just into the typical things that I have back home like P.F. Chang's and McCormick & Schmick's. And I found this little spot in Marina Del Ray called Uncle Darrow's. They have Cajun food and that's good. I'm starting to feel at home."
And that's a wonderful thing because Holdsclaw wasn't sure if she'd ever feel comfortable again. She's not just coming back to the WNBA after spending several months playing in Valencia, Spain. She's returning from a trip to the abyss, where her demons led her, then split. And she had to find her own way back home in the dark.
Holdsclaw won't elaborate about the depression that forced her to bolt from the Mystics last July, though she hasn't refuted the belief that the emotional breakdown might have started with the 2003 death of the grandmother who reared her.
But the pressure was on long before that. In college, Holdsclaw won three consecutive NCAA titles and was a two-time Naismith Player of the Year. She eventually was named the Naismith Player of the Century, is largely regarded as the best women's player in NCAA history and was welcomed into the WNBA as a sort of savior, the face of "U.S. women's basketball," who was expected to further propel the fledgling league.
But despite Holdsclaw's Rookie of the Year hardware in 1999, the Mystics were rarely seen as a contender. The team, which opened this season with its eighth coach in as many years, had talent but couldn't seem to pull it all together, and was even referred to as the "Mistakes" by media members and fans at one point. The Mystics' only winning season came in 2002, when they lost to New York in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Washington ended up 17-17 last season, falling to Connecticut in the first round of the playoffs. Holdsclaw was leading the team in scoring (19.0) and rebounds (8.3) through the first 23 games, when she was placed on the team's injured list for "undisclosed" medical reasons.
Eleven months later and after scorching some nets in Europe the new, improved and seemingly stress-free Holdsclaw is more than holding her own on the court back in the WNBA. In the Sparks' home opener Tuesday against the San Antonio Silver Stars, Holdsclaw scored 19 points and pulled down five boards. After four consecutive double-doubles to open the season, she leads Los Angeles in both scoring (20.4) and rebounding (10.2). Comparatively, Lisa Leslie, who typically leads the Sparks in both categories, is averaging 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Leslie laughs at all the preseason speculation that the two future Hall of Famers might struggle to co-exist on the Sparks.
"Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a very unselfish person," Leslie said after Tuesday's win that moved the Sparks to 3-2 on the season. "It's basketball. I mean, I've played with Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes ... we've always won because that's not a big deal to me.
"As far as me being from L.A. and whose team is it and all that, we all have our fans, respectively, and we work hard and the bigger picture is to win."
Sparks coach Henry Bibby wasn't concerned, either, and said he hasn't had to make any specific adjustments to accommodate two players accustomed to carrying their teams.
"They're just good people," he said. "They play well together. They make the adjustments themselves, I haven't done anything. Lisa Leslie is just a born leader and Holdsclaw is getting into a situation where she wants to be, where people really appreciate what she does. It's just been a happy medium for all of us.
"On paper, I usually draw up more plays for Lisa Leslie because Holdsclaw gets hers. She knows how to get hers. She's in the right spot all the time. There are some players who don't need help. Chamique doesn't need help."
But on those rare occasions when she does, Holdsclaw knows where to look. In a short period of time, she and Leslie have developed that same type of fluid chemistry that led Magic and Kareem, Michael and Scottie and Shaq and Kobe to NBA titles.
"I think that we both are great basketball players and we want to win," Holdsclaw said. "It's like our games are different but we can complement each other. I can take a lot of pressure off her, it's like pulling back and forth. If she's not rebounding the ball well, I can back her up. One day if I'm not doing well, she's got me. We have a good feel for each other."
Added Leslie: "I just like [Holdsclaw's] ability to rebound, which is really amazing, especially offensively. She moves well without the ball and obviously I get a lot of double-teams. She's free to freelance out there and I get her the ball when she's cutting through. She said to me, 'I didn't know you were such a good passer.' And I said, 'I didn't know you moved so well without the ball.' "
That's one of the things that Holdsclaw, who has reverted back to her natural three position after playing the four with the Mystics, would like to improve while she's in Los Angeles and in a situation where she doesn't necessarily have to carry a team.
"I think in Washington people saw me with the ball in my hands a lot and being able to create," said Holdsclaw, the WNBA's third-leading scorer behind Swoopes and Diana Taurasi. "But I think that people failed to realize that I play really good without the ball and I'm starting to see that in L.A. I'm like, 'Wow!' I'm surprised at myself.
"I think that's another reason me and Lisa play so well together. When they double-team her in the post, I can read that and make good cuts to the basket. So I just want to become that player, one who plays good without the basketball."
Playing in Europe last year helped Holdsclaw develop into a better overall player. She says that the European players might not be as athletic as their American counterparts, but they play a much more physical game that is rooted in sound fundamentals.
"They're sort of like if you watch Dirk Nowitzki play," Holdsclaw explained. "They're great shooters. They can really shoot like you see in the men's game. I was able to learn some of the European tricks and will use them this year back in the WNBA."
Hopefully, those tricks, combined with a renewed passion and natural skills, will help Holdsclaw earn the one thing that has eluded her during her six years in the league. Holdsclaw is still a woman without a WNBA championship ring.
"I would say that the one thing that would validate this experience for me would be the championship," Holdsclaw said. "That's the thing that will make me, personally, feel like I've accomplished something.
"This is a great situation for me, playing on a team with a new coach. It's like everybody's starting over. The veterans were a little uncomfortable because they didn't know what to expect, so it's like we're all learning this stuff together. I think that kind of helped us build camaraderie. I feel blessed."
Miki Turner is a segment producer for ESPN Hollywood. She can be reached at Miki.P.Turner.-ND@espn.com.