How Imani McGee-Stafford Found Her Voice -- And A Reason To Live

SC Featured: Her Voice (7:00)

Texas hoops star Imani McGee-Stafford uses the power of words -- via slam poetry -- to overcome a difficult past. (7:00)

AUSTIN, Texas -- It's supposed to be warmer than this. The almanac says the average low this time of year is 46 degrees, the high 67. Just a handful of days ago it was nearly 80. But on this night, Imani McGee-Stafford is wearing a pair of bright yellow gloves and the closest thing she has to a winter coat. It's barely 30 degrees outside, and she is not happy.

"I didn't come down here for this," she says, cutting her eyes to the door each time a new patron enters Moonshine, a popular downtown restaurant, and allows a blast of cold air to sneak inside. "I'm an L.A. girl. I'm about to die out here."

It's a funny line, but it's hard to laugh.

When you know someone has attempted suicide three times before graduating from high school, it's difficult to find the humor in a reference she makes about her own death. Even in a joke about the weather.

The truth is McGee-Stafford didn't just casually "come down" to the University of Texas the way most of the student body did. She fled, hoping to escape the relentless pain that had sadistically tormented her nearly every day of her childhood. Pain that hounded her into silence, until one day the only thing an L.A. girl could think of doing for relief was to reach for a bottle of pills in her parent's medicine cabinet and swallow all of the unknown contents inside.

The first time she reached that breaking point she was only 10.

"I go to a therapist [now] so I can handle my crazy," she says, matter-of-factly. "Everybody has a little crazy in them but everyone is not willing to address it. I'm finally in a place where I'm able to express what is going on with me in a healthy, positive way."

But thick skin and therapy are only part of the reason why the Longhorns center is able to make a joke about dying from the cold even when those around are not quite ready to laugh. In Austin, she found supportive teammates and coaches. She fell in love. And more importantly she found the one thing she didn't have all those lonely nights when death seemed like her only solace -- her voice.

"The first poem I wrote I was 12," she says. "I used to think I was gonna be a singer when I got older. And everyone in my family can sing, so I used to write songs. And then finally I just started writing down words that was not part of a song. I realized that was what poetry was. I was like, 'That's a poem!' And I just stopped writing songs and I started writing all poetry.

"I always say poetry is air because I think it's something I can't live without. I credit poetry with saving my life. I don't think I would be here if I didn't find poetry."

At 6-foot-7, with a soft touch and the wingspan of a small commuter plane, McGee-Stafford was a McDonald's All-American with an impressive pedigree. Her mother, Pamela McGee, was a two-time NCAA champion, an Olympic gold medalist and a WNBA player for two years. Her brother, JaVale McGee, currently plays for the Philadelphia 76ers and holds the Guinness record for dunking the most basketballs (three) in a single jump. Her father, the Rev. Kevin Stafford, played professionally overseas.

At 15, McGee-Stafford won the FIBA under-17 world championship with Team USA . Her junior year she led Windward High, a west Los Angeles private school, to its first and only state championship, scoring 18 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in the title game. Unfortunately, as far back as middle school, injuries always shadowed her outstanding play -- a pelvic fracture robbed her of six months, a broken ankle cost her nearly a year. This season she was a Sporting News college preseason All-American before shin surgery forced her to miss the first eight games of the season.

But to understand just how talented McGee-Stafford is when healthy, consider this: When she faced Baylor's senior center Britney Griner as a freshman she scored 13 points and grabbed 18 rebounds while holding the college player of the year to 14 and 3. "She's a big that wants to bang in the post," Griner said afterward. "Over the course of her career, I see her becoming a great player."

At the end of that season, McGee-Stafford was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. She's now a junior, but health issues have so far prevented her from fulfilling Griner's prophecy.

"Imani has impeccable timing for blocking shots," says Steve Smith, her coach at Windward. "She's not afraid of physicality. She spreads the floor by shooting 3s. I think her wingspan was 7-1 or something like that, and she's a lot more athletic than people think. While Imani was here she ran track. She played volleyball. You got a 6-7 girl running hurdles ... that was a sight to see. She definitely has a future as a WNBA player."

It's not an exaggeration. In addition to being a WNBA scout for one year, Smith served as an assistant coach for three teams, including with the L.A. Sparks while McGee-Stafford's mother played for them. In other words, he kinda knows what he's talking about.

"I met Imani's mother before she had Imani," he says. "I'm a friend of Cheryl Miller's who played with both Paula [McGee] and Pam at USC. I met Paula and Pam when they came to Cheryl's house in Riverside to recruit her.

"The first time I saw Imani she was a baby. When I saw her again I was coaching girls' basketball and we happened to be up in Sacramento for a tournament. I ran into Pam, who was coaching a Sacramento high school. Imani happened to be with her and that's when I turned around and saw this 6-3, 6-4 eighth grader, and I'm like, 'Oh my goodness. How have you been?'"

But being athletically gifted alone would not have been enough to get McGee-Stafford and Smith together. Windward is one of the most exclusive and academically challenging prep schools in the nation. It has a robotics lab and an ongoing working relationship with Stanford University. More than 70 percent of its teachers hold a master's degree. In 2013, every senior went to college.

"I asked Pam, 'What type of student was Imani?'" Smith says. "And Pam said, 'Steve, my daughter's brilliant.'"

That too, proved not to be an exaggeration. McGee-Stafford not only passed the standardized tests and interviews to get into the school, she thrived academically. For example, the average ACT score for the high school Class of 2009 was a 21.1 on a scale of 1 to 36. She scored a 32 -- as a sophomore. At Texas, she's been named to the Academic All-Big 12 first team each year of eligibility while majoring in accounting.

And then there's her poetry.

You will become addicted to television
To families that look so different from your own
You will envy the parent-child relationships
The way the parents are so approachable
The open communication
The way the children are the parent's top priority
The love between them
You would rarely go home
But when you do you will always be drowning
Clamoring for air
They'll be so much want there ...

The sheer dynamism of McGee-Stafford's words strips her soul bare and lays it out for a cynical world to see. Reading her poetry feels like looking over someone's shoulder as she writes in her journal; hearing it is akin to eavesdropping on a parishioner's confession. Even when McGee-Stafford voluntarily recites her words for others, it feels like an invasion of privacy. The listener's body shifts uncomfortably between breaths.

This is cathartic for her.

This is her lifeline to us.

"When I was ready to die, when I was ready to kill myself, I didn't have anybody who understood," she says. "I'm a living example of it gets better, you know what I mean? When you're trying to kill yourself, you're not going to Google asking, 'How to stay alive?' [So] if one person sees this and is like, 'Maybe I can live another day,' 'Maybe I need to talk to somebody,' then it's worth it. I really don't care what I look like."

McGee-Stafford didn't plan to use the poems she wrote growing up as a way to help others. At first it was just a way to cope with her own pain. Then one day during her freshman year at Texas, while walking by an international poetry festival in Austin, she stumbled across a slam poetry exhibition. She had never seen one before and the organizers of the event had to explain to her what was going on. And as with academics and with basketball, McGee-Stafford was a natural -- delivering a rapid-fire, dramatic interpretation of the poems she had stored on her phone. Not only did she win over the crowd that day, she would be offered a spot with They Speak, a local youth poetry organization. She even traveled with the group to Philadelphia to compete in an international slam poetry competition, where her mother was among those in the audience.

"Basketball has been her platform, but Imani is bigger than just basketball," Pam McGee says. "Poetry is her space where she can just be Imani ... her place where she can be free."

And hopefully a light.

"I've been working in slam poetry since 1999," says Christopher Michael, director of They Speak. "I've developed an instinct [for] a good poet. Sometimes I can spot them when they walk into the room, and that's what I saw in her. She is a person that has a story, wants to tell it, and has an incredible faculty to facilitate telling that story."

That story -- her story -- began the day the Rev. Paula McGee asked her friend Kevin to take her twin sister, Pam, to the gym. The year was 1993. After college Pam carved out a nice playing career internationally, with stints in leagues in Spain, Italy and Brazil. This particular offseason she was visiting Paula, who was a student at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. The following year Pam married Kevin. She was pregnant with Imani soon thereafter.

"Like most women we get into relationships because we're taught we need a man," Pam McGee says. "We raise our daughters to be rescued by men and have our whole identity be defined through men. Even now, I'm 52, successful and people ask, 'Where is her husband?' So that's how I ended up in a whirlwind relationship and marriage even though it wasn't good for me.

"I grew up watching my dad beat my mom, so I knew what a physically abusive relationship looked like, but I didn't know what an emotionally abusive one looked like. And by me being a competitor, and wanting to win, I stayed trying to work it out. He was the one that left and filed for divorce."

That was in 1996.

Needing to support Imani and her son, JaVale (from a previous relationship), McGee took her two children and headed back to Europe to play basketball. The following year the WNBA was created and McGee was taken No. 2 by the Sacramento Monarchs in the inaugural draft. She and her children were coming back stateside, but her troubles were only just beginning.

Immediately following her first season in the WNBA, McGee spent two days in a Sacramento jail for taking Imani out of Michigan -- where she and Kevin married and divorced -- without court permission and refusing to bring her back. According to court documents, McGee had accused her ex-husband's father of sexually abusing their daughter and refused to leave Imani with her ex-husband until his father was barred from seeing her. Kevin Stafford's father denied the allegations, but the judge did issue a temporary restraining order. Later, a California protective services agency investigated the case and found someone had indeed sexually abused Imani, though it did not state whom. Complicating matters, there was a second investigation conducted by the Michigan Children's Protective Services. It looked into allegations that Imani had been sexually abused by someone on the McGee side of the family, but found them unsubstantiated. Today, McGee-Stafford's memories of the first person who molested her are hazy.

The details of the custody battle for Imani played out in media outlets. Eventually Kevin Stafford was granted physical custody because a judge decided McGee-Stafford had established a life with her father during the time the court was conducting its investigations. McGee was awarded joint custody, but the he said/she said tension of the past years made it a less-than-ideal co-parenting situation. Compounding the difficulties, Stafford moved with Imani to Los Angeles in 2000 over McGee's objections in court.

If you find this all confusing, try making sense of it while in elementary school. Not long after stumbling upon the court papers, which detailed the finger-pointing between her parents, McGee-Stafford found a bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet and swallowed them all.

She said she would make a second attempt on her life after years of neglect by her stepmother and sexual abuse by her stepbrother, who she says molested her starting when she was just 8. Years later, when she confronted him about it, he denied anything happened.

"My father is on his third wife," McGee-Stafford says. "His second wife wasn't a fan of me. And just a lot of different stuff like that. My poems are about the molestations ... coming to grips with that.

"I come from a very Christian household. My father is a pastor. I have multiple ministers in my family, and so psychiatry isn't something that's welcomed in the house. It's like, 'What happens in our household stays in our household.' Like we can pray it away. So it took a long time for my family to open up to psychiatry and therapy."

In the meantime, McGee-Stafford grew more and more reclusive, even while her athletic prowess continued to place her in the spotlight. When she did talk, it was often with a confrontational tone as she struggled with nightmares about the abuses she endured. Unable to carry the burden in silence any longer, McGee-Stafford tried to take her life a third time after her junior year of high school and was hospitalized for several weeks. Again she opted not to tell her parents -- or anyone else -- the cause of her distress.

For those who loved her but remained in the dark as to why she wanted to die, it was absolutely heartbreaking. She regularly saw a therapist. Her father was so concerned he initially refused to let her go out of the city for college. The situation was particularly hard for Windward's Coach Smith, who saw the girl he first met as a toddler, the girl he nicknamed "Sunshine," grow more dark in school. He did not know about the first two suicide attempts, but came to visit McGee-Stafford numerous times while she was in the hospital after the third attempt.

"[The first time I came] she gives me this smile and says, 'What are you doing here?'" he says. "I'm like, 'What do you mean, what am I doing here? I'm here to check in on you.'" Over the course of that summer they didn't dwell much on why she was in the hospital. He only reiterated that she was loved. She spoke about the upcoming basketball season and her plans to study accounting in college.

"She didn't tell me why [she attempted suicide]. Just that she was hurting."

When McGee-Stafford was released from the hospital, her body had healed but her soul was still suffering. She constantly fought with her father and eventually violated a school policy that left administrators no choice but to ban her from attending classes on Windward's campus. She also was not allowed to participate in any activity connected to the school, including playing basketball. The ban was handed down just before the second round of the state playoffs. Windward lost.

"She cried and said, 'Sorry, Coach,'" Smith says, as his eyes begin to water. "It was just like a parent who has children. You love all your children and at that time it wasn't about punishment. It was about forgiving and letting her know that everyone makes mistakes. She really felt like she let her team down ... she let me down ... she let a lot of people down. But I wasn't about that. The life lesson was helping her to become the person that we all know she could be.

"I wish I had known more. I was feeling so sorry that she had got to that point."

With the relationship with her father strained and her mother living elsewhere, McGee-Stafford moved in with her grandmother and, with the help of Windward, completed her high school diploma online. But it wasn't until after she left for Texas that she would tell anyone what really happened.

"I was devastated," her father says, as tears stream down his face. "While [I was] divorcing [my second wife] Imani shared with me that she didn't feel loved. She felt neglected and felt alone ... [My ex-wife] was there with our child and she wasn't caring for [my daughter].

"I remember [Imani] saying, 'I just [stayed quiet] because I wanted you to be happy.' She never [told me about the sexual abuse] until two years ago. It was as if a hole was ripped out of my heart, because she told me that it was happening over a course of several years and I knew nothing about it. And so, as a father, I felt like I failed."

After learning about the abuse, Stafford wanted to go to the police, but Imani said no. She said it happened years ago and even though it caused her a great deal of pain growing up, she didn't want to be the cause of another chapter of hostility and strife in her family. Through poetry, she had finally found a way to jettison all of the rage and helplessness that tormented her. She didn't want to go back and talk about being a victim. She didn't want to revisit that period in her life when she would wake up in the morning, wash her face, look in the mirror over the sink and struggle to find a reason to live.

"A couple of my family members don't like that I'm so open," she says. "Their biggest thing is just make sure you're not telling other people's stories ... your laundry is our laundry too. But you know, I think that I do have this name and I do have this platform for a reason. I would love for somebody to look at Imani Stafford, University of Texas basketball player, and say, 'Wow, that happened to her? She tried to kill herself? Really? If she can [make] it I can [make] it.'

"It's not my parents' fault that this happened ... but it happened. [Telling my story] could make them look bad, and I don't ever want them to be put in a bad light. But at the same time, there are other people suffering that can't talk about it. So if I feel comfortable and I'm at the point where I'm healed enough to talk about it, who am I not to? That's the problem with society right now. People don't talk about mental illness. People don't talk about sexual abuse. There should be a more open dialogue about it. This platform ... I have it for a reason and I just feel like this is my reason."

It's a sentiment her father shares.

"Nothing can eliminate that painful part of her life, but she's using this as a venue to do ministry and meet the needs of other people who have gone through similar traumatic and devastating experiences," he says. "Often times God calls us to go through difficult, devastating situations to develop us. While you never want your child to go through anything difficult, she is my child naturally, but she is God's child spiritually. At the end of the day, God has protected her and kept her and I think she's finding meaning through all this."

For years I blamed myself for not fighting back
Put nail marks in my palms for refusing to unclench my fist
For being too fast
Too smart
Too talkative -- if I only acted my age
It wasn't until I got my first boyfriend that I realized this didn't happen to everyone ...

Slater Martin, T.J. Ford, Kevin Durant -- these are the three retired basketball jerseys that hang in the rafters of the Frank Erwin Center at the University of Texas. Standing underneath them with her left leg wrapped in bandages, hands on her hips and a smile on her face is a player who still has a chance to join them.

If she wants it enough.

McGee-Stafford hasn't been healthy in a long time and her body's constant betrayal is starting to have its effect on her confidence. She admits she doesn't work as hard as she should -- perhaps afraid to injure herself again. In any case, that lack of all-out effort has cost her the starting job. Still, hers is the loudest voice in practice. She covers a lot of ground in the paint on both ends of the floor. During drills, the young men recruited to practice with the women's team are having a hard time keeping her off the boards. She catches the ball in the post and is comfortable spinning off of both shoulders, routinely splitting double-teams with relative ease. Her height allows her to see over the top of opponents on offense and make life hell for them on defense. In her most recent game -- a 59-42 win over Oklahoma State -- she collected 11 boards and had five blocks in just 16 minutes.

"I coast, I know that," she says. "I'm spoiled because I'm a really good athlete and things just come easy for me."

The admission is rather jarring. But when you consider how forthright she is in other parts of her life, it's to be expected. Still her honesty doesn't make the disclosure any less upsetting, especially here. After the legendary Jody Conradt -- one of only eight college coaches, male or female, to win more than 900 games -- retired in 2006, the school hired Duke's Gail Goestenkors. But that hire yielded only one NCAA tournament win in five years and a reputation for having players who didn't leave it all on the floor. As a result, Texas, the first women's program to have an undefeated season, in 1986, has been left behind by in-state rivals Baylor and Texas A&M. Karen Aston was hired in 2012 -- just before McGee-Stafford arrived -- to change that laissez-faire culture.

"I want a disciplined program with players who are all committed to excellence," Aston says. "So yeah, Imani and I have had our differences ... we've had arguments ... but we're in a good place now. We understand each other better and we both want the same things."

Aston said she was a fan of slam poetry before arriving at Texas and so she was excited to see McGee-Stafford perform. And her center didn't disappoint. "She has a story. All of these girls do. And so I support her sharing her story and trying to help people."

As you can imagine, having a teammate who doesn't appear to be working hard, even one as talented as McGee-Stafford, can rub people the wrong way.

"I think this last injury really opened her eyes to not take basketball for granted," says guard and close friend Krystle Henderson. "She liked basketball but I could never tell if she loved basketball. [That] was very frustrating for me, which was one of the reasons why her and me did not get along at first. I was like, 'You're 6-7. All you got to do is put the ball in the rim and you're going to the league.'"

Senior Nneka Enemkpali was McGee-Stafford's roommate her freshman year and the two roomed together on road trips as well. She said their relationship started a little rocky because McGee-Stafford "had a rebuttal for just about everything."

"She's taught me patience," Enemkpali says. "Everybody's different. The way you can talk to one teammate is not the way you'll be able to talk to another teammate, so I had to learn to be really patient with her.

"She has many layers. She is very academically inclined; she is artistic; she is unique. She is her own person. She has taught me how to embrace myself -- to be OK with who you are, regardless of what others may think."

As for McGee-Stafford's poetry ...

"It's beautiful," Enemkpali said. "She takes her lifetime of situations and turns it into compelling words. When you listen to it, you can hear more than just the words. You can hear the pain that she has been through. You hear the struggles."

Don't forget me
Don't let a minute pass you by
Don't forget these words ...

McGee-Stafford still has her dark days. But they're not as often or as debilitating as they once were. Aston says coming to Texas was the best thing to happen to McGee-Stafford. And given the epiphany that came after her introduction to slam poetry, it's hard to argue differently.

It also doesn't hurt that Austin is where she met her fiancé, Paul Boyette.

"I wasn't even thinking about a boyfriend when we met," she says. "I came down here to get a good education and play basketball. That was it.

"We became friends at first. Then we started dating, but not seriously. I knew I really liked him when I saw another girl had texted him and I went off. That's when I was like, 'Aw man, you really like this dude.'"

Boyette, like most everyone else at Texas, said initially it was difficult to get to know McGee-Stafford. When they talked, she would mention her basketball accolades, but "I wanted to know about her," Boyette says.

"She made a comment to me, and I still remember this to this day," adds Boyette, a 6-2, 300-pound defensive lineman at Texas. "She said, 'No guy has ever asked about me as a person. I lost my breath and couldn't express myself because no one ever really asked me that.'

"That stuck with me and let me know what life was about. It's going to have its ups and downs, but if you have one person who's going to be there and help you and you can always rely on them through thick and thin, it's just a blessing."

Boyette called McGee-Stafford's father -- with his mother and father on the telephone -- and asked the preacher for his permission to marry his daughter. The young man from Humble, Texas, told him, "Your daughter's not going to want for anything, because I love her to death."

There's that word again, clinging to McGee-Stafford's life journey like thick, humid air. It seems no matter how many times she tries to scrub free, it never fully washes away. So she has learned to deal with it. To not succumb to it. And with a microphone and a stage, McGee-Stafford has learned to live with it. Not only for her sake, but for the sake of those in the audience who may not have the strength to use their own voice. To share their own story.

"Imani has always been this child," Pam McGee says. "You know I have two children, but Imani has always been this beacon of light. When I see her poetry, I can't even explain it, it's like poetry is the sound of the soul."

And may those who have ears, come and hear.

Michael Holmes contributed to the reporting of this story.