Chamique Holdsclaw embraces role of mental health advocate

Once the face of women's basketball, Chamique Holdsclaw has embraced being the face of mental health. Rick Goldsmith

ATLANTA -- Heading into the 1999 WNBA draft, there was no doubt that University of Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw would be the No. 1 overall pick.

Holdsclaw was dubbed the "Female Michael Jordan," and like MJ, she was expected by many to use her electrifying talents to raise the league's popularity and visibility. But as chronicled in the newly released documentary, "Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw," her battle with mental illness would eventually trump any opponent she would ever face on the hardwood.

As women's hoops fans were watching the 2015 WNBA Finals, the outspoken hoops star was in Atlanta premiering her project at the Out on Film Festival. Holdsclaw, who has been clinically diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, hopes to change the way society views individuals with mental health issues.

"I just knew that mental health was definitely a taboo topic," said the three-time NCAA champion, who was drafted by the Washington Mystics in 1999. "I remember when I first came out about it in D.C. how embarrassed I was. Now, I want to put a face to this illness."

Holdsclaw, 38, started her journey to become the face of women's basketball at the age of 11. It was at the same time when she began to experience issues with her mental health. However, her nurturing basketball environments at the high school and collegiate level would prove to be the difference when she turned pro.

"When I went on to high school and college I was still dealing with these issues. The thing is you're in this protective environment," Holdsclaw said. "My grandmother made sure I saw a therapist and the same with Coach [Pat] Summitt. Transitioning to a pro, I didn't have that same protection. So to deal with these issues when there's so much more at stake was a little bit overwhelming for me."

At the height of her career, the pressure continued to mount. The death of her grandmother triggered mental issues that led to a diagnosis of clinical depression. As an athlete, Holdsclaw says it's a difficult task to admit to your mental shortcomings. As an African-American, the challenge is even more daunting.

"Just to know now I'm saving lives and advocating for such a great cause, it makes me feel like I'm hitting game-winning shots all day, every day." Chamique Holdsclaw

"The African-American community is a community based on faith. A lot of the source of our strength is church," the six-time WNBA All-Star said. "For so long we think that's the No. 1 thing that will get us through anything. It's, 'Oh, pray ... pray away!'

"In this case, when you're dealing with a chemical imbalance, you can't just pray that away. You can use that as assistance, but you have to go and get help."

Since Holdsclaw retired from the game of basketball -- she initially retired in 2007, but came back and played two more seasons before stepping away for good in 2010 -- her battle with mental illness continued. In 2013, she pleaded guilty to assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony after a November 2012 altercation. Eventually, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Just as she worked to become the best female hoops player of her time, she continues to work to champion her disorder. In the film, "Mind/Game," she explains how basketball was once her coping mechanism that has since been replaced with a strict routine of eating healthy, exercising daily, quiet time and medication. And nowadays, the Queens, New York, native is traveling the country to advocate for mental health awareness and to dispel myths along the way.

"When people see that a person has mental issues, you hear the word 'crazy' ... they think they can't function," Holdsclaw said. "They don't really have confidence in a person because they view them as a ticking time bomb and my job is to really help change the conversation and to tell people, if you follow your regimen and get the help that you need, you're going to be able to live a healthy and prosperous life."

Like Holdsclaw, Los Angeles Lakers Forward Metta World Peace and New York Jets wideout Brandon Marshall have used their platform as professional athletes to attack issues surrounding mental health awareness. Ultimately they all want to make the once-uncomfortable conversation comfortable, which Holdsclaw says is the goal of "Mind/Game." Just as she was once the face of women's basketball, Holdsclaw has embraced being the face of mental health.

"I had a young man who took the bus all the way from New York City to be here [in Atlanta for the premiere] to watch the documentary because I've helped him get through hard times," said Holdsclaw, who played for the Atlanta Dream in 2009. "That's real! I'm not saying sports wasn't real, but sports gave me the platform to be able to stand out and be the voice of this.

"If it wasn't for sports, people may not have been able to see my struggle. I've lived this life publicly. Just to know now I'm saving lives and advocating for such a great cause, it makes me feel like I'm hitting game-winning shots all day, every day."

Kevin Cottrell Jr. is an NBA freelance writer, proud CAU Panther and Chicago native. Follow him at @KCJ_Swish.