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VOL. 42 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 15, 2018

UT’s Holdsclaw finds joy in finding herself

By Al Lesar

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Chamique Holdsclaw speaks as her former assistant coach at Tennessee, Mickie DeMoss, listens during induction ceremonies at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

-- Wade Payne | Ap

Identity is the fundamental premise of the human condition. Who are you? Until that’s comfortably resolved, nothing else is able to fall into place.

It’s a harsh lesson Chamique Holdsclaw has had to wrestle with during a major portion of what has been a somewhat turbulent four decades of her life.

Today, from all appearances, the former University of Tennessee, Olympic and professional women’s basketball star is finally comfortable in her own skin.

Getting to that point has been a litany of struggles.

“I played the game of basketball; it’s not who I was,” Holdsclaw says. “You come to my house, the service workers will be like, ‘There’s nothing in your house about basketball.’ I have one picture of me and (legendary Lady Vols) Coach (Pat) Summitt.

“Where I am now, I have the freedom I want to have in my life. As an athlete, I struggled to be that person. For so many people, I had to turn it on.

“There’s no better feeling to be comfortable with who you are. I’m trying to do my part in society to uplift others.”

The tipping point

The strong shoulders she uses for that uplifting came from years lugging around her own burden.

A basketball phenom in New York City, Holdsclaw came to Knoxville in a pressure-packed environment. She responded by leading the Lady Vols to three national titles (1996, ’97 and ’98). The 6-foot-2 shooting forward left as the school’s all-time leading scorer (3,025 points), men or women.

After leading the U.S. to a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics (2000), she went on to have a distinguished – but controversial – pro career in the WNBA.

The dark cloud over Holdsclaw’s eight-plus years in the WNBA was generated by mental health issues that went incorrectly diagnosed for more than a decade.

A couple suicide attempts were followed by an incident in 2013 in which she was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, criminal damage of property and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

That was the tipping point. After attacking the car of a former girlfriend with a baseball bat, then firing a shot through the backseat, Holdsclaw was evaluated to have clinical depression and to be bipolar – a new diagnosis. Proper medication was prescribed.

Last week, while she visited her happy place of Knoxville to be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Holdsclaw was a changed person. Her Twitter bio identifies her as a mental health advocate. It’s the passion that has fueled her life.

Basketball is just something she did.

On a mission

Since her re-birth with a purpose to spread the word and touch lives as a mental health advocate, Holdsclaw has traveled the nation to make an impact.

Basketball might be a way to get her foot in the door, but her wisdom and compassion – derived from her own experiences – are what seal the deal.

Former longtime Lady Vols assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who joined Holdsclaw as a Hall of Fame honoree, has known her since her high school days.

Still, getting a chance to hear Holdsclaw’s story in 2016 uncovered some new facts. “We had to push her out (to the media) because she was the face of the program for so long,” DeMoss recalled of her college days. “She had to do it. She never liked doing it.

“Now, dealing with the mental illness, she’s such an advocate and such a believer because she’s lived it. She generally wants to get her story out there.

“I listened to her a couple of years ago, and I learned things that night that I didn’t know about her,’’ DeMoss adds. “She’s very authentic when she speaks.”

Recent headlines, announcing the suicide deaths of celebrities Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, punctuate Holdsclaw’s message.

“When you speak to kids, mental health (issues) impact everyone,” Holdsclaw explains. “I hear things from parents: ‘How can (my child) be sad?’ It doesn’t make any difference what you have. It’s terrible (the celebrity deaths) have happened, but it’s making people more aware of the problem.

“I was just in Park City, Utah, for a talk. Funding from the government has been cut, but the suicide rate has gone up. Utah leads the country in suicide deaths.”

Holdsclaw thought back to her childhood. It was well before the pressures that came with social media and other such outlets. Trying to identify with kids today is a challenge.

Speaking with passion in front of large groups was never in Holdsclaw’s wheelhouse. She has had to force herself to be the face of mental health issues.

“I’ve always been so shy,” she acknowledges. “When something hits home, and there’s something you want to stand up for, it just comes out. Like Coach Summitt would say, ‘You’ve gotta roll up your sleeves sometimes and do the hard work.’ I did it.

Holdsclaw during her playing days (1995-1999) at Tennessee.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“There were times when people were judging me. ‘Oh, she’s crazy.’ ‘OK, I’m not crazy. I have a condition and I’m OK to talk about it.’ Now, you’ve got more athletes and celebrities speaking out. That gives it more notice.

“It’s something that’s real. We have to peel back the layers. It’s uncomfortable, though.”

Once a Lady Vol …

When she arrived in Knoxville for the Hall of Fame hoopla, Holdsclaw was greeted by a welcome basket in her hotel room that included some of her favorites: Tropical Starburst, some kiwis and a popular adult beverage.

Welcome home. True friends don’t forget.

When the memories of her time in Knoxville came flooding back, it had nothing to do with points and rebounds. Summitt’s presence still looms over her, like all former Lady Vols.

“We’re (Summitt’s) outreach,” Holdsclaw says. “We have to go out into the world and follow in her footsteps.

“You hear all kinds of stories. Someone told me they were on a plane that Coach Summitt was able to get on as a standby passenger. It was a four-hour flight. The lady said, ‘(Summitt) started looking around and said, ‘I’m going to buy everybody (in the immediate area) drinks.’ She was so nice.’ I told my husband, ‘We’re having a drink with Coach Pat Summitt.’ I hear stories like that all the time.

“I represent a lot: A New Yorker, a woman of color, but also part of Pat Summitt’s legacy. It makes you lift your head a little bit higher.”

Life in Big Orange Country wasn’t always warm and fuzzy for Holdsclaw. She was plucked out of the inner city and delivered to the Southeastern Conference. There were bumps along the road.

“(Coming to Tennessee) was the one point in my life that it was a shock,” Holdsclaw points out.

“There were a lot of moving pieces to it. I don’t know if people understood what it was like for me at that time. Coming from New York City to Knoxville as a highly-recruited athlete. There were a lot of changes. Things that were different culturally.

“I remember people saying, ‘You talk too fast.’ I was saying, ‘You talk too slow.’

“The game of basketball brings people together. It’s about teaching each other. It’s about being a family; not with a blood connection but being someone who is there and supports you.

“Coach Summitt was tough. But she’d say, ‘I can never tell you what (life is like for you), but I can tell you my journey.’ You realize there was a parallel. We both had struggles; we were both pushing ourselves to be better. That’s when respect gathers.”

Yes, Summitt was tough. That’s where DeMoss came in. During the first couple years of Holdsclaw’s Tennessee career, DeMoss had to be the “good cop” on the coaching staff.

“(DeMoss) was a big reason I left New York to come here,” she explains. “I was scared of Coach Summitt. I was nervous around her. Mickie was always the silly one. It made me feel we connected. It’s going to be OK.

“Even when I would have tough times and I’d feel that I couldn’t communicate with Coach Summitt, Coach DeMoss would say, ‘It’s OK, I’ve got it. I’ll talk to Pat and iron this out.’

“She’s been a big supporter in my life.

“There were times when Coach DeMoss talked me out (of leaving) a couple times. Then she’d said, ‘Go then. Go back to New York.’ You’re laughing because you don’t have any money (for a bus ticket home). You’re a broke college student.

“My grandmother, she was in cahoots (with Summitt and DeMoss). She wasn’t going to let me come back to New York. She’d always say, ‘Finish what you started.’”

“Any great player, they’ve got their quirks,” DeMoss says. “Chamique was highly, highly competitive. Part of what made her so great was her competitive spirit. Part of what made Pat great was her competitive spirit. When those spirits clashed, things didn’t always turn out the way you wanted them to in that moment.

“Chamique was stubborn and hard-headed. Pat was stubborn as well. Ultimately, it was Pat’s way.

There were times when Chamique would say, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore. I’m leaving.’ She’d walk out. Pat would say, ‘Go get her.’

“I’d walk out, Chamique would say, ‘I’m calling my grandmother, getting on a bus and going back to New York.’ I’d say, ‘No you’re not. I know you’re not going to ride a bus that long. Just go home and calm down. We’ll work it out.’

“About the third or fourth time it happened, I said, ‘All right, let’s go call (your grandmother) right now. Let’s go call her. I’ll take you to the bus station.’ She said, ‘What? I’m not really leaving.’ I said, ‘C’mon, let’s go.’ She said, ‘I’m just kidding.’

“About her junior year, she grew up.”

That junior year was when Holdsclaw and the Lady Vols had a profound impact on the women’s college basketball game. Their 39-0 run to the national title changed the way the game was played.

“A lot of times players help change the game,” DeMoss points out. “In ’98, we went undefeated and won the championship. That team was a part of a group of teams. Connecticut has done great things to elevate the game. The University of Texas (in 1985-86) when they won the championship…

“That ’98 (Tennessee) team was so fast and athletic we had to adjust our coaching. We had to be in a position to turn them loose and let them run and play at a tempo they could play at. Up until then, Pat was a control coach; half-court offense. We learned quick to let them go. That team took women’s basketball to another tempo.”

Definitely a game-changer, but hardly an identity.

Holdsclaw had to fight through her crisis to realize who she is.

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