TV

WNBA Star Chamique Holdsclaw: From A Virtuoso On The Court To A Champion For Mental Health

"Being able to look in the mirror and say it: 'this is an illness that I have.' That was the hardest part."

As a top player in the WNBA in the early 2000s, Chamique Holdsclaw was hailed as as the “female Michael Jordan” for her talent on the court.

A number one draft pick from the University of Tennessee, she was named Rookie of the Year in her debut season with the Washington Mystics, and played in both the inaugural WNBA All-Star Game and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, where she brought home the gold.

San Antonio Silver Stars forward Chamique Holdsclaw warms up before the game against the Washington Mystics at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty Images)
Chuck Myers/MCT
But eventually the cracks in her seemingly perfect veneer began to show: In May 2006, Holdsclaw took a sudden two-week leave of absence from the Los Angeles Sparks when both her father and stepfather became ill.

Then, on June 11, 2007—only a few weeks into the season—she surprised fans by announcing her retirement. At the time, she didn’t give a reason for her departure, but the reality was she was in a life-and-death struggle with mental illness.

Premiering May 3 at 10/9c, the new Logo documentary Mind/Game: the Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, traces her meteoric rise, humbling fall and inspiring rebound as a mental-health advocate.

Holdsclaw had been seeing a therapist since 2002 but, as athletes often do, she would use her anger and sadness as fuel on the court, instead of seeing them as warning signs of bigger issues off the court.

It came to the breaking point in something she refers to as “the incident”: In November 2012, Holdsclaw had a volatile confrontation in Atlanta with her then-girlfriend, fellow WNBA player Jennifer Lacy. in a black-out rage, she smashed Lacy’s car windows with a bat and fired a shot into her Range Rover.

Chamique Holdsclaw
Getty

Holdsclaw pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, as well as other criminal charges. She had to pay a $3,000 fine and was sentenced to three years’ probation, which is about to end.

“My life changed dramatically. Legally. Socially. Financially.” Holdsclaw, now 38, says in the film.

Coverage of the incident was harsh and, not unexpectedly, sensationalized.

“Some of the media coverage, I think it was because it was two women,” she says. “You know, no one talked about the issues and what was real about it—I really did black out. People thought, ‘Oh! This is a hot story, two attractive women, and they’re gay!”

Though it was three years ago, “the incident” is never far from her mind.

WNBA #1 Draft pick Chamique Holdsclaw (Photo By: Howard Simmons/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Howard Simmons/NY Daily News

“I think about it often, and I’ve done a lot of healing,” she explains. But it hasn’t been easy. “I totally lost control. I blacked out. People called me crazy—an ’enigma.’ All these things. And the whole time in the back of my head, I’m like, ’that’s not who I am!'”

Adding to the stress of the situation, Holdsclaw’s private life as a lesbian became fodder for gossipmongers. “I’ve always been comfortable discussing my sexuality,” she says. “But I want to be known as Chamique the person, not who I sleep with in my bed at night.”

05/08/98 - (USA Women's World Championship Team) 5/8/98- GWU - Smith Center DC. Post Photo by Rich Lipski. Player Chamique Holdsclaw pauses during practice at Smith Center.  (Photo by Rich Lipski/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Rich Lipski/The Washington Post

Holdsclaw was initially diagnosed with clinical depression but, after the incident with Lacy, it was determined she was bipolar.

“To find out down the road, I’m not just clinically depressed but I suffer from bipolar disorder, there was a lot of anger that I felt inside,” she says.

Bipolar disorder is a complex diagnosis that affects more than five million Americans. It’s often marked by extreme mood swings—patients can quickly shift from dizzying, euphoric “highs,” to paralyzingly “lows.”

“I was really scared because of what had occurred,” she tells me. “Not just ’the incident,’ but suicide attempts. The times when I felt, ‘I just don’t want to live anymore.’ When you’ve been through those times, it pops up in your mind: ’I don’t want to get into this place again.'”

After much trial and error, Holdsclaw is able to manage her condition with medication.

“It’s not like they give you one thing, and it works,” she says. “You find yourself possibly trying five or six different drugs,” until you find the right one.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 02: WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw (R) and guest attend the 27th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 2, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for GLAAD)
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“I started to see how I was changing as a person,” she recalls. “My therapist would say, I was always on the edge of my seat, like I would come in, like, 100 miles per hour. Then I started taking my medication, she said she could see, I was a lot calmer, and relaxed. I could hold a conversation, my attention was focused.”

She admits seeing how treatment has worked for her, “it sometimes makes me think, ‘Why didn’t I get this sooner?’ I had great medical care. I was a little angry, but now I’m just glad overall that my quality of life is just so much better now.”

Chamique Holdsclaw
Getty

The path away from that dark place, she says, started with a self-realization. “Being able to look in the mirror and say it: ’this is an illness that I have.’ That was the hardest part.”

She’s far from an outlier: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports 10 million people, or 4.2% of the U.S., experience a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with major life activities. For young people, the statistics are more alarming: Approximately 1 in 5 American teens experiences a severe mental health crisis.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 22:  NBA player Metta World Peace and WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw arrive at The Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 2012 Voice Awards at Paramount Studios on August 22, 2012 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Since getting treatment, Holdsclaw (above with Metta World Peace) has been focused on educating others—not just about basketball, but about mental health and coping skills, as well.

“There are so many people in life, whether it’s the LGBT community or dealing with issues of sexuality… we think that no one else is going through the same thing,” she explains.

“I started talking about it, and sharing my journey with other people. Not necessarily the public, but, you know, initially just family and people close to me.” She found that, when she shared her story, others would begin sharing their own.

“I realized I wasn’t the only one going through it,” she says. “That’s when I started finding pockets of support. Other athletes would come to me and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I’ve struggled with the same thing!’ and like, ‘I’m here for you!'”

Knoxville, TN - January 28, 2013:  Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings, and Chamique Holdsclaw during the game between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Tennessee Lady Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Wade Rackley/Tennessee Athletics (Photo by Wade Rackley/Tennessee Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Wade Rackley/Tennessee Athletics

“I tell these kids I mentor, and adults, too, ’You’re not alone. If you feel that way, pick up the phone and call me. You have my home number. Yes, I still have a home phone!” she laughs, easily and with self-deprecating humor.

But as joyful as she is, Chamique Holdsclaw can be serious in her obvious dedication to motivating those who struggle.

“I had these points where I could have given up,” she admits. “I could have become a product of my environment. When I struggled with my sexuality, and telling my family early on, I could have just given up and live my life in secrecy. It seems like, I just always pushed ahead even when I’ve fallen down.”

While her struggle has been extraordinary, Holdsclaw says everyone faces obstacles in their lives. “Life is like that—you’re going to get knocked down and you just have to get back in the game. That’s what I did. If I look back at all the things I’ve accomplished, as a person helping others, as an athlete, I think my biggest power is my resilience. Never giving up and always pushing forward.”

Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, premieres May 3 at 9/8c on Logo.

Writer, producer and public speaker Dawn Ennis was the first out trans journalist in TV network news. A widow raising three children, she's the subject of the documentary "Before Dawn/After Don." You can find her on YouTube, Twitter and LifeAfterDawn.com.