In a five-page narrative she filed in September as part of her competing request for sole custody of Imani, McGee wrote that Stafford became emotionally abusive toward her almost immediately after they were married. McGee claimed Stafford continually called her stupid, criticized her parenting and home-making, discouraged her from cultivating friendships and insisted she call him whenever she left the house. She charged that he refused to help her care for Imani or JaVale, claiming that he had said, "I don't babysit." McGee wrote that Stafford was especially harsh toward JaVale, sometimes using a belt to discipline him or forcing the then seven-year-old boy to wear a diaper after he wet his bed.
In a July 1997 custody and visitation recommendation, a Macomb County Friend of the Court investigator wrote that Stafford "confirmed there was emotional abuse in the marriage, however, [he] indicated it went both ways." Stafford's attorney Lucido declined requests to make Stafford available to comment on McGee's characterizations of their marriage before a court-mandated Oct. 1 gag order required all parties in the dispute to refrain from discussing the case. In a 1997 Detroit News interview, Stafford said of McGee, "She-was accustomed to being in the spotlight, and when that didn't carry over into our life together, she felt like a shadow."
Stafford moved out of the apartment he shared with McGee and the children in August 1995, returning a week later with a U-Haul and four men who helped him carry out most of the family's furniture. "I saw it—he left her and those kids to sleep on the floor, without even a bed," says Nathaniel Peterson, a former Greater Morning Star deacon who resigned his position following that incident.
Nevertheless McGee, a deeply religious woman who has begun studies to become a minister, says she loved Stafford and didn't want a divorce when he filed for one in September 1995, citing irreconcilable differences. Imani was 11 months old at the time.
A month later McGee's agent landed an offer from a team in Spain, and McGee grabbed it—but only after the club agreed to provide a full-time nanny to help care for Imani and JaVale while they were living in Spain. She played in Brazil the following season under a similar arrangement. In 1997 the Sacramento Monarchs made the 6'3" McGee the second pick in the inaugural WNBA draft and gave her a two-year contract worth $90,000. She started 23 of 27 games at center for the Monarchs that summer and averaged 10.6 points. After the season she was traded to Los Angeles and averaged 6.8 points as a starter for the Sparks during the '98 season. She expects to sign with L.A. again next year.
McGee's lapses in judgment and procedural errors helped open the door for her career to become a custody-case issue. She occasionally ignored the terms of the joint parenting agreement. She has sometimes chosen to represent herself rather than hire a lawyer. "I always have to tell these people I play in the W-NBA," says McGee. "I don't make JV-BA money."
Neither she nor her lawyer appeared on her behalf at a hearing in Macomb County circuit court last Dec. 17, when Stafford protested that McGee had deprived him of his alternating weekends of visitation with Imani by remaining in Sacramento after the 1997 WNBA season ended in August. A judge agreed, granting Stafford's request for the temporary sole custody he now has and ordering McGee to return Imani to Michigan.
McGee is not the only single mother playing in the WNBA. For instance, league MVP Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets has one adopted child and six others for whom she's the guardian. One difference between McGee's and Cooper's situations: Cooper lives in Houston near her mother, who along with Cooper's sister cares for the children when Cooper is on the road. In the case of McGee, she makes her primary residence in Englewood, Calif., and when JaVale is with her, she takes him to practices and games and spends most afternoons and evenings with him. When she's on the road, her sister Alayna, who also lives in the Los Angeles area, stays with JaVale.
JaVale's father is George Montgomery, a former University of Illinois basketball player who is now a high school coach in the Chicago area. He says his informal shared custody arrangement (JaVale stays with his father during school vacations) with McGee works because "Pam's willing to be there for me, and I've been there for her. She's always been a good mother as far as I'm concerned."
But Stafford believes he can give Imani a more stable, nurturing environment than can McGee, while McGee believes that by competing professionally she's raising both of her children to "make a mark on this world." McGee has spoken of telling Imani traditional nursery rhymes, like Cinderella, but with a '90s twist: Cinderella doesn't rely on a fairy godmother to turn a pumpkin into a carriage—she rides in on her own white horse after working her way through law school and starting her own practice.