If it were up to Los Angeles Sparks center Pam McGee, she wouldn't be mired in a legal battle that has become a cause c�l�bre for a single working mother's child custody rights, and her three-year battle with her former husband over shared custody of their four-year-old daughter, Imani, wouldn't be playing out publicly in excruciating detail, with ugly allegations flying and daytime talk shows clamoring for McGee to appear.
Had it been up to McGee, there would have been no need for lawyers. There would have been no 1996 divorce judgment dissolving her marriage to the Reverend Kevin Stafford, Imani's father. There would have been no 325-page court file laying open her life, and there would have been no reporters' questions about the two nights in May 1995 when she was voluntarily hospitalized for treatment of depression while her marriage was crumbling, or about the night last January that she spent in a Sacramento jail for refusing a judge's order to turn her daughter over to Stafford. "I said, 'Judge, you do what you have to do,' " McGee says. "I said, 'I'm not giving up my baby' "
Because of basketball McGee has a 1984 Olympic gold medal, two NCAA title rings and an economics degree from USC. However, for a snarl of reasons—many of them related to McGee's playing in the WNBA die past two summers—Stafford won temporary sole custody of Imani in a hearing last December. Since then the child has lived primarily with her father in Mount Clemens, Mich., a small town about 60 miles southeast of Flint, where McGee and her twin sister, Paula, grew up and their mother, Dianne, still lives.
On Sept. 21, at the Mount Clemens Greater Morning Star Baptist Church, where Stafford is the pastor and Pam attended services when she was still his wife, Stafford held a press conference in the basement to explain why he had asked a Macomb County circuit court to give him permanent sole custody of Imani. Flanked by two lawyers and speaking in his resonant baritone voice and deliberate preacher's cadence, Stafford said he wasn't trying to deprive McGee of a role in the rearing of their daughter. "Not at all," he said. Asked if McGee was a bad mother, one of Stafford's lawyers, Peter Lucido, quickly said, "Never."
Stafford and Lucido told reporters the custody fight for Imani isn't about a single working mother's ability to be a good parent or McGee's decision to resume her basketball career. But in papers filed with the circuit court, that's precisely the argument Stafford has made. A motion for temporary custody filed on Stafford's behalf last Dec. 12 contends, "The level of [basketball] achievement accomplished by [McGee]... impairs her ability to parent her daughter." Stafford's most recent filing states that awarding custody to him would be in the best interest of the child "in light of [McGee's] rigorous travel schedule, unstable living environment and lack of permanent job stability." Four weeks ago Lucido told the Associated Press, "The whole problem right now is her career."
The case attracted national attention beginning on Sept. 14, when Macomb County circuit court judge Peter Maceroni granted Stafford's request for continued temporary sole custody of Imani while county friend of the court officials investigated whether McGee's career diminishes her ability to be a good parent. Maceroni's ruling is enough to send chills through any single working parent, let alone a pro athlete who is a single parent: Could a judge take away your child because your job requires you to travel part of the year?
"If I have to provide for my children, as a mother and as a woman," McGee says, "I should have that option [to play pro basketball] and not be penalized."
The irony is that McGee, 35, wouldn't be playing pro basketball if Stafford hadn't walked out on her in August 1995, after 18 months of marriage, leaving her with two children (JaVale Montgomery, now 10, her son from a previous relationship, and Imani) and no source of income. "I went to the friend of the court office and said, 'What do you recommend I do?' " McGee says. "They said, 'The only thing we can advise you to do is go on welfare.' I've always been a woman of dignity. I said, 'No. I am going to get on my feet. I'll do whatever I have to.' "
Another irony is that while McGee's travel schedule is under scrutiny by the court-she spends a total of about four weeks on the road during the WNBA's 30-game summer season—Stafford's travel schedule is not at issue, even though he told the court in a Jan. 30 filing that his ministry requires him to travel seven to eight weeks a year. Stafford also uses day care and babysitters to help look after Imani, practices for which he criticizes McGee in his court filings.
When she married Stafford in January 1994, McGee planned to be a stay-at-home pastor's wife and mother. In court documents McGee maintained she was the sole provider the first six months she and Stafford were married, supporting him on savings from her five-year European basketball career while he finished studying at a seminary in Atlanta.