Her given name is Michelle Nicole Teasley. She was born to Ernestine Teasley and Nathaniel Johnson, who never married, in March 1979, and she was reared, along with a brother and three half brothers, by Ernestine in the Carver Apartments in southeast Washington, D.C. "Right off MLK," says Teasley. "You know what Chris Rock says about MLK, don't you?" (Rock says that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for nonviolence, but if you're standing on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard anywhere in the U.S., there's some violence going on.) It would be many years before anybody addressed her as Michelle. In school she answered to Nicole. Her brothers have always called her 'Cole.
She was nine when her half brother Ernie, 10 years her senior and a janitor, signed her up for a basketball rec league and paid her $200 registration fee. Having learned the game by watching her older brothers play and by practicing alone in the parking lot of a church ("Two points for hitting the pipe on the wall," she says), she dominated older boys and girls. They started calling her Little Nikki, because there was an older Nicole on the team and because Teasley played like a Nikki, not a Nicole. She would be great someday—if someday ever happened, because her life would be the familiar struggle between sport and street.
At 14 she was arrested for stealing a car. (The case has since been wiped off her record.) Shortly after that, random gunfire outside the Teasleys' apartment shattered its windows. "Four of us at home, lying on the floor, covering our heads," says Nikki. Ernestine had resisted moving away in fear, but in the fall of 1993, when Nikki was 14, Ernestine and the kids moved in with her sister, Lorretta Gaines, in Frederick, Md., 51 miles northwest of Washington. It was as if Nikki had relocated to another planet. "Cows and horses, that farm smell," she says. "Totally different from D.C. There were some hard times. My school was predominantly white. When we played games at some other schools, I heard the n word more than once."
Her school was St. John's at Prospect Hall, a parochial school in Frederick with powerful boys' and girls' basketball programs. Nikki found strength in basketball; she was the Maryland girl player of the year three consecutive seasons. Her ball handling and panache became the stuff of local legend. She was NBA guard Jason Williams in braids. "She could do more things with a basketball than any player I've ever coached, male or female," says Stu Vetter, who coached St. John's nationally prominent boys' team when Nikki was there and who now coaches at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. During clinics Nikki would perform a ball-handling drill in which she walked the length of the court with two basketballs, simultaneously dribbling them through her legs, right hand to right hand, left hand to left, back to front. "Picture that," says Vetter. "It was mind-boggling to watch. The guys would be on the side of the court slapping hands, going nuts."
The guys, however, wanted no part of Nikki on the floor. "She'd make you look stupid," says Jason Capel, now a senior forward at North Carolina. "I refused to guard her, because I didn't want her to make a fool out of me."
Teasley took her game to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1997, and if she wasn't consistent, she was breathtaking. "Let me put it this way, she broke a lot of ankles in the ACC," says Georgia Schweitzer, Duke's All-America point guard who graduated in 2001. In her first three seasons Teasley averaged 14.5 points and nearly six assists a game and left a long trail of Nikki Moments: a right-hand-to-right-hand behind-the-back pass to herself for a finish against Illinois as a freshman; an I-can-do-better-than-you, over-the-shoulder look-away feed to teammate Jessica Gaspar after Gaspar had passed behind her back to Teasley as a sophomore; a 360-degree reverse baseline bank against Duke as a junior in 2000.
"She can see the floor and make everybody better," says Chanel Wright-Greene, who played with Teasley on the Tar Heels for two years. "And you talk about flair...." Often Teasley punctuated her play with a stop-action shimmy that came to be known as the Teasley Shake.
Yet that flair obscured a daily torment that finally broke Teasley on that January afternoon in 2000. She felt her control slipping away. "I wasn't doing well academically, basketball wasn't going great, my social life wasn't the greatest," she says. "A lot of problems. I started thinking of ways to hurt myself. Not necessarily suicide, but messing up my ankle or taking some pills and putting myself out of commission for a month or six weeks. Then I thought, Whoa, this is bad!"
Teasley didn't make the trip to Virginia. Hatchell left her with the team's academic counselor, and before daybreak Ernestine, Nikki's brothers and her friend Jill Vaughn, a 31-year-old bus driver and part-time hairstylist in Frederick, had all arrived in Chapel Hill.
On Jan. 12, Teasley had a consultation with Bradley Hack, the clinical psychologist who is director of sports psychology in the university's department of sports medicine, Teasley and Hack sat in his small square office on the fourth floor of a downtown building, and she let loose a young lifetime's worth of emotions. She talked about her childhood, during which she and her brothers were often left alone by Ernestine, who was trying to find her way through troubles of her own. (Nikki's father, who died in May, did not play a role in her upbringing.) "Two, three days with no food in the house," says Teasley. "I'd just go in my room like nothing bad was happening, and I'd stay there."