"It's true," says Ernestine, now 54 and a social worker. "There were nights I didn't come home to my kids. I was having a hard time. It hurts me so bad now to think about it. I hope God and my children can forgive me." (The children say that they have, and that the family is tighter than ever.)
In Hack's office Nikki also talked about her half brother Ernie's death at 26 in a 1994 car accident. "I'd never accepted it," she says. "I didn't cry at the funeral. Ernie got me started in basketball. I still have a hard time with his absence. I have a dream, and Ernie's there, talking to me, saying, 'It's O.K., 'Cole, I just had to hide out for a little while.' " Nikki always takes the court with Ernie's driver's license tucked into her spandex undershorts.
She told Hack about the pressure of being the fabulous Nikki Teasley. "Always in the spotlight since I was a little girl," she says. "I know I'm not Michael Jordan, but you always have to be on your toes or you'll disappoint people. I wasn't strong enough to deal with it. I needed help."
She had never talked with anyone the way she talked with Hack. "She had always withdrawn," says Hack. "That was her coping strategy. Eventually her boat got swamped, and she felt overwhelmed."
Vaughn called Teasley's episode a breakdown. Teasley prefers to think of it as a breakthrough. It was Hack who offered the diagnosis of "symptoms of depression and anxiety." He stresses that "she's not bipolar, and she's not mentally ill. She needed to learn coping strategies and how to manage her moods." Therapy gives her an outlet for her emotions, and Paxil helps keep her calm, although she admits to not taking her dose daily, as prescribed.
Her recovery, like most, hasn't been seamless. Teasley returned to the Tar Heels in late January 2000 and played through the NCAA tournament, but in the spring she stopped going to classes, workouts and therapy. At Hatchell's behest Teasley took the 2000-01 year off from school and basketball. "She wasn't academically ineligible," Hatchell says, "but she had broken so many team rules that we had no choice."
Teasley could have left college behind and turned pro, but she resisted the temptation to sign with a European team. Instead she went home to Frederick and took two jobs. During the day she worked for a construction and paving company, and at night she was a sales clerk in the children's clothing department at J.C. Penney's in the Francis Scott Key Mall. "At Penney's everybody called me Michelle," says Teasley. "I liked that."
She returned to Chapel Hill full-time this fall and is on track to get her degree in African-American studies in May—a fact mat left her brother Michael and her mother weeping with joy in Hatchell's office at the start of this school year. Her teammates have met a sweeter version of the old Teasley. "It used to be I'd walk into the locker room, see Nikki and say, 'Hey, Nikki,' " says junior guard Corretta Brown. "Now I see her and it's, like, 'What's up, girl!' " The four freshmen who joined the Tar Heels this fall have taken to Teasley as if she were their den mother.
"Nikki is playing the best she's ever played," Hatchell says. There's one change: Teasley plays on the wing instead of the point, where the talented Brown now plays, but Hatchell expects both to handle the ball.
Every day is a gift, every word a message. Teasley loves her teammates for accepting her, and she calls Hatchell a second mother. "They helped me when I needed it," she says. "I hope other athletes know it's O.K. to struggle and to ask for help. I hope they don't hold it in."