That optimism was shaken in the spring of 2007 after star center Lisa Leslie announced she was pregnant and would sit out the season, and coach Joe Bryant was replaced by Michael Cooper, who had led the Sparks to WNBA titles in 2001 and '02. Cooper asked Holdsclaw to try point guard, a position she had never played and then, she says, rode her hard. "It was like he felt he had to be extra tough on me," says Holdsclaw, who was also bothered by tendinitis in her knees. "He was pushing me, and my body couldn't handle it." Attempts to discuss her frustration were met with "a deaf ear," she says. She started to dread going to practice. "I was so excited to play for Coop, but after a while, I was like, Man, I don't know. I don't want to go to the place I've been." (Cooper declined to comment for this article.)
Five games into the '07 season Holdsclaw abruptly retired. The main reason she gave at the time—"I just didn't feel it anymore"—struck many as insufficient. The rumors and judgment began anew: She was selfish. She was a head case. She was depressed again. "I was one of those people who was saying, 'What the hell?'" says Page. "I was hurt that she didn't tell me beforehand, and as a teammate, I was angry. How could she just leave the team like that? But as her friend, I understood she wasn't happy."
In the fall, as she had in many off-seasons, Holdsclaw played in Europe, but her WNBA days appeared to be over. For the first time in years she had summers to herself, and she enjoyed them. She traveled, explored museums, entertained friends in her new home outside Atlanta. "It was the greatest two years of my life," she says.
Among Holdsclaw's diversions last summer was watching Atlanta's new WNBA expansion team, which had strong support from fans despite only four wins. After attending a game one day, she told coach and G.M. Marynell Meadors, "You just need a finisher." When Meadors asked if she was interested in the job, Holdsclaw said yes.
In December the Sparks agreed to trade Holdsclaw's rights to the Dream for the 13th pick in the '09 draft. When Meadors asked if she wanted a one- or two-year contract, Holdsclaw said three. "I feel comfortable with this situation. I feel at home," says Holdsclaw. "Actually, I feel like a rookie again."
At 31, she has some wear and tear issues. Seven months ago Holdsclaw had a scope to clean out loose cartilage in her right knee, and she still has frequent swelling behind that kneecap, but she has no doubts that she can have a powerful impact on her new team. Meadors plans to start Holdsclaw and play her as many minutes as her knee will tolerate. "She can be a great player and a great leader for us," he says.
Off the court Holdsclaw is equally confident in herself. "I know now that when I have something bad going on in my life, I can pick up the phone, call a friend and not be ashamed," she says. What's more, her family is a source of strength rather than despair. Her relationship with Bonita, who has been sober for more than 15 years, is so tight "we're like sisters," says Chamique. Clark is cancer-free. And Johnson may not always know what year it is, "but he's happy in his world," says his daughter.
Holdsclaw has found happiness in her world too. Asked what she would like to be remembered for, Holdsclaw doesn't mention her outsized success at Tennessee or any accomplishments that have come—or might still come—in the WNBA. She thinks a moment. "I persevered," she says. "Things happen in life, and you either stay knocked down or you work through them. I can really say I've worked through them. I became a stronger person and a better person."