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Atlanta's Piedmont Park is lightly populated as Chamique Holdsclaw strolls unnoticed behind her panting Yorkies, Riley and Doogie, on an overcast afternoon in mid-May. Then a middle-aged man getting out of his car recognizes her mass of pulled-back braids and her lean, 6'2" frame. "Hey, baby," he shouts, "I'm glad to see you back playing again!" It's the sort of greeting she's been hearing from strangers a lot lately. "Good to see you smile!" "Keep fighting!" "We love you!" Most who follow the WNBA are aware that depression caused Holdsclaw to withdraw from the league, but only a few close friends understand how deeply she despaired. And whereas she once kept her darkest moments locked inside, she now shares her insight into those experiences as a form of therapy—for herself and for others. "I got one letter from a guy who tried to kill himself twice," she says. "Then he heard the story of my depression and the strength I've shown, and now he's working on getting his life back. That's big."
Holdsclaw knows how big because in June 2006 she had suicidal thoughts that led to an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant, the low point she had not talked about in detail until a few weeks ago. For now, though, her head is clear again. She wants back on the court.
A six-time all-star, Holdsclaw was last seen in a WNBA uniform five games into the 2007 season, just before she abruptly left the Los Angeles Sparks. A new season begins this weekend, and she'll start at forward for the Atlanta Dream. Just as many fans and players have expressed support for her, there are others, she expects, who are thinking, Will Holdsclaw walk away again?
"I would put anything on that not happening," she says. "I've been broken. I can't be broken again."
Holdsclaw seemed indomitable at Tennessee, where she won three straight NCAA titles (1996 through '98), was twice the national player of the year and came to be known as the female Michael Jordan. She barely broke a sweat during Pat Summitt's grueling practices. Yet all her gifts were not enough to lift the Washington Mystics, the team that made Holdsclaw the No. 1 pick in the 1999 WNBA draft, out of mediocrity. She was Rookie of the Year and a perennial All-Star, but the team was young and unstable—a new coach every year—and the Mystics lost almost twice as much as they won. Then, the losses started to mount for Holdsclaw off the court as well.
On May 27, 2002, her maternal grandmother, June Holdsclaw, who had raised Chamique and her younger brother, Davon, died of a heart attack. Living with June in her Queens, N.Y., housing project had given Holdsclaw stability, discipline and an escape from her parents' alcohol-fueled fights. Davon eventually returned to their mother, Bonita, but Chamique stayed with June, who became her legal guardian. "She was my rock," says Holdsclaw, who didn't take the time to properly grieve. She had GRANDMA tattooed over a cross on her right ankle, swallowed her sorrow and kept playing.
That season, when Holdsclaw was the league's top scorer (19.9 points a game) and rebounder (11.6), and the next were her best as a pro. But in May '04 there was another big loss: Chamique's maternal grandfather, Thurman, died of prostate cancer. Again she pushed aside her grief and tried to play through it, but this time she could not overcome all her pent-up emotion.
In public view she was averaging 19.0 points and 8.3 rebounds through the first 23 games, but on the inside, she says, "I was losing it." Teammates started to notice a change. "Chamique is a people person," says former Mystics guard-forward Stacey Dales. "She's blunt, sarcastic, funny, direct. When you walk in the locker room, she might ask you the most deep-end question. When that interest in others stops, something's wrong."
Holdsclaw would retreat to her apartment, draw the curtains and sit in the dark, eating Fruity Pebbles from the box. The phone rang, the light on the answering machine blinked. She ignored them. "There was a weight on my shoulders so heavy I couldn't move," she says.
On July 28 Holdsclaw played in her final game of the '04 season, and the Mystics' front office cited undisclosed "medical reasons" to explain her departure. Rumors swirled: Was she pregnant? Addicted to drugs? Suffering from cancer? Three months later Holdsclaw went public with her diagnoses of clinical depression, discussing it with reporters in her lawyer's office.