The greatest athletes are all about controlling the body with the mind, and for a long time, Chamique Holdsclaw could do that. She could hover around the basketball rim and create any shot, her imagination pulling the strings of her arms and legs. Then one morning, her mind quit on her. She couldn’t make herself put on a pair of shoes, much less elevate. She lost track of three straight days sitting on a couch in the dark, eating Fruity Pebbles. The devastating onset of depression was “my little secret,” she says.
It’s not her little secret anymore. It’s the subject of a big-hearted autobiography called “Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot,” and in it, Holdsclaw details her mortal struggle with despair, including her nervous breakdown as a star with the Washington Mystics in 2004, and a never-before disclosed suicide attempt when she played for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2006. The WNBA season will open Friday without Holdsclaw on a roster; the former No. 1 draft pick and six-time all-star injured her Achilles’ tendon in 2010. Instead of rehabilitating to get back to the court she has devoted her time to the rehabilitation of her head. The result is a different kind of comeback, a riveting confessional of how a vulnerable mind undid a strong body, but how a different brand of strength is winning out.
“You get labeled as a quitter with mental health issues like mine,” she says. “People would say I was an ‘enigma.’ Or a ‘problem.’ All along I knew that wasn’t me.”
I’ve known Holdsclaw since she was a 19-year-old college star for Tennessee, and long been fascinated by her talent and her obvious frailty. She’s the child of alcoholics and a schizophrenic father from the same Queens, New York, projects where the troubled Ron Artest grew up (they played basketball together for the same Boys and Girls Club team and she actually started ahead of him). She was always reticent and hard to know, but not any more. The Holdsclaw who emerges from her book, and a long telephone interview, is an unmasked and piercingly honest 34-year-old woman who is in the midst of building a new career as a powerful speaker and mental health advocate.
Page one begins with a semi-conscious ambulance ride and Holdsclaw awakening in Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles in lockdown and on suicide watch, staring at four white walls. All the training that had sustained her as an athlete — the self -denial, the tunnel vision, the mental toughness, the you’ve-got-to-play-hurtness — had turned on her. It was killing her.
“When it started happening to me, I was shocked,” Holdsclaw says. “I felt I had no control, and it was a constant struggle. I said, ‘Hey, I’m successful, I’m in control on the court and able to do these great things.’ But when it came to issues of the mind, I couldn’t get a grip on it.”
Washington Mystics fans will remember the spiral of events that led to Holdsclaw’s deterioration. She was a player with almost shape-shifting ability and an angelic face and disposition when she came out of college after winning three straight national championships at Tennessee, so natural with the ball that her coach Pat Summitt said she seemed to “wear the sport like her own skin.” Holdsclaw was the Mystics’ No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, and in her first season she was WNBA rookie of the year. The following season she won an Olympic gold medal. She hit her apex as a pro in 2003, when she averaged 20.5 points and 10.9 points a game.