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Michael Wilbon

On Court and Off, Holdsclaw Has Some Explaining to Do

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page D01

The biggest problem with Chamique Holdsclaw isn't that she's injured or sick and missing games, or even that she won't talk about her mysterious ailment and why she's missing all these games. The far bigger problem with Holdsclaw is that she's not as advertised.

I know, she's been a three-time WNBA all-star, and she's been on the all-league team twice. She scores a lot of points and grabs a lot of rebounds. But in a sport where a single great player can so disproportionately affect the game, Holdsclaw has been one huge disappointment for the simple reason that when her team needs her, she never delivers.

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I was in Athens for the Olympics and found it a sheer delight to watch a dozen women who make it their business to come through for their teams, from Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson to Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley to youngsters like Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings. You look at that U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal and there was one big-name woman missing from the roster: Holdsclaw.

By now she ought to be a fixture on the U.S. team and a fixture deep into the playoffs because she has the talent. The people who run the Mystics went out this past offseason and did everything imaginable to give Holdsclaw all the help a star needs to make a run at a conference title -- or a playoff spot at the very least. They got some size in Chasity Melvin and Kaayla Chones and they drafted a talented guard in Alana Beard. Yet, the Mystics were dead last in the WNBA's Eastern Conference, and tied for the second-worst record in the league at 12-16 before beating Sacramento in overtime last night. In basketball, more than in any other sport, it's fair to heap the credit or pin the blame on the star, and the stars are the first to say that.

Nobody is saying Holdsclaw is a failure if the Mystics don't win the WNBA title. But the question still remains as to whether she's even made the commitment to winning, and to her teammates. I know the people coaching the Mystics now, professionally and personally. And every indication is they're a hell of a lot more committed to winning than she is.

If this was her first time being absent, we could extend the benefit of the doubt. But it isn't. It's more like the last straw because each and every year there's something. As of last night, she missed her sixth game of this 34-game regular season. Last year she missed seven. The year before that she missed 12 of 32. She missed three of 32 the year before that.

In what amounts to a college-length basketball season, Holdsclaw has played in every game only once in six seasons and that was four years ago. There are always days missed for one reason or another. One year, she admitted later, she was overweight and out of shape.

Now, she's simply not around and refuses to talk about why she's not playing.

If she was a teacher or lawyer or a high-priced sales rep, fine. But Holdsclaw chooses to work in an industry that is public, and she enjoys the perks of playing in such a league, and being the highest-paid player on her team and one of the highest-paid players in the league. Plainly put, she's a public figure by any definition. When you get hurt or you become ill, it's for public consumption. Fair? Perhaps not, but it comes with the territory. I do television every day, and if I become too ill to appear, the reason will become public.

There are those in the international basketball community who feel there's not much at all wrong with Holdsclaw; I'm going to give her every benefit of the doubt here and take her at her word, that something's ailing her. Even so, she's hardly alone. She's not encountering anything men and women who compete professionally don't encounter, sadly enough, all the time.

Thankfully, there is a roster of pro athletes a mile long for her to look to for inspiration if necessary (and I hope it's not necessary). In fact, some of the great advancements not only in medicine but in the way we perceive and discuss illness have been forced by athletes courageous enough to confront illness publicly and raise awareness. By now, she should certainly know that there's no illness so stigmatized people won't rally around a professional athlete or celebrity.

Thank God Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe were able to so gracefully confront their battles with HIV and AIDS, respectively. Those two men, perhaps more than anybody, changed the nature of the discussion surrounding AIDS in America. I don't recall that Mario Lemieux was stigmatized by his Hodgkin's disease, or John Kruk by his testicular cancer. Sean Elliott and Alonzo Mourning have had many a public conversation about their life-threatening kidney diseases. Is there a more widely known inspiration in the battle against cancer than Lance Armstrong?

In Holdsclaw's own league, playing for Sacramento, in fact, is Edna Campbell who battled breast cancer in 2002, then started every single game in 2003. She started at MCI Center last night.

The LPGA's Colleen Walker, in April of 2003, disclosed she was battling breast cancer. Just recently, television's Jane Pauley talked publicly about her bi-polar illness. T-Boz of TLC has re-focused attention on sickle-cell anemia.

If Holdsclaw is ill, only a fool would blame her for being afraid and wanting to keep her condition private. But she chose a public profession, one where, at least, an outpouring of public support would be virtually guaranteed. First and foremost, I hope nothing serious is ailing her, and if there is, that she gets well.

And then I hope she can get well professionally. Few things in sports are worse than unfulfilled promise, which is what her pro career has been so far. The reason Elliott and Mourning, both of whom played after kidney transplants, were so revered is that they were both considered great teammates, people who, when their teams were in the biggest battles, tried the hardest, gave the most. The greatest players, regardless of the sport, say it's the truest measure of an athlete's worth.

At 27, it's way too early to give up on such a talented and bright young woman. But it's also past the time when top professional athletes are expected -- and expect themselves -- to reach a point in their careers when they can be counted on night in and night out to deliver at the highest level. Holdsclaw appears to be at just such a fork in the road right now. One wonders if she appreciates all sides of the dilemma.


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