Chamique Holdsclaw stuffs her 6-foot-2-inch frame into a school kid's chair-desk and stretches her long legs halfway across the dim hallway, where they rest against a gray metal locker.
She is outside Betty Brown's Room 101 at Hardy Middle School in Georgetown. The kids in that classroom--sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders--have been chosen to spend this unbelievably sunny morning interviewing Holdsclaw for ESPN.
This is a part of the job Holdsclaw accepted when the Washington Mystics took her as the first pick in the WNBA draft this spring. She is 21 years old. Her job description? Superstar athlete. Female Michael Jordan. Mystics savior. Role model to every 10-year-old girl in the country with a basketball and a dream.
The blueprints are hazy. She knows the basketball. She's great at the basketball. It's the rest of it that gets overwhelming.
"I'm probably more nervous than they are," Holdsclaw says, nodding toward the classroom. She grips a cup of Starbucks hot chocolate and makes distracted conversation about whipped cream and dining room sets. A technician leans over and clips a mike to her clothing.
She stands up. Walks into the classroom. There are cheers and applause, and she's off--answering question after question, teasing the giggling girls in the front row during one break, the huge boy in the black T-shirt in the back a few minutes later. She wheedles, she jokes, she tells stories. She is a natural. And when it's over and the kids beg, she promises--swears, absolutely, for sure--that she will come back another day, when her schedule isn't so tight and she has more free time, and she'll play basketball with them in the school gymnasium.
"Really?" one girl asks.
"If I don't," she says, "you guys can talk about me like, 'That Holdsclaw! She lies!' "
Out in the hall a few seconds later, she turns to Nicole Hawkins, who works for the Mystics. Her voice is a plea.
"You have to be sure to remind me," she says.
Holdsclaw is warned that the school year ends in just a few weeks--weeks when she is booked with more public appearances, not to mention practices and games and two road trips. She is overcommitting herself. There is no way she will be able to make it back.
Follow the Boys
Pat Summitt--Holdsclaw's coach at the University of Tennessee--was at Madison Square Garden recently and saw a young girl wearing Chamique (pronounced Sha-MEEK-wah) Holdsclaw's college jersey, with a white 23 on the bright orange background.
"She was there," Summitt says, "just to watch Chamique warm up. She wouldn't take her eyes off her. Ten years ago, women wouldn't have had a pro game in the Garden. And you certainly wouldn't have had a young kid watching every move that someone like Chamique makes."
Holdsclaw is part of a boom in women's team sports. The Mystics get as many fans as the Capitals. The Women's World Cup had huge crowds at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium recently. The stage was set three summers ago at the Atlanta Olympics. That summer spawned American gold medal winners in women's softball, soccer and basketball. In the aftermath, Mia Hamm has become a superstar, labeled the greatest woman ever to play soccer. She does commercials with Michael Jordan.
Holdsclaw is supposed to be Michael Jordan. Even Jordan seems to like this comparison. He met Holdsclaw once, teased her about the fact that they wear the same shoe size--13. (They also wear the same uniform number.) He also teased her about wearing Adidas shoes that day--Adidas outfitted her college team.
"All that Adidas, blinding me!" Jordan said after greeting Holdsclaw. It was Holdsclaw's first raw lesson in marketing. Jordan pitches Nike. He pitched her that day.
"He said I had to get some Nike shoes," Holdsclaw says, remembering. She smiles. She has a Nike contract now, a fat one, the biggest ever given to a female basketball player--it will pay her $300,000 to $500,000 a year over the next five years. Though she won't tell you that. Ask her, and she'll seal her lips like a kid, refusing to talk.
Already the money is an issue--the money and the attention. Four years ago, the NBA capped rookie salaries after veterans got upset over the big-money deals given to players who hadn't yet played a pro game. Sheryl Swoopes--one of the most established names in women's basketball--has complained publicly about the hype surrounding Holdsclaw. This did not surprise Summitt, who worries that as women's "stock goes up, we'll have to deal with all the same nightmares the men do."
"It's inevitable," she says. "The world is full of jealousy, and Chamique's been the best player always--she was the best player in high school, she was the best player in college."
Her game is a dream. She handles the ball effortlessly, with none of the awkwardness that often comes with the taller players in the game. She can shoot from outside and she can go to the hole, and she has a crossover dribble she learned while playing against boys on the neighborhood courts in Queens. She is asked, often, when she will dunk in a game. She smiles and says, "Soon."
But it's not enough for her just to be good at basketball. Holdsclaw's attorney, Lon Babby, also represents Tim Duncan--who just led the San Antonio Spurs to their first NBA championship--and Grant Hill, who once appeared on the cover of a national magazine touted as the "savior" of the NBA. He sees a stark comparison.
"Tim Duncan and Grant Hill walk into a mature league where, if they succeed on the court, they are going to be hugely successful," Babby says. "With the WNBA . . . I think some of the success of the league depends on women like Chamique Holdsclaw capturing the imagination of the public. At some level, she bears a responsibility for helping to grow the game."
Peyton Manning murmurs in agreement. Manning was taken first in the NFL draft in 1998, a young quarterback expected to deliver the Indianapolis Colts from misery to nirvana. He has pressures. Expectations. He always has. Which is why he and Holdsclaw became friends.
They both went to Tennessee. Manning was a Heisman Trophy finalist, a state hero. Holdsclaw led the women to three consecutive national championships. They shared tidbits of advice: When to buy groceries without getting hounded by autograph seekers (in the middle of the night). Where to eat dinner in peace with your family (nowhere, really). How to handle those people who interrupt at the most personal moments, asking to shake your hand.
"It was a unique situation," Manning says now, "but the fact that she was a woman didn't have any special meaning."
Not to him, maybe. But to others. To the little girl in the orange jersey at Madison Square Garden. To the woman college star dreaming of a WNBA future. To the league executives who expect Holdsclaw to help "grow the game," as Babby put it.
Grow to what, though? The NBA? With its money and its television exposure and its breathtaking entertainment . . . as well as its drug accusations and drunk-driving arrests and often petulant superstars playing to fans in $1,000 seats? Are men's professional sports really the best model for the women to follow?
Holdsclaw doesn't see this. She sees amazing opportunities for women. She has been deemed the perfect person to make it happen: poised, personable, incredibly talented. She wants to help make it happen.
"Am I a good role model?" she asks. "I'm not perfect at all. I make mistakes, but not of a great magnitude. But I guess I kind of set a precedent. I establish this, and everything that follows will have me as an example."
She smiles at this. Confidence billows off her.
Warnings From Grandma
"Do you live in a mansion?" The question comes from a young boy at Hardy Middle School. Holdsclaw chuckles.
"No, no," she says. "I live in a town house. I'm not a millionaire."
Not yet. The Mystics are paying Holdsclaw the maximum rookie salary of $50,000. She also has signed a personal services contract with the league--about a dozen marquee players get these side deals--that pays her in the neighborhood of $250,000. Then there is the money from Nike and a contract with Nickelodeon. It's a lot of money, but it's not a lot compared with what NBA players make. Rookie minimum in the NBA is $248,000. The Wizards' Juwan Howard--a talented player, but no superstar--has a deal that will pay him $105 million over seven years.
For Holdsclaw, it is enough. She has put herself on a budget. She's not about to splurge on eight cars like the Boston Celtics' Kenny Anderson. She bought herself a Lexus sport-utility vehicle. She will not buy a house until she is more grown up, better prepared to deal with things like lawn care. Until then, she is renting a town house in Alexandria, which she shares with her boyfriend, Larry Williams. It has three bedrooms and three baths, including one that Williams decorated in the purple and gold of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. Holdsclaw hates it, especially the gold hamper.
She plans to live here year-round, even though her job with the Mystics runs for only three months in the summer. New York was tempting. Her family is there. Her grandmother June still lives in the housing project in Queens where she raised Holdsclaw ever since her parents divorced when Holdsclaw was 11.
"I'd love to live in New York," Holdsclaw says over breakfast one morning, "but it's not in my best interest."
She's asked what she means by "best interest."
"Too many friends," she says. "Too many distractions. I'm a pretty focused person, but if I went to New York, so many people would be expecting so much."
She's talking about ticket requests. Money. Parties. All those times when she'd have to say no to people who don't want to hear it.
"You know they always say that it changes you," she says, meaning the fame, the money, the attention. "But you don't change, your friends do."
Allen Iverson, who turned pro after two years at Georgetown, is famous in the NBA for his friends, who moved into his house in suburban Philadelphia after the 76ers drafted him, ate his food, pressed him for money and tickets, and drove his cars. His mother tried to throw them out. Iverson defended them.
June Holdsclaw has heard these stories. They worry her. She is happy that her granddaughter should never have money problems. But with the good comes the bad.
"I worry about her getting in with the wrong crowd," June Holdsclaw says. "I tell her that sometimes money changes people, and I hope it doesn't happen to her."
Her granddaughter always responds to this lecture in the same way.
"Oh, Grandma," she says. "Oh, Grandma. You know I'm okay."
Holdsclaw is walking down Eighth Street NW, headed back to MCI Center. She did an interview on "Good Morning America" at 8 a.m. She is late for a photo shoot. But there is something else on her mind.
"Did you see the thing in USA Today about Michael Jordan?" she asks, stopping on the sidewalk. It was a brief item recounting a TV interview given by Jordan's sister. Deloris Jordan claimed that Michael doesn't call his mother. She made angry accusations against her late father, James Jordan, whom her brother adored. Holdsclaw doesn't necessarily believe any of it. But it upset her.
"Can you believe that?" she says. "I have a lot of friends who are in the NFL, and they tell me about the parties and stuff--that lifestyle--and I can see how some of them end up not calling their families anymore. I don't ever want to hear my grandma saying, 'Chamique, you don't call me!' "
And this makes her think of her brother. Davon is 18, just finished his junior year of high school. He is 5 feet 8--six inches shorter than his sister. He loves basketball, but often refuses to play it. He loves his sister, but hates hearing her name in the halls of his high school.
"You look at me and my brother," she says, "and I know I've always had everything catered to me. I don't know if he got lost or what."
"The guidance counselor at his high school said that my brother is really missing me." There is guilt in her voice. She tells a story about the other day when he called on her cell phone and put on this serious, professional voice.
"May I speak to Chamique Holdsclaw?" he asked politely.
Chamique started laughing. She knew her brother had recognized her voice. And she knew she was getting grief for not having called in several days.
"Davon," she said, "it's me!"
Thinking of it now, though, it doesn't seem that funny. She's heard the things her brother has said. He tells her, "You don't know what it's like in school. All I get is 'your sister' this, 'your sister' that. I hate it." She doesn't know what to say.
A few weeks later, Davon comes to the Mystics' home opener with the family. He seems almost slight next to his sister, shy and sweet, and he clearly is pleased when she sneaks out to the arena floor between postgame interviews to plant a kiss on his cheek. Then she disappears almost immediately to do another television stand-up or some such thing.
"I don't hear from her that much," Davon says softly. He understands, and he doesn't.
City on Her Shoulders
Holdsclaw doesn't do laundry.
She tried the other day. Threw something beige in with the whites. Her boyfriend intervened. Immediately.
"I think," she told him, "that I've done my laundry before."
"Chamique," he asked, "when did you last do your own laundry?"
She couldn't remember. Williams does it for her. She's spoiled. She knows it.
Williams also knows what drives Holdsclaw crazy. Losing. Losing at anything--video games, silly bets, whatever. But mostly basketball. Definitely basketball.
"I can beat her at basketball," Williams says proudly. "I tease her about it all the time, and she gets so upset at me. She's so competitive. She takes the ball and throws it and says, 'I don't want to play anymore.' "
Told that Williams said this, Holdsclaw is furious. Furious.
"He's lying," she says in a clipped voice. "He doesn't beat me, I beat him. I promise you that's not true. He's lying. He's a liar."
They met at a Foot Locker store in Knoxville, Tenn., where he was working part-time. Holdsclaw was on a recruiting visit. He was in his second year at Knoxville College, where he played football. He invited her to a fraternity party. Several months later, when she was a freshman, she came back to the store.
They were friends for two years, then they started dating. She trusts him because they were friends before she became a phenomenon.
Williams moved to Washington in May to be with Holdsclaw. He had a job in Chicago as a social worker. He had been accepted at the police academy. But Holdsclaw asked him to come stay with her.
"She talked me out of" going to Chicago, he says, shrugging. "She wanted me to be around her. She wanted me to stay and give her moral support."
He has applied for jobs in Washington and expects to start work as a probation officer in the next few weeks. He is learning, though, what the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes long have known--that it's a job, too, to be with someone like Holdsclaw. And it's not just about laundry. If they go out to dinner together, he has to smile graciously when their meal is interrupted again and again by autograph seekers. If he wants to ride home from games with Holdsclaw, he has to wait endlessly in the hallway while she does interviews and checks schedules.
And he needs to be understanding and sympathetic and supportive on days when it gets to be a bit much.
"Sometimes it's like she has a whole city on her shoulders, and that makes her nervous," Williams says. "She's still young. And she does talk about it a lot--the expectations."
On opening night last month, Holdsclaw told everyone she wasn't nervous, she wasn't afraid of letting people down. She was amazing, really: As she went from television interview to television interview in the hours before tip-off, she was icy cool, yet still engaging. She never ran out of patience. She never lost her temper.
"I'm excited," she said again and again. "Not nervous."
This time, it is Williams who says that Holdsclaw is lying. Well, not lying, really, but covering up. Earlier that afternoon, when they were alone, he says she was nervous. Not about the basketball. About letting people down.
The Mystics lost, 83-73, to the Charlotte Sting. The general assessment was that Holdsclaw had an impressive debut--she scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds--and that the team had been competitive.
Afterward, Holdsclaw again was hustled from microphone to microphone--pushed up against a wall in a glare of light and asked to explain what happened. She didn't look tired, and she didn't look the least bit annoyed.
In the middle of it all, she spotted her grandmother in the hallway. June Holdsclaw, ever gracious, had allowed one network to mike her during the second half of the game to pick up reaction and crowd response. Chamique bent down and gently unclipped the microphone from June's jacket and led her to a quiet corner. "I just want to talk to my grandma for a minute," she said, a gentle remonstrance to the camera crew trying to follow.
June leaned in close. They hugged. Chamique closed her eyes briefly. Then June left and headed back to the Queens apartment adorned with her granddaughter's trophies.
And Holdsclaw went on to the next person who wanted to ask a question, get an autograph, tell her she had a good game. She went back to work.
CAPTION: Chamique Holdsclaw: "I guess I kind of set a precedent. I establish this, and everything that follows will have me as an example."
CAPTION: Chamique Holdsclaw with fans at the Fort Hunt Recreation Center in Southeast Washington. June Holdsclaw, left, hopes fame won't change her granddaughter.