She wasn't sick enough to be bedridden. Nothing appeared to be outwardly wrong with Chamique Holdsclaw. But it was the middle of July, and the blackness seemed to eclipse her. Over the course of the season with the Washington Mystics, Holdsclaw had become increasingly withdrawn, alienated from teammates and family and even her oldest confidantes. "What's wrong with you?" everyone asked. She was unable and unwilling to explain. "I was there but not there."
Holdsclaw, 27, said she was in the grip of an affliction that approximately 19 million Americans share but few are willing to talk about -- especially pro athletes. Holdsclaw suffered from depression. So much so that she says it ruined her competitive heart and derailed her season, and has caused a five-time WNBA all-star and one of the most gifted and recognizable players in women's basketball, to consider quitting altogether. Yesterday, in her first interview since leaving the Mystics in midseason in July for "undisclosed medical reasons," Holdsclaw acknowledged that she has been in the care of a psychiatrist. She said she has regained her enthusiasm to play and will seek a place with a team overseas this winter, in hopes of regaining her WNBA career. However, she would not rule out the specter of retirement. "It's a possibility, I can honestly say," she said.
After months of silence, Holdsclaw said she chose to talk to dispel the stigma of depression, and also correct misapprehensions and false reports concerning her absence. Holdsclaw looked fit in jeans and pumpkin colored turtleneck sweater, if somewhat tremulous as she sat in a conference room at the law firm of Williams and Connolly with her attorney, Lon Babby. While she sipped a glass of water, she took an assortment of vitamins.
"People will think you're popping pills," Babby said.
"That's the rumor," she said, laughing.
She became a source of controversy and speculation when she left the Mystics last July while the team was trying to become a playoff contender. Holdsclaw stopped answering her phone. She changed her cell phone number so that even Mystics General Manager Pat Summitt, her former coach at the University of Tennessee and longtime mentor, couldn't reach her. "I just kind of had to break away from all that," Holdsclaw said.
She slept a lot. "I was just doing my own thing, just living without all of the expectations," she said. She never turned on sports on the TV. She didn't watch when her team played, even though they went on a remarkable run to make the playoffs. She sat on the couch in her apartment just a block from the arena where they were competing, the MCI Center. "Everything was negative," she said. "Dark." The concierge of her building knew her and every time she went out, he asked, "Mique, are you okay?"
The unexplained departure of a key player earning a six-figure salary was difficult for some Mystics fans to accept. One day while walking to a nearby restaurant, a passing motorist rolled down his window and began berating her, telling her, "You need to get it together! You need to get back on the court!" Holdsclaw wheeled on him, livid. "Do you know me?" she shouted. "You don't know me!"
Holdsclaw said she wasn't prepared to discuss an ailment that made her equal parts mystified, paralyzed, and ashamed.
"Depression, people just don't realize how it can take over your mind," she said. "Yes, I was walking around and looked fine."
Holdsclaw was so secretive about her problem that yesterday some teammates learned about the nature of her illness from a reporter. Guard Tamicha Jackson was shocked. "Is that what it was? My heart goes out to her. The people on the team who knew really kept the secret because a lot of us didn't know what it was. I would have reacted the same way. I can feel for her now that I know. It was hard to sympathize because I didn't know."
While it's common for athletes to discuss physical injuries, they almost never disclose emotional or mental afflictions. On the rare occasions that they do, it's usually because they missed significant playing time or because they ran afoul of the law. An exception is Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who has acknowledged that he suffers from clinical depression.
Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles based clinical psychologist, said depression can be especially problematic for athletes. "It can keep you from getting up in the morning, from eating, from being interested in anything," he said. "It can affect the body as well as the mind. The symptoms of depression cause more depression, especially for an athlete who says, 'I'm the top person, and I'm not fulfilling my goal.' This adds to the straws that break the camel's back. An athlete would likely need two coaches, one to help you on the court and one to help you get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other."
Holdsclaw was the No.1 draft pick of the Washington Mystics in 1998 from Tennessee, where she won three straight national championships, and she has been consistently among the WNBA leaders in scoring and rebounding. She is accustomed to being counted on heavily by her team, and by the family she helped lift out of a housing project in Astoria, Queens (N.Y.).
Holdsclaw said yesterday that, with the help of a psychiatrist, she has traced the root of her depression to the death of her grandmother a year ago. June Holdsclaw raised Chamique and her younger brother on a nurse's salary in Astoria. Chamique relied heavily on her grandmother for emotional support and was devastated when she died suddenly of a stroke. At the time, Holdsclaw suppressed her grief, playing a game for the Mystics just days after the funeral.
When Holdsclaw suffered a second loss this May, this time of her grandfather, her family turned to her for solace. She was always someone "who could fix everything," she said. But Holdsclaw was buckling. By July she couldn't get out of bed. "I couldn't move, couldn't talk," she said. "I was like, what is going on?"
Holdsclaw stayed home while the Mystics traveled to Charlotte for a game on July 24. She rejoined the team four days later for a game against Detroit, hoping the episode was temporary. But she immediately suffered another emotional decline. This time, she followed the advice of close friends and Babby and consulted a therapist. Over the next few weeks, Holdsclaw said she realized that she was in no condition to deal with her responsibilities.
"I just didn't want to be Chamique," she said, "People look at me, even my family and friends, in an almost supernatural way. I just wanted to be a regular person."
Holdsclaw told Babby she didn't want to return to the team. "They don't have to pay me," she told him. Holdsclaw and Babby informed Summitt and Washington Sports and Entertainment President Susan O'Malley, that their star player would not be back. They also requested confidentiality. They found the Mystics "understanding and remarkably supportive," Babby said.
Summitt and O'Malley even declined to tell head coach Michael Adams why Holdsclaw was absent. "We just wanted to work with her," O'Malley says. "Chamique is a very private person who was very worried about her confidentiality and that's why we kept the circle very small."
When the season ended in the first round of the playoffs, Holdsclaw went to stay with an old friend in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn to be closer to her family. She returned to the old Boys and Girls Club in Astoria where she had learned to play and joined pickup games.
Holdsclaw recently called Babby and said she wanted to explore playing overseas, which most WNBA players do in the offseason to hone their games and make extra money. Holdsclaw said it's an experiment to see if she can apply what she's learned: not to internalize problems. "It's time to take the test and see," she said. "I know I love the game.
"I've been through a lot and I just want to play basketball."
Staff writer Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.