She has been in this position before, Chamique Holdsclaw is saying from the bottom of MCI Center, the arena in which nearly everyone who cares about women's basketball is hoping she can live up to the expectations of being the Second Coming.
Holdsclaw remembers the days she spent under the gaze of New York City as the nation's top girls high school player, and of the last four years, when she lifted an entire state while leading the University of Tennessee to three national titles. People always wanted Holdsclaw to have an impact. Even then, people put their hopes on her narrow shoulders.
Lately, so many people are reminding Holdsclaw, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft last month, what a difference she can make -- for the Washington Mystics, the development of the WNBA and the commercial endorsements game. While Holdsclaw has found this to be a strain at times, she says she's not overwhelmed.
"It was like this at Tennessee, at times worse," Holdsclaw said. "But I guess now at the professional level, it's going to be expected more. . . . Now, there's just so many things to take part in, and everybody's calling. Besides that, everything else is good."
If Holdsclaw plays well, there is virtually no doubt she will help the Mystics improve their 3-27 record from last season, maybe even make the playoffs. And few doubt that she will play well. It will be her ability to do so while being the focus of intense attention that will be the test.
"Good Morning America" recently did a segment on her, following her around for nearly a week. Countless other interview requests and photo shoots have jammed her schedule, all with hopes of getting a closer look at the woman they feel can save the Mystics from another dreadful season.
"I think she will," said Mystics General Manager Wes Unseld, who will watch his prize pick make her regular season debut tonight against the Charlotte Sting at MCI Center. "We got a lot done this offseason with our offseason transitions, but in all honesty, a lot of other teams improved, too. Chamique has a chance to help make us a lot better."
With the addition of Nancy Darsch as coach and several veterans from the defunct American Basketball League, the Mystics have assembled a creditable supporting cast for Holdsclaw.
"For our team, Chamique solidifies a tremendous talent and ups our pool of talent," Unseld said. "I don't think there's any doubt that at some point, she's going to be one of the finest women's basketball players to play. But I think she's got a learning curve to go through like everybody else. She's started higher than most, but she's still got that road to travel."
But Darsch does not expect her 21-year-old star to travel the road alone. In fact, Darsch insists that she doesn't. In training camp, Darsch told her players that this year's team would not be a one-woman show. According to her players, Darsch declared that no one should take more than 10 shots per game.
In her first three preseason games, Holdsclaw averaged 15.6 points on 14.3 shots. She also posted double figures in points all three games and in rebounds two of the three games. But players already are focusing on Holdsclaw defensively, as Darsch told her they would, including Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper, two of the WNBA's best players, who grabbed and pushed Holdsclaw in their preseason meeting June 3.
Teammate Nikki McCray, who had similar pressure as the Mystics' star last season, said Holdsclaw can expect more defensive attention in the 30-game regular season. But McCray, the team's leading scorer last season, feels her fellow Tennessee alumna can handle it.
"For Chamique, the surprise is, `Yes, she did everything in college, now what can she do at this level?' " McCray said. "When you look at someone like Rebecca Lobo [of the New York Liberty], she was on the 1996 Olympic team, and there were expectations for her to win a championship for New York in her first season. It didn't happen. But when you set a standard, people see you like that."
At Connecticut, Lobo's "team went 35-0, and people looked at her as the Michael Jordan of women's basketball. They look at Sheryl Swoopes, they look at Cynthia Cooper, they look at Chamique Holdsclaw as the same thing. That's the standard they set because of how they've played. That's the price she pays because she's good."
That price may not be too high unless Holdsclaw is the one charging, of course.
Bob Williams, president of Chicago-based Burns Sports Celebrity Service, said Holdsclaw could earn between $300,000 and $500,000 a year from the shoe and apparel deal she signed recently with Nike. Once the season gets into full swing, Holdsclaw will do television commercials for products she and her attorney, Lon Babby, choose to endorse. She will also appear on TV spots plugging the WNBA.
"We know she's going to have a tremendous impact," said Dean Stoyer, a Nike marketing representative. "But we, first of all, want her to prove herself on the court. That's why we're trying not to ask too much of her early and letting her get into her groove with her new team in her new home. Then our plans will include a lot of advertising and a marketing plan around her, as well as working with our designers to come up with a signature shoe.
"She's got the potential to make a tremendous impact on the Mystics, the WNBA and women's basketball as a whole," he said.
The WNBA knows the possibilities of Holdsclaw's impact, too. And although the league has plans to market Holdsclaw as well, it initially wants her to focus on playing basketball.
"In fairness to Chamique, she is a rookie," WNBA President Val Ackerman said. "She will have to make the same sorts of adjustments that all rookies make. My guess is that the player she is this year will not compare to the player that she is in two years, three years or five years, like the way men in the NBA get better over their careers.
"Off the court, I think she clearly has a mystique about her. We're hopeful that she will enhance the league. I believe she will, and also enhance the reputation that our league has developed for wonderful role models."
Holdsclaw should be just what the WNBA needs, even though it already has stars such as Swoopes, Cooper, Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks and McCray. Holdsclaw's success on the college level made her a familiar name among women's basketball fans long before the WNBA, much like Lobo.
While WNBA officials are willing to wait to give Holdsclaw time to develop as a player, they are not waiting to give her plenty of air time. Despite the Mystics' league-worst record last season, nine of their games -- five more than last season -- will be televised nationally, beginning with Saturday's game at Houston on NBC.
"A lot of leagues need in their history a major superstar," said Richard Burton, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon and director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "It's something that allows people who follow that sport the possibility that they might see the unimaginable. Without that, the league may be hamstrung.
"If Chamique is Jordanesque and clearly stands above the rest, she's going to be in the position to not only do great things for herself, but also put the league at an elite status. This league is ready for someone like Chamique to come around and be a monster."
Such talk has prompted more comparisons to Jordan, who lifted his Chicago Bulls team out of mediocrity and, in the process, popularized the NBA worldwide. But Holdsclaw's situation may be more difficult.
"I don't think that Jordan had that expectation when he came into the league, because he had people like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain years before him," Burton said. "The WNBA is a different animal. If she lets everything come to her, she can lift the league the way Jordan did. If she doesn't, and tries to force things, [people] could throw sticks at her.
"The thing is, either you have it or you don't. And she definitely does."
Holdsclaw's college coach, Pat Summitt, said Holdsclaw will make an immediate difference in Washington and beyond. When the Mystics drafted Holdsclaw, Summitt said, they may have secured success for a very long time. Much like the Bulls did when they chose Jordan in 1984.
"I think she's that Jordan type of player and person," said Summitt, who will serve as a WNBA television commentator this summer. "She did it for us. She won three different national championships playing for three altogether different teams. She was the one. She's the best player we ever had, and she took us to a different plateau. I tell you this: Washington will definitely win more than three games."
Because of those experiences at Tennessee, Holdsclaw is not worried about the impact everyone else wants her to have. She'll keep playing, and likely make a difference for the Mystics, because she is one of the hardest workers on the team. She'll score points because she usually jumps higher and runs faster than her opponents.
But Holdsclaw won't feel a responsibility to do it because of what other people say. She will have a major impact on her team, her league and her sport because she always has.
"I think people expect me to just go out there and be successful," Holdsclaw said. "The people from the WNBA are like, `You're a great player, and we expect great things from you, but don't put pressure on yourself.'
"I'm the type of person who doesn't worry about what other people expect or say. Wes Unseld can come in here and tell me he expects this or that, and I'll look at him like he's crazy, because I set my own expectations. I don't let anyone set expectations for me. I think that's why, thus far, I've been pretty successful. I think it all starts with that self-confidence, that self-worth. I think once you believe what you can do, the sky's the limit."