Schuye LaRue, shown in the District, was a star basketball player at the University of Virginia and drafted into the WNBA. But she has been living on the streets for years. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

On a summer day in 2012, a basketball superstar walked into Jimmy John’s in downtown Washington just as employees were attempting to kick out a homeless woman. Chamique Holdsclaw, who was drafted first overall in 1999 by the Washington Mystics and played in six all-star games, tried to ignore the commotion until she suddenly became part of it.

“Chamique,” the homeless woman begged. “Please buy me a sandwich.”

Holdsclaw had nearly mistaken her for a man. She was tall — taller than Holdsclaw, a former forward who stands 6-foot-2. She was dressed in baggy, dark men’s clothing. Her long fingers clutched a cigarette. She seemed disoriented, Holdsclaw recalled, maybe even on drugs. But her voice was smooth, feminine — and familiar.

Then it hit Holdsclaw. This wasn’t just another homeless person in a city full of them. It was Schuye LaRue.

LaRue was once one of the most promising basketball players in the country. Named ACC Rookie of the Year while at the University of Virginia, she was later selected to the All-ACC First Team and still holds a school record for rebounds. Famed basketball coach Pat Summitt called her “one of the most impressive freshmen in the country.” The Los Angeles Sparks selected her 27th overall in the 2003 draft.

Virginia’s Schuye LaRue goes up against Maryland’s Deedee Warley during a game on Feb. 24, 2000, in College Park, Md. (Nick Wass/AP)

“Don’t you know who that is?” Holdsclaw said she sputtered at the employees. Didn’t they know how good she was?

Badly shaken, Holdsclaw bought LaRue a sandwich, then returned to her 11th-floor room at the Donovan Hotel. Tearfully, she said, she looked out the window. She spotted her old friend lying on the street, in front of a CVS, asleep.

For love of the game

On an overcast afternoon in October, temperatures in the high 50s, LaRue meandered across McPherson Square. Wearing mismatched boots, a winter hat and a down jacket, she settled her sinewy frame onto a bench. She motioned to some scaffolding on a K Street building. That’s where she says she works out.

“Just one [pull-up] a day,” said LaRue, who court records show was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. “A good one. I still try to do one every day. If I took everything off, I could probably do two or three, but I wouldn’t want to do more than two or three anyway. I like to stay light. Every day I’m out . . . I do 10 push-ups, 10 toe raises.”

LaRue grabbed a five-pound weight she had at her side. She did a set of reverse curls. Then she smoked a cigarette. Then she picked up the weight again.

In a city of more than 7,000 homeless people, Schuye Siophan LaRue might be the most athletically gifted among them. She can’t remember the last time she touched a basketball. But she thinks about it constantly, scrutinizing pickup games she doesn’t dare participate in, waiting to speak with an agent she hasn’t heard from in 10 years. She says she still has big plans. Money’s on the way.

Schuye LaRue has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic disorder. The once-promising basketball player has been homeless for years. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

“I own my own [WNBA] team, the Chicago Sky,” LaRue said. “I’m trying to connect back with Boris, then that will be that. . . . I’m not playing for them. I own them. I’m working on my accounts, so I can get mine.”

LaRue’s relationship with basketball wasn’t always so complicated. You might even say she was predestined to play the game. Her mother, Barbra, once had a friend who gave birth to a partially paralyzed child named Skye. So Barbra decided to give her daughter the same name, but spelled it Schuye. “It worked out so great because she’s 6-foot-3 and close to the sky,” the mother, who scraped by on a retailer’s salary, told the Daily Press in 1999.

LaRue, whose first memory is of dribbling outside a Capitol Heights home she shared with her mother and younger brother, Nathaniel Patterson, learned basketball in pickup games against men. By her sophomore year at Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington, she was starting on the varsity team. A yearbook photo from this time shows her towering over the rest of the players, hair cropped short, unsmiling.

Wallace Lee, who has trained hundreds of youth athletes, remembers a confident tomboy dropping by his gym at Northwestern High School to train. He had already heard of a local phenom averaging more than 22 points per game. But he was stunned nonetheless. “She had that God’s gift,” Lee said. “She had what coaches can’t teach. . . . She was, like, the best thing I’d seen in the area.”

Scouts anointed her the 17th-best recruit in women’s basketball in the country. USA Today named her the top player in the District. “Her name is pronounced ‘sky,’ ” the paper’s Carolyn White wrote in 1999. “And girls basketball analysts say that’s her limit.”

Coaches from Rutgers, Maryland and Florida wanted her on their team. One from the University of Virginia, Audra Smith, witnessed her play before LaRue committed to the ACC school. “I was like, ‘My God, she is the next coming,’ ” said Smith, who now coaches Clemson University’s women’s basketball team. “She is the next great player in this country.”

A sudden departure

Virginia teammate Renee Robinson saw it immediately. Months after LaRue joined the team, the pair met at a gym at George Washington University. They had organized a game of two-on-two with Holdsclaw, who was then considered perhaps the best women’s basketball player in the country.

Robinson already knew LaRue was good. The freshman handled the ball like a point guard, drove like a forward and blocked like a center. But how would she handle playing against someone just as quick, just as talented?

“She was giving Mique the business, just the business,” recalled Robinson, who called La­Rue the “best player-athlete I ever played with.” She added: “You’re a little freshman. . . . You’re going against Holdsclaw, and a lot of people get intimidated, but she didn’t seem intimidated at all. It didn’t faze her.”

That tenacity fueled LaRue’s rise. She led Virginia in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and field-goal percentage in her first season. She was named a candidate for the Naismith Trophy Women’s College Player of the Year at the start of the next season, when she notched the most double-doubles in the country. In the NCAA Tournament, she sank a three-point shot right before the buzzer to force overtime in a game Virginia ultimately lost.

She’ll be back the next year, Virginia’s coaches thought at the time. She had two more seasons before she was eligible for the WNBA draft. She wasn’t even 20. But after the loss, LaRue told Coach Debbie Ryan, who didn’t return repeated requests for comment, that she wasn’t coming back. Forgoing a Virginia degree, she decided to go overseas to play in Italy.

“It was one of those things that came out of the blue,” recalled Smith, who said she was stunned by the news.

Now, years later, Smith still thinks about that moment. Nothing about the star player seemed amiss to her. Nothing, she said, except for that sudden departure. Was it an early sign, Smith now wonders, that she had missed?

A changing personality

After Holdsclaw ran into La­Rue that day at Jimmy John’s, she dispatched a vivid retelling of the encounter on Facebook. The post hit the women’s basketball community — a surprisingly small world where everyone knows everyone else — like a bomb. The thread collected hundreds of likes and comments, and eventually found its way to LaRue’s mother, Barbra.

“It’s been a very long journey for Schuye and our family,” Barbra LaRue posted in the comments. “Schuye was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 2002 when she returned from Italy. It took months to actually get that diagnosis, which was the reason for the sudden decision to go to Italy, and why Debbie Ryan nor myself could understand the change in her behavior, and Debbie could no longer ‘reach’ her.”

Soon after LaRue returned from Italy, tragedy struck the small family. In late October of 2002, police found a body of an 18-year-old inside a car in the 4300 block of Third Street NE. It was LaRue’s brother, Nathaniel. He had been shot in the head. “That’s when it really got worse,” her mother said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They were really close. It just intensified.” She described the symptoms as “delusions — audio and visual. She’d be talking to people [who weren’t there], and it looked as though she was talking to [you], but she wasn’t.”

The WNBA draft was by then just weeks away. LaRue hadn’t played competitively in months, but this was her first year of eligibility. Lee, the trainer, said he went to see LaRue at her mom’s house on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

He immediately noticed that something was wrong with her. She refused to take off her winter coat. She couldn’t focus. “She wasn’t in the right mind,” he said. “She wasn’t herself. And it was wild, the next year, in the draft, the [Los Angeles] Sparks drafted her . . . even though no one had seen Schuye for two years. She was that good, yes.”

LaRue’s agent, Boris Lelchitski, said the Sparks called him. “They said, ‘We’re going to get her straight,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘I wish you can, because I couldn’t.’ ”

It took three tries to get her to board a plane to Los Angeles, Lee said. “She had shut down, and she was sad, and she was scared,” he added. She made it through several practices and glowed with potential. But one day, La­Rue’s friend, Amanda Brice, said she got a call from a Sparks player. “I remember getting a phone call late, telling me to come get her,” Brice said. “She came to practice and had a Britney Spears moment — half of her hair was shaved off.”

LaRue stopped practicing, and the Sparks suspended her. She returned to the District without ever playing a WNBA game. The Associated Press dispatched a small story. Its headline: “Schuye reaches limit.”

‘I am always hungry’

That year, Barbra LaRue moved the small family to Anne Arundel County so she and her daughter could be closer to relatives. She thought if LaRue left the city for a new environment, she would improve. And for a time, she did. LaRue visited with a psychiatrist three times a week.

Then in 2006, Barbra, who was then working at Macy’s, relocated the family to Prince George’s County for her job. Her daughter deteriorated after the move. Their insurance situation had changed, the mother said, and LaRue wasn’t receiving the medication she needed.

LaRue drifted. She left the home and found her way back to Washington. Court records show that District mental-health experts evaluated her seven times between 2012 and 2014, ultimately diagnosing her with schizophrenia and psychotic disorder.

In 2012, LaRue, like many other mentally ill homeless people, started having legal troubles. In September, after trying to avert a collision with a passerby on the sidewalk, she became upset and punched the woman in the face. She was charged with simple assault but missed a hearing. Authorities arrested her in January on a charge of failure to appear in court. Two months later, she picked up a shoplifting charge — which was later dismissed — but skipped another hearing and was charged with violating the conditions of her release.

LaRue ultimately pleaded guilty to that charge, as well as assault, and underwent a series of mental evaluations. In these sessions, she was often recalcitrant and consumed by delusion, city records show. Once, she threatened violence. Another time, she wept. “Her conversation was intermittently tangential but easily redirectable and appeared reality based,” one court-appointed psychologist wrote. “She described her mood as ‘It comes and goes with my appetite. . . . I am always hungry because I lost my [electronic benefits] card.’ ”

Greg Raleigh, who runs a local nonprofit called Food for Fuel that uses athletes to teach youths about nutrition, heard about LaRue’s predicament. He’s now trying to get her off the streets. “She should be coaching,” he said. Pathways to Housing, which links the homeless with housing, has also connected with LaRue, court records show.

But will she take the help? “She doesn’t want help,” said teammate Robinson, sounding both exasperated and sad. Four other friends also said LaRue has refused their support — not an unusual response, say those who work with homeless people who are mentally ill.

Some of LaRue’s old Virginia teammates still search for her when they’re in town. Telisha Quarles found her in July near a 7-Eleven in downtown Washington. Once Quarles recovered from the shock of seeing her friend on the street for the first time, the two talked basketball for a while like nothing had changed.

“Her mind was there,” Quarles said, and then repeated herself. “She was pretty good.”

It was almost enough to make Quarles think she was talking to the old Schuye, the Schuye who hadn’t yet reached her limit.