Chamique Shall Inherit the Earth

by December 05, 2009

The headline for the cover of SLAM 29 read, “Is the NBA ready for Chamique Holdsclaw?” And there ‘Mique was, posing on the cover wearing a Knicks uniform with the #23. The first female baller to get a SLAM cover. Hyped to take over the game when Jordan retires, she would carry basketball and deliver it to the next up-and-comer worthy of such a burden. She would talk of playing in the NBA, when her game was right, and continue her destiny to basketball immortality. Only thing is, it didn’t happen. It wasn’t even close. She was drafted 1st overall by the Washington Mystics in 1999, won the ROY award and a Gold Medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. However, in her WNBA career, she has never won a WNBA title or MVP award, practically prerequisites for somebody considered to carry on Jordan’s legacy. Then came depression, tendinitis, Europe and finally a return to the WNBA. It’s come full circle for somebody, as Michael Bradley illustrates below, who had the “power.”-Matt Lawyue

SLAM 29 Cover Story, Chamique Holdsclaw.

by Michael Bradley

The words slide out with the same ease that a 10-foot runner might roll off her long, elegant fingers. Around her, the bustle of New York’s Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex seems more like gentle background music, not urban mayhem. This is a declaration to all who think they’ve seen the likes of her before. Or will again. The volume is low, but Chamique Holdsclaw might as well be shouting it with a foot on each World Trade Center tower.

“No one is like ’Mique; ’Mique is like no one.”

Oh, yeah. She doesn’t just mean hoops, although everybody should know by now that Holdsclaw will become—is perhaps already—the best woman ever to bounce a ball. After just three years of college, the Tennessee senior has become a full-fledged, was-that-who-I-thought-it-was phenomenon, a must-see for fans and little sisters everywhere. Holdsclaw gets recognized while shopping—for which she has Xena-like stamina—getting gas, eating, having her hair done or just walking down the street. Want to start a riot? Take Holdsclaw into a girls basketball camp and get the hell out of the way. In Knoxville, where the main sightseeing attraction is the abandoned ’82 World’s Fair grounds, one can almost imagine a tour guide saying, “On your left, ladies and gentlemen, is Neyland Stadium, second largest college football venue in America. On your right is Chamique Holdsclaw and her three national championship rings. No flash pictures, please.”

If Chamique Holdsclaw were just about basketball, hers would still be an amazing story. After all, she has the opportunity to ride into the women’s professional world and transform it from a curiosity that lands on the same big-city sports pages as soccer, track and equestrian events into a sensation that fills the league of her choice’s corporate pockets and forces women to pay attention to sports. To spout statistics. To argue about coaches’ moves. To sit in front of the TV, swill beer and scratch. Now that’s power. And Holdsclaw has it.

She also has enough talent to make you wonder: why not the NBA? Hell, she’s done just about everything else. Do you think the women’s pro leagues are going to hold her? Come on. If she’s playing pick-up with guys—and handling them—then why not let her run with the best? The Nuggets or Grizzlies (or Clippers or Raptors) could sure use somebody with her talent and charisma. Maybe not today, since Holdsclaw’s lithe frame is certainly not made for the Big League’s banging. She would definitely have to be a Western Conference player. But, in a few years, give her a shot. She would certainly bring a better set of fundamentals to the game than most of the teenagers coming to the NBA these days. You know the idea has crossed somebody’s mind in Sternland. Even Mique has thought about it. “I don’t think I’m ready for the NBA right now,” she says. “But maybe one day. I have ability, but my body isn’t strong enough yet. I’m no guy. I play against women at school. At home, I play against guys, because that’s who was out there. It makes me better.”

Few others in any sport have wielded this kind of influence. And while it may be funny to think a skinny, 6-2 college kid with braces and an elevator-shaft neck might just become that big, consider that the members of the NBA’s Holy Trinity—Bird, Magic, MJ—weren’t exactly finished products at 20, either.

“There are great players, but very few have the same charisma of a Michael Jordan or Reggie Jackson,” says Vincent Cannizzaro, head girls coach at Christ the King HS in Middle Village, NY, where Holdsclaw starred for four seasons. “Their mere presence excited even opposing fans. Young girls want to have a female role model like that, a player they can emulate. They can’t pattern their game after Jordan, Patrick Ewing or Karl Malone. They can pattern it after Chamique Holdsclaw.”

SLAM 29 Cover Story, Chamique Holdsclaw. The endorsements are waiting. The hype is in overdrive, further evidenced by our cover. Holdsclaw should be overdosing on attitude. But she isn’t. Never has. She was always the strong one, the one with a plan. Think it over and get going. That’s why she’s working hard every day with a personal trainer at Chelsea’s chic gym, which belongs as much in The Robb Report as in a sports magazine. Hard enough to add some bulk, about the only thing she lacks. Hard enough to call her roommate, Zakiah Modeste, a rock-solid long- and triple-jumper at UT with a six-pack of her own and an audition for an upcoming Spike Lee joint, with the news. “She’s bragging about her abs, telling me, ‘I have muscles!'” Modeste says.

Holdsclaw is also playing ball at 1 a.m., just because the lights are on at the court near her house in Astoria, Queens. And just because she knows that running with the locals won’t be too cool this time next year, once the contract has been signed and the shoe deal is done.

Holdsclaw has basketball down. Yeah, she’ll try to shoot more three-pointers this year, even if her men’s size-13 dogs can’t seem to stay off the line. And she’s working like hell to be able to dunk for real. In a game. There isn’t too much left after that. Holdsclaw’s original equipment was installed with basketball greatness in mind.

“People like to watch her play,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt says. “There’s poise in her game. Michael has his smile. When you watch Chamique, you are watching a very graceful and talented player, a do-it-all player. She can make the very difficult seem easy.”

But what about the other stuff?

What about her intelligence? She’s majoring in political science, and she can carry on an adult conversation for more than 10 minutes, with humor, emotion, insight and without the word “dude.”

What about her humility? Try to ask her about the hoopla without hearing, “I’ve been so blessed” about 50 times. And she means it. Listen to her marvel at the attention she gets from young players, many of whom picked up a basketball in the first place because of Holdsclaw. “I still think it’s cool,” she says.

What about her character? Even when she was young, Holdsclaw never panicked. When she was 11 and her parents were splitting up, Holdsclaw was the strong one who kept the family together. “When times get hard, I never run,” she says. “I try to figure out a way to make it work. I do a lot of thinking.”

What about her pure magnetism? When she cracks open that railroad-track smile—”I can’t wait to get these braces off,” she says—you can tell why she’s so popular. Why people think they can ask for autographs in IHOP or Wal-Mart or on the street. And you know what? She’ll oblige. “I hate going out with her,” Modeste says. “She’ll sign for anybody.”

All that came standard, too, although it was brought to the fore by some serious watch-dogging by Holdsclaw’s grandmother, June, who has raised her since she was 11. When Holdsclaw says, “No one is like ’Mique; ’Mique is like no one,” she’s not just talking about her conservative, Eddie Bauer-style fashion sense or on-court magic. She’s talking about the whole package. A package that could make sports history. Yes, Holdsclaw has never lost a championship game on the high school or collegiate level (seven for seven). No, there isn’t anybody on the planet who can check her one-on-one. But Holdsclaw will rise above the rest as much for her charm and poise as for her crossover dribble or better-get-help first step. As it all explodes around her in the next year, Holdsclaw will continue her maturation from shy sensation to polished wonder. She may not like it all, but she’ll still embrace it. She’ll become a spokesperson. An icon. A star. Sound like anybody else? Maybe. Mostly it sounds like Chamique Holdsclaw.

“I have a different way of handling things,” she says. “I stay to myself. No one can ever know what’s going on, because I keep it inside, and I try to figure out a plan and go. I try to remain humble. It’s not that I don’t think I’m good. I know I’m good.

“But I can be that much better.”

They still want to let her know. “We made you,” they tell her. “You’d be nothing without us.” It’s street stuff. Pure. Nasty. And somewhat true. When Holdsclaw goes back to play at her neighborhood courts, the guys are out there. Ready to take credit. Because she played with them, she got better, faster. And don’t forget it.

“When I came back after my freshman year, one [male] friend asked, ‘We helped you, didn’t we, being aggressive and everything?'” she says. “I said, ‘Definitely.’ It takes a lot of heart to play with them.”

It began merely as a way to belong. A way to fight the uncertainty that came from moving from one section of Queens (Jamaica) to another (Astoria). From her parents’ fractured marriage to the cocoon of life with grandma. On a map, the distance may seem minuscule, a 15-minute car ride. For an 11-year old girl, it might as well have been a trip to Tibet. Alone. Until she discovered basketball.

That first summer, Holdsclaw’s aunt was staying in the house, and her best friend had two kids. The older, Andrew Fowler, played basketball every day. So ‘Mique did too. “It was like follow the leader,” she says. “I followed him wherever he went.”

Remember, this was 10 years ago, back when girls weren’t playing pickup games at the playground. So, when the boys would run, Holdsclaw would watch. When they would leave, Holdsclaw would play one-on-one with her new best friend, and before long, the other guys saw that a girl actually had game. After that, they started to let her play. And Holdsclaw was hooked.

Soon, others began to look at her. Cannizzaro remembers the first time he saw Holdsclaw. She was doing some drills with a boys’ team in the park and took a pass, jumped and shot the ball. “I said, ‘This kid can play,'” he says. Within a year, Holdsclaw was on Christ the King’s varsity, partly because it was one of the best basketball programs in the country, but also because June was hell-bent on making sure her granddaughter would attend private school. “I went to public school for a year, and I didn’t do well in that environment, and it was back to private school,” Holdsclaw says. “[June] always tried to keep me secure. She always kept me close to her. She was very overprotective.” Hey, ’Mique, it’s a jungle out there. June just wanted to make sure you had a chance. That’s why she made you stay inside so much. That’s why you had to do homework as soon as you came home from school. That’s why you had to go to church every Sunday. That’s why you are who you are.

“Girls out there are pregnant,” Holdsclaw says. “That could have been me. I wish everybody had somebody that would say, ‘I’m going to give of myself and make you a better person.'”

Holdsclaw sure made Christ the King a better team. While she was there, the school won four state titles, was ranked in the top three nationally each year (first in ’93) and lost all of three games. Holdsclaw finished with more than 2,000 career points and was a three-time prep all-American. “When Chamique was in high school, I told her she had the ability to change the game of women’s basketball with her play,” Cannizzaro says. That must have been heady stuff for a quiet teenager, but while at Christ the King, Holdsclaw was beginning to understand that she was different from her peers. Whether it was on the court or off, where she caught grief for her meticulous style. Students at Christ the King could wear any kind of button-down collar shirt they wanted, but Holdsclaw was always turned out just right—sharp, pressed, matching. “She was perfect,” says former teammate Kristeena Alexander, now a point guard at George Washington. “She didn’t wear the latest styles. She didn’t care whose name was on it. She dressed the way she wanted to.”

The Holdsclaw brand began to gain momentum the summer after her freshman year, when Cannizzaro made her play for a 14-and-under AAU team, not the older version for which her teammates toiled. Even though Holdsclaw wasn’t happy with the mandate, it paid off. “I saw that I was better than those girls,” Holdsclaw says. “That next season, I had so much confidence. I had averaged just a little bit of minutes my freshman year, and then I became an instant star.”

The college basketball world was introduced to Holdsclaw that summer. “I always say the good ones will find you,” Summitt says. “She found everyone.” As her reputation ballooned, and Summitt and her big-time cronies came a-calling, Holdsclaw remained the same quietly-confident teenager she always had been. “She was extremely self-disciplined and motivated,” Cannizzaro says. “Whatever you asked her to do, she did.”

On the court, she began to understand her role. When it was time to deliver, she stepped up. Subtly. “You could always tell when she had taken a game over,” Cannizzaro says. “She became more of a presence. She blossomed.” Holdsclaw wasn’t playing with stiffs, but it was clear who was the best. Yet she never acted the part. After coming out—with 36 points, midway through the third quarter of a blowout win—of the state Catholic school championship game her senior year, Holdsclaw spent the rest of the game cheering louder for her teammates than any fan in the gym.

“That pushed us to try harder,” says Alexander. “Ever since I’ve known her, she has been genuine. She doesn’t let any of it go to her head. That’s what makes her special.”

After a few months of verbal ass-kickings from Summitt, Holdsclaw wasn’t feeling so special. “I went into [Summitt’s] office and said, ‘I don’t know if this is for me,'” Holdsclaw says. “Mickie [DeMoss], her assistant, told me to hang in there. I did, and it’s remarkable. If you hang in there and believe in something, good things will happen.”

That they happened in Knoxville is a bit surprising, since Holdsclaw is big-city all the way. “I never go out, because it’s boring to me,” she says. But Knoxville has Summitt, and that made it perfect for Holdsclaw. The legendary taskmaster is tough enough keep issuing the challenges necessary to push Holdsclaw beyond her remarkable natural talents, but she’s also able to connect with the player. “During last year’s tournament, [Chamique] sat down next to me on the bus and said, ‘I just finished your book [Reach for the Summitt], and I finally understand you,'” Summitt remembers. “I said, ‘I should have written it two years ago.'”

The ever-growing bond between the two doesn’t mean the work will end. This year, the theme will be defense, even though Holdsclaw has made significant strides since her freshman year. “She’s already a great offensive player, but I’d like to see her increase her intensity at the other end,” Summitt says. Perhaps Holdsclaw could pretend every game is an NCAA tournament matchup. That’s when she does it all. During last year’s post-season (including the SEC tourney), Holdsclaw increased her scoring (23.5 to 25.2 ppg) and rebounding (8.4 to 9.7 rpg), big examples of why she has never failed to win a title. “When the playoffs come, I’m happy,” she says. “I’m excited. Everything’s on the line. That’s like going to play in the park. If you’re going to play against the best, you better come ready. If you don’t, everybody’s going to laugh at you.”

SLAM 29 Cover Story, Chamique Holdsclaw. That’s not to say Holdsclaw can’t use a little motivation at times from Summitt—and teammate Kellie Jolly. “Coach will yell at me during the games, ‘Chamique, you’re not here to pass the ball; you’re being passive, not aggressive,'” Holdsclaw says. “I look at my teammates to see if they want me to pass the ball. Kelly will say, ‘I’m coming to you.’ I’ll say, ‘Go away from me. I’m tired.’ Then, she’ll get on me. She’ll scream, ‘Chamique Holdsclaw! I’m coming to you!'”

Hey, it isn’t easy to be mild-mannered, stylish and able to rule the world. But ’Mique’s learning. A spring stint with the U.S. women’s team in the World Championships certainly boosted her self-esteem. On a team filled with big timers from both women’s pro leagues, Holdsclaw was the gold-medal-winning team’s third-leading scorer (10.9 ppg) and rebounder (5.4 rpg), despite suffering through a mild shooting slump.

“I would go to bed at night and say, ‘I’m 20 years old; everybody on the team is like 25,'” Holdsclaw says. “[Teammate and former Stanford star] Jennifer Azzi said, ‘I can’t wait to see you when you’re 26. You’re going to be good.’ I consider that an honor.”

The walls are closing in. The buzzer is about to sound, ending Holdsclaw’s carefree college life and beginning her journey to the world of basketball as business. There will be millions of dollars. Endorsements. Adulation. Celebrity. Sycophants. Sleazebags. “Her life will never be the same,” Summitt says.

Most of it is still fun. That’s why she came back to Tennessee for her fourth year, even though she could have been the subject of a bidding war between the two women’s leagues. Well, that and June’s wish that she graduate. “She said, ‘I’ve led you that way. I’ve never asked you for anything, but that’s the only thing I want you to do,'” Holdsclaw says. And so she will do it. And she will try to embrace the legions of adoring UT fans more than before. Holdsclaw vows to spend a half-hour after every home game signing autographs, schoolwork permitting. “People come and support me and watch me on TV,” she says. “Sure, sometimes people try to take advantage of my time, but for the most part, if I can sign an autograph, I’m going to sign.”

Holdsclaw demonstrated her comfort level around large groups of fans by addressing campers at the College of New Jersey in mid-July and then answering their questions, something she would have considered downright frightening a year or two ago. “When I handed her the microphone, she mesmerized the audience,” Cannizzaro says. “She was witty and sincere, and then she signed everything.”

It’s only logical that Holdsclaw is more prepared now to handle the madness. By sticking around Knoxville for four full years, she has matured from the kid with the basketball-track mind to a young woman. That’s what college is supposed to do. Holdsclaw came in a shy prodigy and will leave a full-fledged phenomenon, more than ready to enter the workforce.

The future and its opportunities are mind-boggling. The fat contract and shoe deal are the easy parts. Her talent, success and grace make her a perfect candidate for the same kind of high-profile endorsements Jordan secured when he entered the league. Apple pie. Ice cream. Fresh air. Hell, she could be a one-woman Fourth of July parade. “The team understands what’s ahead for her,” Jolly says. “Sometimes, she’ll say, ‘That player has a nice shoe contract.’ We look at her like she’s crazy and tell her, ‘You’ll have a contact twice as big as that.'” It’s true. Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo may have dabbled in the world of big basketball business, but Holdsclaw will break the bank.

That’s why last January’s meeting with Michael Jordan had significance. The Lady Vols were in Chicago to play DePaul, and a visit to MJ’s restaurant was arranged. “She was very shy at first,” Summitt says. “It took her a few minutes to relax. She was quiet, had a soft smile and a little giggle. That’s Chamique.” The meeting didn’t last too long, maybe 15 minutes, and as it ended, Jordan, ever the good company wonk, told the Lady Vols they had to go, because “he couldn’t stand looking at all the Adidas gear,” Holdsclaw says, laughing.

Of course, a year from now, those could be replaced by The Claw, or whatever other clever name a shoe company can concoct for Holdsclaw’s signature shoe. In 10 years, some hot young player might be ushered into ’Mique’s office for an audience and come away with the same sense of wonder. It’s all there, waiting. The fame and fortune. The championships. The adoring fans. The headaches. Trying to compare Chamique Holdsclaw to any woman who came before her is fruitless. She is the future of women’s basketball. She is the groundbreaker.

“She’s very secure with herself,” Summitt says. “She has told me a number of times, ‘I’m different. I’m just Chamique.’ She doesn’t want to be somebody else. When I was recruiting her, I kept mentioning Cheryl Miller. She kept telling me, ‘I don’t want to be Cheryl Miller. I want to be Chamique Holdsclaw.'”

She’s doing a great job at it.