Basketball star Chamique Holdsclaw comes to UAlbany
By Megan Salle
Nov 18, 2014
The University at Albany Counseling Center and Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program began their Suicide Prevention Awareness Week on Nov. 11 with former WNBA player and Olympic gold medalist, Chamique Holdsclaw.
“It wasn’t until 2006, after I had attempted suicide that I realized I needed to use my voice to empower others,” Holdsclaw said. “I wasn’t the only one going through this.”
Her parents, Bonita Clark and William Johnson raised her until she was 11-years-old in Astoria, N.Y.
While Johnson was making dinner one night, Holdsclaw and her brother went back to the neighbors to play. They came back to eat, but couldn’t get in to the apartment.
“I started banging on the door. I smelled the food and heard music. Next thing I knew after about 20 minutes of banging on the door, he was still not answering. I heard the walkie talkies coming around the corner,” Holdsclaw said. “At that moment, there were police officers. I was shocked. I don’t remember how, but they opened the door. The food was burnt on the stove, the music was blasting and my dad was passed out on the couch.”
The children were then brought to the New York Police Department at the 114th Precinct. After that night, Holdsclaw and her brother were taken to live with their grandmother June Holdsclaw.
“My parents were alcoholics. My mom had me when she was 19 and my dad was 22. It was a part of life,” Holdsclaw said.
Living with her grandmother was different from the freedom she was used to. Holdsclaw couldn’t take the subways and run around the neighborhood anymore.
“Everything was structured and disciplined. I had to come home from school and do my homework,” Holdsclaw said. “The one thing she let me do was play basketball because the courts were right there outside her window.”
Holdsclaw was determined at a young age to be the first woman to play in the NBA. With that vision in mind, she became a standout player at Christ the King High School, winning four straight New York State Championships.
With her grandmother June’s approval of head coach Pat Summit, Holdsclaw committed to play at the University of Tennessee. She finished three out of her four years in Knoxville with NCAA Championships. Individual awards piled high too, such as the 1999 U.S. Basketball Writers Association Player of the Year, the 1999 Associated Press Player of the Year, and the 1998 ESPYs for Best Female Athlete and Women’s College Basketball Performer of the Year.
Next, Holdsclaw became the number one overall pick to the Washington Mystics in 1999 WNBA draft. After her first year, she averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds a game, was named to the WNBA All-Star Team and was awarded Rookie of the Year.
“Basketball became my drug, my coping mechanism. I came to be the best at every level,” Holdsclaw said. “I was the queen of basketball. There were billboards with my face on it and I had an interview with Michael Jordan.”
She had more overwhelming success for the next two years, but her mental health started to unravel. Holdsclaw’s father was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He would often wonder the streets and forget to bathe.
Without Holdsclaw’s mother or father in the picture, her grandmother June instilled strength and guidance into her life. Since she was 11, the relationship between Chamique and her grandmother grew extremely close through the obstacles. Adding to the stress, Holdsclaw received a call to return home as soon as possible. The plane she boarded sat on the runway with mechanical problems for two hours and the time ran out to say goodbye. On May 27, 2002 her grandmother June Holdsclaw died.
“It was like all the color in my life disappeared,” Holdsclaw said. “I would be driving to practice thinking of crashing my car or jumping off a building.”
Holdsclaw attempted suicide. “It was like my cry for help,” she said. “I was hallucinating because I had overdosed on brain medication.”
She was lucky a good friend brought her to the hospital that day. Holdsclaw continues to battle bi-polar disorder today, but has found balance in her life again.
After hearing Holdsclaw’s emotional speech, sophomore track and field player, Alexandra Trezza said, “I got that it’s important to talk about what is going on mentally, especially as athletes because it really effects our performance.”
Staff Psychologist at the UAlbany Counseling Center, Heidi Wright said, “So often we don’t hear of these stories. [Holdsclaw] connected with the audience. I think the fact that she is an athlete and athletes are leaders, and a woman of color at that topped it off.”
To spread the awareness, Holdsclaw set up the Chamique Holdsclaw Foundation. “We aim to inspire people to talk about their mental health issues and accept their journey and challenges,” she said.
“Life is hard. You just have to take it one day at a time,” Holdsclaw said. “Realize you can take bad days and empower yourself.”