Chamique Holdsclaw finds her voice

Chamique Holdsclaw delivered a powerful and poignant message – with the Lady Vols basketball team in attendance – about mental illness, suicide and resilience. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for a free story and video coverage.

Chamique Holdsclaw was one of the quietest Lady Vols when she was a player at Tennessee – though certainly not on the court, where she set the school record, men and women, with 3,025 points scored from 1995 to 1999. But, off the court, the All-American was shy and introverted.

That is no longer the case. On Wednesday before several hundred people in the Carolyn P. Brown Memorial University Center Auditorium, the now 35-year-old Holdsclaw told a story of despair and attempted suicide following a lifetime of burying her sadness. Her story was one of redemption, and she closed her prepared remarks with a direct message to those in audience, which was made up mostly of students.

"A lot of pressure is on you," Holdsclaw said. "Pressure to succeed, pressure to conform to what other people want of you, not knowing what you want or who you are, because you are trying to figure it out. That's what young people do.

"But you need to know that there are people around you who can help you in life. You need to know that sometimes life seems hopeless but that is a temporary condition and you've got to tell yourself that just because you might feel blue or lost or alone, that you don't need to then feel ashamed on top of that, because then you won't get help.

"There is life after your darkest moment. I am standing here and telling you that I know. Because I have been there and back. And I also know that you have the ability to bounce back from whatever the worst life has to throw at you. It has been my pleasure, and thank you all for coming today."

As Holdsclaw finished her speech, the crowd rose to give her a standing ovation.

She spoke from her heart – she choked up when talking about her beloved grandmother June Holdsclaw – and she also spoke with humor, as she kept the attendees in rapt attention, especially the Lady Vols basketball team. At one point, freshman guard Andraya Carter, who had occupied a front row seat, leaned forward and listened intently without moving.

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Holdsclaw spoke for more than an hour and then took questions from the audience while a cameraman recorded every word as part of a documentary that is being filmed about her experiences.

She told her story in chronological order beginning with being removed from her parent's house because of their chronic problems with substance abuse. Holdsclaw also didn't mince words. She started by thanking Pat Summitt for being there and then cracked open the audience with her honesty.

Her first story was about her father promising to cook pepper steak for Holdsclaw and her young brother, who were both of elementary school age. She recalled smelling food cooking and then burning while her father remained locked behind a door with loud music blaring. The police arrived later, found her father passed out – her mother was out of the house – and took the siblings to headquarters, where June Holdsclaw arrived.

"I ran to her and I was crying because I was scared," Chamique Holdsclaw said.

Holdsclaw opted to live with her grandmother in Astoria Homes, a housing project in Queens, N.Y., and she remembers being depressed, wearing dark clothing and having temper tantrums.

"I didn't understand why my family wasn't like ‘The Cosbys,' " Holdsclaw said to laughter.

And so her presentation went – peppered with crushing sadness and a wicked sense of humor – as she used her powerful voice to bring the audience into her world, from highly recruited prep basketball player in 1994 – the best college coaches made visits to her home – to lying on a gurney in the hallway of a Los Angeles hospital in 2006 after trying to kill herself.

June Holdsclaw provided the discipline and structure that her granddaughter needed at that tender age. She worked at a local hospital and saved money to send Chamique to private schools. She recognized the depression and got her into a counseling program. She provided a safe place to live and rooted her granddaughter in the Bible. But Holdsclaw's saving grace – outside of her faith, which still carries her – was a long pass away from June Holdsclaw's living room window.

Astoria Homes had a basketball court, and Chamique went every day, regardless of weather.

"Take it out on the basketball court," grandmother would tell granddaughter when she saw the anger at her parents' issues returning.

Holdsclaw played against guys – her silky fade-away came from having to get off her shot against taller players – and she became the best high school player in the country. Holdsclaw ended up at Tennessee, in part because of June Holdsclaw's influence. She was originally from Alabama and wanted her granddaughter at a Southern school.

Holdsclaw won a national title as a freshman at Tennessee. She would win three consecutive national championships, but the process of burying her pain was underway.

She got a call from home after her sophomore year that her father was found hitchhiking along the road and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. She had to research exactly what that meant.

Holdsclaw sought counseling at the behest of Summitt, but the therapist was ineffective and Holdsclaw wasn't ready to address any personal problems. She had to perform on the sport's biggest stage and she played in an era when Lady Vols basketball exploded on the national scene with Summitt on the cover of Sports Illustrated, an HBO documentary on the 10-loss title team and the release of two Summitt books.

"Everyone wanted a piece of Mique," she said.

She was the top pick in the 1999 WNBA draft and went to the Washington Mystics in the nation's capital. The un-fraying had started and teammate and best friend Murriel Page, who had played at Florida, told Holdsclaw she was Sybil-like – the infamous book about multiple personalities.

Holdsclaw had won throughout high school and college, and she joined a bad pro team that changed coaches and direction every season.

"Success at Tennessee set me up for failure because my team sucks," Holdsclaw told the audience to much laughter.

She would listen in practice and think, "Coach Summitt wouldn't do it this way."

Her coping mechanisms included partying and drinking – all while hearing she was the "female Michael Jordan" and trying to live up to that hype – and Summitt flew to Washington to help organize Holdsclaw's life.

After Holdsclaw had been in the pros for three years – the Mystics struggled but Holdsclaw did well and she also won an Olympic gold medal in 2000 – June Holdsclaw died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 63. Holdsclaw didn't take the time to grieve and on the day of the funeral in New York, she made plans to join the team on the road. She didn't want to deal with the devastating loss, so she plunged into basketball and had one of the best seasons of her career.

But two years later, on the anniversary of her grandmother's death, Holdsclaw fell apart in 2004.

"It was like an out-of-body experience," she said.

She went missing from her team for several days and locked herself in her condo. Summitt flew to Washington, D.C., got past security in the lobby – nobody else had been able to and "they didn't stand in Coach Summitt's way," Holdsclaw said –and pounded on the door. Holdsclaw was inside but would not open it. She sat inside in silence eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.

Eventually, a friend who was a physician got through the door.

"First of all, shower," Holdsclaw said, recalling the doctor's first words to her.

Holdsclaw was taken to a psychiatrist and began counseling for hours a day for a full week. She also started medication. She also learned that "if you don't tell people what's going on, they start to form their own opinions."

Holdsclaw was the most recognized women's basketball player in the country – she had been on the cover of SLAM magazine before debuting in the WNBA – and the media rumor mill churned from speculation she was pregnant to that she was ill with Lou Gehrig's disease.

She returned to her team after a break, but the medications left her sluggish and she felt as if she were moving in slow motion on the court. She left the Mystics and said her abrupt departure without explanation "ruined some friendships."

She eventually made her way to Spain and played professional basketball overseas.

"I thought running away would make things a lot better," Holdsclaw said.

She also decided she wanted to rejoin the WNBA – Summitt was now president of the Mystics in a dual role she did while staying at Tennessee – and she asked her former coach for a trade because the team still held her rights. Summitt discouraged it, but Holdsclaw convinced her that she needed a fresh start, so Summitt sent her to Los Angeles.

Holdsclaw was thrilled – she was going to play with superstar Lisa Leslie – but within two days of arrival, she was ready to leave. The Sparks gave her a Porsche to drive and steered her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication that worked better.

Holdsclaw had an All-Star season and was enjoying basketball again in 2006.

"Life is good," she said.

So good that she decided to stop her medication. That coincided with news from home that her stepfather was seriously ill with cancer and her father had slipped even further into mental illness. She remembers having to skip the All-Star game and fly to the East Coast to take care of some of his basic needs, including buying him some underwear.

She returned to Los Angeles and the suicidal impulses began from thinking of driving her vehicle into a tree to jumping off the top of a building. Holdsclaw took at least 15 potent anti-depressants and then called a friend who would watch her dog when she was out of town and thanked her and said she was tired.

The alarmed friend went to Holdsclaw's house and took her to an urgent care facility, which called for an ambulance, and she was rushed to a hospital.

Holdsclaw was on a gurney in a hallway and remembered feeling surreal, as if she were watching what was happening to her but not experiencing it. The general manager of the Sparks arrived and yelled, "Get her out of the hallway; she's VIP!" Holdsclaw said.

"They took me to the VIP room. That's LA for you."

She had to drink two gallons of a salty fluid that induced vomiting and then the hallucinations started, including being chased by a cowboy with a lasso.

"I made it through the night and woke up under suicide watch," Holdsclaw said.

WNBA player Murriel Page visited her best friend and Holdsclaw still wasn't ready to tell the truth, instead explaining that she was hospitalized for dehydration.

Later, the doctor arrived and said he didn't follow women's sports but even he knew who she was. He gently explained that the overdose could have caused vision damage, seizures and permanent physical damage.

"You're walking away from this pretty clean," the doctor said, a pointed and intended message.

Holdsclaw suddenly felt relief and some peace.

"I prayed for help and to get through it," she said. "For once I love me more than I love basketball."

She stopped playing and took off for two years.

"God told me what to do," Holdsclaw said. "I made this pact with him. I've got to follow through."

Eventually, she made her way back to basketball, even joining the Dream in Atlanta. She headed overseas to play again. And then she tore her Achilles tendon, a serious injury, especially for a ballplayer on the back end of her career.

"I said, ‘I'll be damned,' " Holdsclaw said. "God really has a sense of humor."

She used the down time to start writing a journal – she had always written poetry and spearheaded a memory book for Summitt of stories from former Lady Vols after her diagnosis of dementia – at the behest of Tony Gaskins, a motivational speaker who contacted her via Twitter.

That turned into her autobiography, "Breaking Through," which can be bought online in paperback or on Kindle by clicking HERE.

That led to invitations to speak about mental illness – she was at Tennessee as part of the VolAware initiative, which focuses, in part, on suicide prevention – and her story has been told across the country, and she intends to keep speaking.

Holdsclaw noted the irony of her new role as an advocate speaking out in public.

"I can't believe this is my life," said the once reserved Holdsclaw. "I was so quiet. I never wanted to be heard."

She compared confronting her clinical depression to the biblical story of David and Goliath.

"I did this with no armor," she said. "I felt good about taking down this giant. We have to just believe we have to take out the giant. If we don't do this, it's just going to keep going back.

"I am at a better place. I am conquering this depression."

Holdsclaw took questions from the audience from how she could help lessen the stigma of mental illness among the African-American community to how her faith has sustained her to the lesson she learned about not letting others tell her story and to instead speak out for herself.

"I am not embarrassed anymore, and I don't care who hears my story," she said.

She also informed the current Lady Vols basketball team that she wasn't ending the event until one of them asked a question. The team conferred, and sophomore forward Cierra Burdick headed to a microphone stand in the aisle.

Burdick first thanked Holdsclaw on behalf of the team and then asked her how she handled not playing basketball. Holdsclaw said she still trains – she will work out with the team Thursday after having dinner at Summitt's house Wednesday and spending the night – and three teams in Europe have called to ask about her availability. She is not sure if she will play again.

"My world opened up to something even greater," Holdsclaw said. "You can't block your blessings anymore."

Burdick also relayed a question from freshman guard Andraya Carter, who asked for the best advice given to Holdsclaw from Summitt.

Holdsclaw cracked up the team and Summitt when she said: "Coach Summitt threw a clipboard at me and almost took an eye out."

Then, Holdsclaw ended the event with a serious answer of Summitt's lasting words to her.

"Tough times don't last. Tough people do," Holdsclaw said. "What I take away from this program is persistence."


Clips from Chamique Holdsclaw's presentation

Chamique Holdsclaw talks to the media afterwards

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