When Russ Bengtson first heard of Chamique Holdsclaw's battles with depression three years ago, he felt it. Really felt it. "Depression eats you up," says Bengtson. "People think of it like you're sad, but it's so much more than that. You feel like nothing in your life is good, whether things are going terribly or great. You get caught up in it, and it burns. It's like you'll never, ever get out."
The former editor in chief of Slam (the self-anointed "in your face" basketball magazine), Bengtson knows whereof he speaks. He, too, suffers from clinical depression, and has battled its demons for several years. So when Holdsclaw suddenly -- and without stated reason -- announced her retirement from the WNBA two days ago, he feared the worst. "Maybe it has nothing to do with her mental state," Bengtson says. "But ... "
But maybe it does.
Though Holdsclaw and Bengtson met only once, he feels a journalist-baller kindship that dates back to October 1998, when the then-University of Tennessee senior became the first (and, to this date, only) female to appear on the Slam cover. Alongside the question, IS THE NBA READY FOR CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW? stands the woman herself, holding a basketball while decked out in a No. 23 Knicks jersey. The debate circulating through Slam's Manhattan office leading up to the issue wasn't whether Holdsclaw belonged on the front of the magazine, but whether she actually could have hung with the big boys of the National Basketball Association. "I'm not saying we thought she would have made it," says Bengtson, looking back. "But she was so amazingly good and at such a higher level than the rest of women's college basketball that it had to at least be considered. People forget how damn talented she was."
Indeed, that's the (basketball) tragedy in Holdsclaw's retirement. While her eight years with Washington and Los Angeles of the WNBA produced six All-Star Game appearances and a 17.7 career scoring average, there was a vibrancy an enthusiasm a youthfulness that failed to accompany her from Tennessee to the pros. The list of collegiate superstars who have experienced similar hazy fades (Oddibe McDowell, Christian Laettner, etc) is long and distinguished. They're not busts, per se, in the Blair Thomas/Mark Merchant/Ronnie Murphy sense. They're simply, well, not the same. "Chamique was a great pro, she just was on bad teams (in Washington)," says Rebecca Lobo, the retired New York Liberty star. "She played for a WNBA franchise that couldn't get things going. They had ridiculous turnover on the sideline and Chamique never had a suitable Robin to her Batman."
When Holdsclaw left the Washington Mystics for "personal reasons" three years ago the anger among fans was palpable. How dare the star player miss out on a playoff run. Where was her heart? Her passion? According to the Washington Post, one passing motorist rolled down his window and yelled, "You need to get it together! You need to get back on the court!"
Holdsclaw was stunned. "Do you know me?" she shouted. "You don't know me!"
Personally, I don't know Chamique Holdsclaw either. However, I'm choosing to remember the player who dressed in orange and white; the one who drained an endless stream of jumpers and hovered to the hoop with the smoothness of a Dairy Queen Cherry Cheesecake Blizzard; the one who watched exclusively men's basketball on TV because, "the women's games are kind of boring to me." Holdsclaw was once approached by Michael Jordan, who looked over Tennessee's star and said, "What's up, Meek?" before challenging her to a game of one-on-one.
"I was in awe," she said innocently. "He knew my name."
In this annoying era of stats-stats-stats fantasy sports everything, Holdsclaw was the superstar who transcended the printed digits. She averaged 20.4 points and 8.8 rebounds in four years under Pat Summitt, but the numbers told 1/100 of the story. Opposing teams double teamed sometimes triple-teamed Holdsclaw, resulting in an all-you-can-eat supply of open looks for teammates. During her four years, Tennessee compiled a 131-17 record, captured three NCAA titles, won two SEC regular season titles and three SEC Tournaments. "Coaching Holdsclaw was an opportunity to raise the intensity level of one of the most gifted high school players I'd seen " Summitt once told Time. "[She] used to laugh away losses [but] hates to lose."
Now she is gone. When I called Bengtson the other night, he recalled the one time he sat down with Holdsclaw. It was during the halftime of a Nets' game at the Meadowlands, and she was a first- or second-year WNBA player with a limitless future. "There was no pretension, no superstar act," he says. "She was a really nice girl who didn't act like she was all that."
Bengtson pauses to consider his words.
"Her pro legacy will be that she never really got over the hump," he says. "But you know what "
"Who really cares?"
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.