For three seasons, Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw, considered one of the best players ever produced by women's college basketball, lived a charmed existence.
The Lady Vols won national championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Holdsclaw was the Most Outstanding Player at the 1997 Final Four and again in 1998, when Tennessee finished a perfect 39-0.
|Like Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw shouldered the joys -- and pressures -- of being a champion.|
Holdsclaw now laughs into the phone at the memory. The peerless 6-foot-2 forward just returned from Russia, where she played for a team in Samara, two hours outside of Moscow. After re-injuring her knee, she is rehabilitating it in Washington, D.C., where she plays for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. Last year, Holdsclaw led the women's pro league in rebounding (10.9) and was second in scoring (20.5).
"Looking back," Holdsclaw says, "I was looking too far ahead. You're like, 'March is where it counts.' You have confidence in your team. You're thinking, 'We're good enough. Oh, man I can't wait to step it up to the next level.' In retrospect, my mind wasn't where it was supposed to be. I just wanted to get there so quick.
"Senior year? Of course, you're thinking four in a row."
The Lady Vols won their opener in 1999 to run their winning streak to 46 games -- then lost the second game to Purdue, the team that would go on to win the championship.
"We were America's team and then, all of a sudden, wow, we lost," Holdsclaw said. "We were kind of shocked. 'Why isn't this easy for us?' "
"Chamique had a lot of high expectations for herself," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt recently told Lori Riley of the Hartford Courant. "Everybody was talking about the fact that she would be the No. 1 draft pick, and the four (championships) in a row. Without question, every gym we went into, she was a marked woman.
"As great a player as she was, it wore on her by the end of the year. It wasn't like her junior year. We pretty much had the same group in '99, but it was different."
Tennessee (31-2) advanced to the East Regional final, but was oddly listless, falling to Duke, 69-63. Holdsclaw started the game a chilling 0-for-10 from the floor and finished 2-for-18.
"We had a great team," Holdsclaw said. "I just played the worst college game of my career. I didn't make plays. No one was able to step up. It was like nothing was rolling for us."
But it's always been tougher to win when you're expected to win. And it's always been twice as tough to make the plays when everyone knows you're the playmaker. That's why Holdsclaw can relate to UConn's Diana Taurasi. While this was supposed to be the year Taurasi walked off into the record books with another national title and the label as the greatest women's college basketball player ever, it hasn't been a smooth path.
"She's the leader, the main player," Holdsclaw said. "She's thinking, 'I have to do this for the team, I have to do that for the team.' You start to stress. You try to do something for everyone.
"She can probably play point guard, wing, dribble, rebound, everything. She's thinking, 'I've got to get this rebound. I've got to get us to play defense.' You wind up spreading yourself all over the floor."
This is a common problem at the powerhouse known as UConn. Jen Rizzotti was Taurasi before, well, Taurasi, and teamed with Rebecca Lobo to lead UConn to its first national title, in 1995. But then the weight of expectations set in the following year.
"When Rebecca (Lobo) graduated, everyone sort of wrote us off. I felt like we had something to prove and I had something to prove. It was well documented, my numbers were down my senior year.
"It does affect how you play. I couldn't do it for other people. Obviously, I was concerned about the juniors stepping up. As a point guard you're responsible for everyone else."
Explained UConn coach Geno Auriemma in 1996: "How much emotional energy do you think she invests trying to raise the other people's level higher? Maybe you can do that for one game, maybe for a week? Can you do that for three months?
"Then, all of a sudden, you're fried."
"I think that everybody has an expectation of you and your season being your best one, the numbers being the highest," Rizzotti said. "(Taurasi's) numbers were so good her junior year, I don't know if that was possible.
"Every senior wants the championship. When you're a junior, there's not that same sense of urgency, that same pressure you put on yourself to go out the right way. Last year, no one expected it from them. No one expected it from us in '95. It was like, 'Let's have fun.' This year? They got everybody back. You feel that little bit of extra pressure. You know, 'This is my last chance. I don't want to blow it.' "
And that's where you can stumble.
"It's probably the same thing that I felt. A little bit of pressure that's maybe preventing you from being the loose player from the year before," Rizzotti said. "She definitely wants to carry the team. In her mind, 'I need to do this. I hit all the big shots last year, so I'm supposed to do that again.' "
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.