In the eyes of many, athletes are real-life superheroes, able to perform extraordinary feats for the personal highlight reel of fans and mention of sports commentators worldwide.
As someone regarded as “the female Michael Jordan,” Chamique Holdsclaw more than fit that mold, with a string of honors (seven high school basketball championships, three consecutive NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships, six time WNBA All-Star, two time WNBA rebounding champion, WNBA scoring champion, Olympic gold medalist) to her credit.
There was no doubt Holdsclaw dominated women’s basketball, but life away from the court proved challenging as mental illness and clinical depression invaded her personal and professional life.
Although she detailed her situation in her 2012 autobiography, “Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot after Shot,” Holdsclaw is on a new path to raise awareness about the importance of mental health with her new documentary “Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw.”
Despite her initial hesitation when approached to do the film, Holdsclaw saw a greater purpose in bringing her story to a wider audience while bringing fans up to date on what she’s been up to since her days in the WNBA.
“When I was approached about doing the film, I was just like ‘No. I don’t want to do it. I don’t know if I want people in my life like that, like right in the front row of my life and really taking that walk with me is a little scary,’” Holdsclaw confessed to EURweb about going beyond the written pages of her book to bring her story to a wider audience.
“But I thought about it and I pondered and pondered. Then finally I was like ‘you know what? This is gonna help a lot of people because I get the opportunity to touch a lot of people and to talk about mental health.’
“Sometimes you just have people that have been basketball fans of mine who are running in to me and they are like, ‘what’s going on with Chamique Holdsclaw?’ This would give them the opportunity to really see what I’ve been going through, the why’s. Why did I leave the league?
Why was I going through these ups and downs? I just felt that they could take my story, if it didn’t affect them directly, indirectly and help a friend or family member deal with their issues.”
Directed by two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Rick Goldsmith (“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”), “Mind/Game” chronicles Holdsclaw’s rise to basketball stardom and her battle against mental illness while offering a revealing look at stigmas associated with the condition in the sports world and African-American community.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, mental illness affects one in five adults in America. The issue is especially complicated in the Black community, where preconceptions about mental health present a challenge for people to acknowledge their struggle.
For Holdsclaw, her mental illness affected personal relationships within her family and others who encouraged her to “pray away” her illness.
“It was just tough at first, dealing with some parts of my family and people not understanding,” she said. “But I’m like ‘hey. This is something. I pray all the time and it’s something that’s inside of me.
It’s woven in my DNA. I have to take the meds.’”
Despite the stigma, Holdsclaw mentioned that change is happening from Black churches taking steps to address mental illness with counseling centers available to their congregations.
“People need to go to talk to somebody. So it’s just great to see now, even the movement in the Black church. It’s great to see so many churches with counseling centers and offering resources to their congregation,” she said. “That makes me smile because for me, it’s been a struggle.
“At one point, I was like, ‘I don’t even want to go to another church because these peoples are hypocrites.’ I’m very spiritual. I can pray and things like that, but I see the culture changing and it really makes me happy.”
Since her time in the WNBA, Holdsclaw has been active in raising awareness of mental illness.
Among Holdsclaw’s supporters are NBA all-star and fellow mental health advocate Metta World Peace as well as her friend and workout partner, bodybuilder Asia Lampley, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In addition to World Peace and Lampley, Holdsclaw has found an ally in former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher.
For Holdsclaw, coming to grips with seeking help for something that couldn’t be handled on her own proved “very humbling.” Especially for a star athlete.
“It was tough. I always tell people it was very humbling for me to be in the place I am now. I had to really humble myself and say ‘I can’t do this by myself. There’s no way. I won’t be alive if I try to continually do this by myself,’” she shared. “I’m thinking just like anything else, you know, ‘Hard work. I want to be faster. I’m gonna go practice to try to jump higher. Do this.’ I’ve always known how to control of my body to get that result. My head is attached to my body, but it’s like I couldn’t control that.
“So finally, I had to say, ‘you know what? I give up. I’m gonna talk to a psychologist and go see a psychiatrist and deal with this chemical imbalance.”
Admitting you need help is one thing, but Holdsclaw found that walking the walk is harder than it seemed.
“I’m like ‘alright, now I have to take medicine? You’re telling me in order for me to live a healthy and productive lifestyle that I have to take medicine for the rest of my life?’ Holdsclaw recalled as she realized that changes in her lifestyle needed to be made. “At first and for a lot of people, especially athletes, I’m a little more on the natural side, like ‘I don’t want to do all that. Tell me what I need to eat.
“Tell me if I can take vitamins and things of that sort.’ So I had to make a whole shift mentally, and say, ‘this is something I have to do. There’s no more trying to fight this Chamique. I have to do this.’ And I gave in.”
Holdsclaw’s change of heart was a winning move that has “really changed my world.” Add in the support she’s gotten from her mother and friends as well as time spent passing her skills on to the next generation of women’s basketball greats and her work with Satcher and the Jed Foundation and it’s safe to say that that the fire is there to be an inspiration for those who are also fighting mental illness.
“I’ve been just blessed to be surrounded by some people that are really affecting change. I’m just taking notes,” [laughs] Holdsclaw said while referencing a familial connection to her desire to help others.
“I come from a family of service. I grew up Lutheran and we were two Black families in the whole church. I used to say ‘Oh, this is so boring,’ but my grandmother was the woman of that church.
“She fed the homeless. She did everything. So everybody knew my grandmother. Even in my community, when people were going through a tough time and didn’t have something, money or food, they would always come to my grandmother. Everybody knew her. She was just like the person that uplifted a lot of people in our community,” said Holdsclaw.
“Everybody would always tell me, ‘you’re so much like your grandmother. And now I see because I want to take on everybody else’s problems. I want to help. I’ll give somebody my last. I’m proud that I’m a lot like her, but it’s also maintaining balance because sometimes I’m totally depleted because I’m just gibing, giving, giving. But I’ve grown up a lot. I understand when it’s time to cut off the lights and catch up on some rest.” [laughs]
‘They don’t understand’
With overcoming her personal obstacles and shining a light on the issue, Holdsclaw hopes “Mind/Game” will make it easier for those with mental illness to reach out and lean on those who can provide needed support to get through their situation.
“Just because you have any type of issue doesn’t mean your life is over. You really have to keep on keeping on. I know that sometimes it’s easier said than done, but there’s just so much in place really recognizing that people are there to support us. Whether it’s family or friends or just the community, take advantage of that support and love and resources,” she said.
“A lot of times when I’m out talking to people, the number one thing that I hear is, ‘They don’t understand. They don’t understand what I’m going through.’ The thing is that hopefully when people watch this, the people on the other side of it [will] open their hearts a little more and start to understand what a person is dealing with when they have these types of illnesses.
Damaging relationships, damaging the family structure and having to rebuild all that because you’re not in the right state of mind. Hopefully on that side, people start to realize that and also on the end of the person going through it is just keep moving forward and not give up. Just try to always, no matter what it is, have that level of support. Whether It’s your friend or family or your community. We need it. We cannot do this alone.”
“Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw” aired Tuesday on Logo. Check your local listings for other airings of the documentary.