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My story always begins in Astoria, in the housing project in Queens where I grew up playing ball with the guys, my grandmother watching out for me through a bedroom window in our apartment. When people write stories about me, they always call it something of a desolate place, my building one of a bunch of battered-looking high-rises grouped together along the East River, with the basketball courts in the center. There's a lot of graffiti, and I suppose a lot of drugs, if you wanted them and knew where to look. I never did, and no one ever bothered me.
It wasn't a pretty place, but that's not something I really noticed. To me it was just home, the best home I'd ever had. I had the basketball courts just a few steps outside the front door of my building, a bus stop, a few stores nearby. So the building was old, the metal door scarred by bullets, the walls and floors cold cement. I never rode the elevator, because I was always afraid of getting stuck inside. Besides, it was lazy. Our apartment was up one short flight of stairs, then around the corner. Apartment 1-D. It was home.
It's a cozy apartment, three bedrooms, twin beds in my room, with a window overlooking the courts. My grandmother always made it nice. She had pictures everywhere, and rose petals in bowls, and all those little things that make you forget the chipped paint and old linoleum. My grandmother's friend Miss Jenny lived across the hall. My friend Anthony lived there too, on the same floor. The neighbors all watched out for me and for my grandmother. They still do.
I know what it must look like to outsiders, and what they must think when they see my neighborhood for the first time. When Coach Pat Summitt and her assistant, Mickie DeMoss, came from Tennessee to recruit me, Coach Vinny Cannizzaro my high school coach walked them from their car to my building, sure that two Southern ladies in heels and suits would get a hard time in my neighborhood. Of course, he was right. They heard some whistles, some trash talk. That was just the way people were there, wary of outsiders on their turf.
Mickie says that when she got into the elevator and saw the profanity scrawled on the walls and an empty beer can on the floor, she was horrified. This is what Chamique has to look at every day? she thought. She knew right away that she had to get me out of that environment. "All I wanted to do," Mickie tells me now, "was take you away from that building and back to Tennessee, where we could give you structure and discipline and an environment that was safe." I think she and Coach Summitt thought they could save me or something. And they did give me perhaps the most amazing opportunity of my life. Playing for Tennessee was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, and playing for Coach Summitt, hard as it was at times, made me so much better a basketball player and so much stronger a person.
But what Mickie didn't understand that day what almost no one understood is that going to live in that housing project with my grandmother is what saved me. It was my escape. It was the place where I learned discipline, and it was the first place where I learned to feel safe. It was home, and still is. I've always been pretty happy. That's the thing that's hard for me to understand, and explain, sometimes. I never wanted for anything. My brother, Davon, and I, we never went without clothes. We had shoes on our feet. We had people who cared for us. It was just our situation that made me angry and frustrated. I never wanted for anything, but I know what it's like to grow up without two parents. To have to go and live with your grandmother because your parents aren't going to be there for you. To watch your family fall apart.
Sometimes it seems like the only thing people know about me is that I bounce this basketball and I'm from Astoria. I'm a simple little rags-to-riches story, one that has been told about NBA players from the projects for years. That's too simplistic. People who believe that story don't know me as a person. They don't know what drives me, what motivates me, what pushes me. They don't know where I'm from, beyond this little square of asphalt in Astoria. They think: What pushes her is she's from the Astoria projects. They don't see beyond that. Probably because they can't see inside me.
What pushes me is my brother, Davon, and what I want for him what I want him to believe. I want to see him grow up safe. I want to see my family in a good situation after having been through so much bad. I want Davon to know I want everyone to know that just because your life seems dark, that doesn't mean there isn't a way out. There's a positive on the other side, if you look hard enough. And you can change things, if you try hard enough. That's what I want to show Davon. That's what I want to show everyone.
A lot of times I look at what I have been through, and where I am now, and the way I have evolved and changed, and I think: This is what shaped me. No matter how much people say, "Oh, it doesn't matter where you come from," it does matter. It mattered for me.
But as much as I come from Astoria Houses, I also come from a small apartment in a high-rise building in Jamaica, Queens. That's where I lived with my mother, Bonita, and my father, William Johnson, until I was eleven years old. That apartment is where I learned to be strong and independent. That is where I learned to survive. That is where I became, in large part, the person I am today.
My mother was nineteen years old when she had me, and she was twenty-two when she and my dad had my brother, Davon. I love them both, and I love my brother with a fierceness I can hardly explain. Family is so important to me. But my parents weren't ready to raise kids not me, and not my brother. They had their own lives to figure out, their own demons to fight. So Davon and I, we became our own little family. I was the mom, he was the kid. We held each other tight at night when things got scary, and he looked to me to bring him dinner, to watch over him, to take care of him, no matter what. I did the best I could. And I'm still trying. Davon is starting college now, and that's always been my hope for him that he would find something to drive him the way I found basketball. I've always wanted him to realize that no matter how bad things were for us and our family in the beginning, we can end up blessed. He can end up blessed.
When we went to live at my grandmother's apartment when I was eleven and Davon was eight it wasn't because my mother felt it would be best for us. We went because Children's Services decided we could no longer live in the environment that existed inside that apartment in Jamaica. It broke my heart to see the cops come, and then to have our caseworker tell me that we couldn't live with our parents anymore. I didn't want to stop being a family. It was the only thing I knew. Later, when I was thirteen and Davon was ten, he went back to live with my mother and I chose to stay with my grandmother, and I felt that loss of family all over again.
So many people want to believe that it was basketball that got me out of the projects, that it was basketball that saved me. I don't believe that. I think it was my grandmother who saved me. And it was the strength I found in myself those years in Jamaica that gave me the drive and focus to make something of my life, with basketball or without. I have to believe that I would have gone to college even without my jump shot. I would have gotten my degree, started my life, become someone. I've never been a weak individual, I've always been pretty strong. I've always had to be.
I know that basketball has given me a life better than anything I could ever have imagined. I've graduated from a wonderful college, earned three national championships. I've had so many outlets. I have traveled around the world, played for the U.S. national team, had the opportunity to win a gold medal for my country in the world championships. I'm going to Sydney to play in the Olympics. I feel blessed, having the things I do. I'm able to get myself a car and a place to live, and I'm able to help my family in ways I never imagined. I could give my grandmother anything she wants, if only she'd let me. But she never asks for anything. She never has.
I love playing basketball. In a sense, it's always been my cushion. The court was a place for me to take out my anger and frustrations without risking trouble or hurting someone else. It was my comfort zone. It was also a place where I always knew my abilities, trusted in myself.
It's harder, I've learned, to find that kind of comfort and trust in the rest of your life. That's where I've struggled.
Sometimes people think I'm boring, because I really don't like to go to parties or clubs. I'd rather hang out at home with my friends and watch a movie or something like that. And people have made fun of me because I don't drink okay, I'll have an occasional glass of champagne and I don't smoke and I don't do drugs. They tease me because my main curse word is "Dag!" (though I've been known to use something a little stronger when I'm really ticked off) and because I never had a boyfriend until college. My high school teammate and good friend Kristeena Alexander still likes to tell people, "Chamique was never macking with no boys." It's not that I wasn't interested, but I had a life. I had things to do. I had goals. I had basketball.
When I was in junior high, the girls in the neighborhood used to make fun of me for spending all my time on the basketball court, playing with the boys. I wasn't one of them, they said. I was some kind of freak. My answer to them was always simple: "Basketball is what's going to keep me walking around here without pushing a stroller." I wasn't ashamed. I had no reason to be. And their attitude changed once I got into high school and everyone started talking about what a great player I had become, and what the future held for me. The New York Post and the Daily News and the Times all started writing about me, and the recruiters came calling, and everybody in the neighborhood knew who I was. Nobody messed with me. I was Chamique. I was going places, they said, and nobody wanted to screw that up. Deep down, they were proud.
The truth is, though, that if I'd ever started to screw up get involved with drugs, or smoke, or get mixed up with the wrong people or the wrong guys my grandmother would have killed me. I knew that. So I never did anything stupid. All I've ever wanted is to take care of my brother and make my grandmother proud. That's why I stayed at Tennessee for my senior year, even though everyone kept talking about how I could make so much money by jumping to the WNBA or the ABL. Sure, it was tempting, but I never took it seriously. How could I? People were saying that I was going to set a new standard in women's basketball, and they meant it all contracts, endorsements, exposure, opportunity. They called me the Michael Jordan of women's basketball, which was flattering, if a little ridiculous. I was supposed to be the one to capitalize on all the great things other women players players like Teresa Edwards and Cheryl Miller had accomplished before me, and I was supposed to be the one to take it all to the next level. My game had arrived, they said, at exactly the right time.
To me that wasn't pressure, that was responsibility. So, what was I supposed to do when I got asked about turning pro early? Leave Tennessee early, get my shoe, get my endorsement deals, get my money, and forget about Coach Summitt and my teammates? I couldn't do that. That would be like taking things down a notch, accepting and setting a standard I didn't want others to settle for.
My grandmother always tells me that God gave me this gift, now use it to the best of your abilities. She tells me that I always have to remain humble. But she doesn't push me, ever. She says the reason why she doesn't say anything or bother me with too much is because I spent so much of my childhood being an adult, looking after my brother. The tough times my family went through made me have to be the mature one. Now she wants me to enjoy myself, be happy. She says I'm too serious. Maybe she's right. At times, I feel like I need to laugh. That's why I'll act silly with my friends, sometimes even in situations that don't seem all that funny. It's because I need to laugh so I can relax and cope with what's happening.
But you never get too far away from where you came from, that much I know. And I think that's a blessing. I think I can hang out anywhere. I have seen all walks of life. I can communicate with all different people whether I'm talking with kids at a school in the city or doing one of the banquet speeches I always have to give these days. I know how to keep it real. I have hung out with millionaires and been in million-dollar homes, and I have been with people, in their houses, who don't have very much. I don't look at any of them any differently. I've learned you just treat people the way they treat you. I think that's one of the things for which I am most grateful. My life has taught me how to appreciate things.
I remember one of the first times I was in a millionaire's house. There was this guy, John Thornton, and he was a big booster for the university. He had this beautiful home, and he invited the team there. It was before my senior year, and I remember I was walking out of the house and he told me, "You want a house like this? You win another championship this year, and you can have a house like this. You'll be able to have anything you want." All I could think was, Wow.
I didn't want that house, though, as much as I wanted to make everyone proud. I didn't want to be a one-hit wonder, someone who saw her chance and took advantage, without giving any thought to what was right and what the consequences would be. I wanted to set an example, a good example. And everything just kind of fell into place. I believe it is because I had a plan. I didn't bank on anything, and I still don't. I had my own plan: I'm going to finish school, and if I can't play basketball, then I am going to law school. And if I can play basketball, I am going to do it right. I'm going to be someone others can look up to.
And you know, I was blessed. I waited, and like everyone said, I arrived right on time.
Davon Holdsclaw on Chamique
My first memory of my sister is her being older and me just following her around all day. I always wanted to be where Chamique was. Mostly, I followed her to the basketball courts. I'd watch her play, and play with the other little kids.
Chamique always took care of me. She had like a warrior instinct. She was mean, but she wasn't that mean. She just took it out on the basketball court. Sometimes she and her friends bullied me around. They always made me go to the ice-cream truck. But it was fun. We played basketball all day. We played other games too and just hung out together. We talked. We got into arguments, but nothing serious. Mostly we did a lot of brother-sister stuff. We have always been close.
It was hard when I went to live with my mother again and Chamique stayed with our grandmother. She's my sister and I loved her, but I had to go my way and she had to go hers. I understood her decision. And we still saw each other a lot. On the holidays she'd come over. We'd hang out and do that brother-sister thing. Just because we lived apart, it didn't mean we weren't still connected. We still had a bond.
If you ask me to describe her, the first thing I'll say is that Chamique is my role model. I admire the way she strived to be a basketball star. We came from nothing and now she's a basketball star. And she didn't change. She's still the same. It inspires me. For me, I want to own my own business. I'm not a basketball player like she is. But business management, I know I could do that. Chamique asks me all the time, "What do you want to do?" I told her I want to go to college, because she did and everyone in my family has. I want to know what it's all about.
I guess I'm still following Chamique around, sort of. "Little tagalong" is what she calls me. That's always going to be my name. I don't mind. Chamique's pretty cool to tag along behind.
Copyright © 2000 by Chamique Holdsclaw