KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Chamique Holdsclaw was just 18 years old. The Tennessee freshman had already had big moments that showed she would be a transformational player in women’s basketball — but none like this. The Lady Vols’ whole season came down to 20 minutes, with them trailing Virginia by double digits at halftime in a 1996 Elite Eight game on the Cavaliers’ home court.
It’s funny to look back on it all now for Holdsclaw and assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, both of whom were inducted among a group of seven into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. But as a youngster at Tennessee, Holdsclaw would get irritated some days with the structure of coach Pat Summitt’s system. She also missed her home in New York, and made frequent (albeit empty, she admits) threats to go back. DeMoss often was the one to have to calm her down.
Yet on that night in March 1996, Holdsclaw made it abundantly clear that Tennessee could count on her. She was ready to lead the way when the stakes were highest. She implored Summitt to turn her loose against the Cavaliers. Give her the ball and let her do her thing.
“I would tell Coach Summitt that season, ‘If we get down, I can bring us back. I can do this! I can carry a load,’ ” Holdsclaw remembered. “And that was one of the times I was able to do it.”
Holdsclaw indeed led the Lady Vols all the way back to a victory, and then two games later to the national championship. Two additional NCAA titles would follow in her brilliant Tennessee career as she compiled 3,025 points and 1,295 rebounds before being picked No. 1 in the 1999 WNBA draft.
Holdsclaw won an Olympic gold medal in 2000, and averaged 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in her 11-season WNBA career. Those things all contribute to her legend, but what she did in Lady Vol orange remains the closest to her heart.
In an emotional speech Saturday, Holdsclaw paid tribute to her late grandmother, June; to Summitt and DeMoss; to other coaches ranging from high school to the WNBA, and to Rocky Top nation, where she is still beloved and has a street named after her near Thompson-Boling Arena.
Of the seven speeches by the inductees, Holdsclaw’s was the one that was most brimming with passion, with both the joy and heartache she has experienced in her 40 years.
And while she spent her address to the crowd at Tennessee Theater in downtown Knoxville mostly by thanking other people and the game of basketball for what it has meant to her, it’s important to recognize how much she has meant to the game.
Holdsclaw impacted not only the way Tennessee played, but how many aspiring young post players played. Yes, there were other super-athletic, versatile posts before her, but few as dynamic, relentless, talented and magnetic as Holdsclaw. She was the perfect player to come along on a big stage at Tennessee right at the time that women’s basketball became more televised and followed nationally.
“She was more mobile and was part of that newer era of post players who could do much more than just have their backs to the basket,” said fellow inductee Chris Dailey, the longtime UConn assistant who tried to recruit Holdsclaw to the Huskies. “She could start the break; she could handle the ball. She had some guard skills and was a great rebounder.
Holdsclaw had the ability take over games, to be the player everyone knew was going to get the ball but couldn’t be stopped. She was both dazzling and dependable for the Lady Vols, and also through a lot of her pro career. She was a must-see performer.
“I still get stopped all the time, still, where people say, ‘Holdsclaw? I started watching women’s basketball because of you,’ ” she said. “I recognized space, and how to get my shot off. I could recognize mismatches. I’m 6-2, and I could shoot the outside shot, but I always wanted to take advantage of my skill level in the post, too.”
She grinned a little, and added, “Sometimes I’ll pop in a tape and say, ‘I really could play.’ “
But playing always was the easiest part for Holdsclaw, her success on the court a combination of instinct, competitive drive and sheer ability. The hardest part was with her mental health, a struggle she has had since childhood and has been very candid about in recent years. She has written a book, and she speaks to groups and the media frequently with the raw honesty of someone who has been to hell and back as she has dealt with depression and bipolar disorder.
“My grandmother always told me to use basketball as a tool, that it gives you a platform,” Holdsclaw said. “You don’t really listen to that when you’re young and in the middle of playing. But then having things pop up and knock you down in life — like with coach Summitt’s illness and the things I’ve dealt with — makes you realize what’s really important.
“I feel like my grandmother’s servant nature eventually kicked in with me. Now I think I’m so much like her. I want to help people. My platform is educating people on mental health, and that’s the most important thing for me.”
The death of her grandmother in 2002 sent Holdsclaw into a spiral of grief that exacerbated depression issues she had long tried to suppress. In her worst moments, Holdsclaw did not dare to dream of a time like this weekend, when she was able to celebrate her career.
It took several years and many difficult hurdles and setbacks. But with the help of a lot of people who cared, plus her own determination, Holdsclaw eventually faced her illness head-on. She shed the shame that so many people feel about it, which can tragically keep them from seeking treatment. In Saturday’s speech, Holdsclaw said she stood proudly as a representative of women of color, of people with mental health issues, and of the LGBTQ community.
And, of course, as a representative of the Lady Vols. She acknowledges that coming to Knoxville now has a bittersweet feel to it because Summitt — who died in 2016 of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type — is not there.
“A little heaviness is always here now,” Holdsclaw said. “It’s not the same. Her not being here, a big piece is gone. Because she was the real deal. She was so genuine. She taught me so much, and she always stepped up to take care of her players, to play a part in their lives.”
Yet Holdsclaw also knows that Summitt would want her to carry on and to continue to grow into the vibrant person she is still becoming. This Hall of Fame induction was for Holdsclaw the truly great player, but that is inseparable from Holdsclaw the spokeswoman for such an important cause. And Holdsclaw is glad of that, because both aspects of her life are equally a part of her story.
“I’ve gone through a lot, but I don’t regret anything,” Holdsclaw said. “It’s like, wow, there have been hard times, but this has been a beautiful journey.”