ATLANTA (AP) - Chamique Holdsclaw has polished off the crab cakes and onion rings at Ted Turner's downtown restaurant when a fellow diner notices a tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
"Freedom,'' she says, holding up her arm proudly.
She got the tattoo shortly after "retiring'' from the WNBA, a tumultuous time in her life when she was called everything from star to selfish to head case.
"It's like my own personal freedom,'' Holdsclaw explained. "I'm going to do what I want to do, and I'm going to feel good about it. It's very personal to me.''
These days, she can't stop smiling. Like a beaming bride about to walk down the aisle, Holdsclaw is filled with a sort of bubbling-over joy that hasn't always come so easily to someone who grew up in the projects of New York City, watched her mother nearly kill herself with the bottle, battled depression after the death of the beloved grandmother who raised her, and never quite felt comfortable being the face of women's basketball.
"I'm really,'' Holdsclaw said, pausing as though she couldn't believe what was about to roll off her tongue, "excited. I don't think I've ever said that before.''
After suddenly retiring from the WNBA two years ago, a move she shockingly announced just a few weeks into the season but without much of an explanation, Holdsclaw is ready for a comeback. Her body feels good. Her mind is even better. At 31, she wants to play this game on her terms.
"This is like a new beginning for me,'' said Holdsclaw, who signed a three-year contract with the Atlanta Dream. "I'm just going to go out there and have some fun. I really mean that.''
For those who may have forgotten, Holdsclaw was the 1990s version of Candace Parker, an enormously gifted player who was supposed to have the sort of crossover appeal the women's game so badly needed in those early days of the WNBA.
A four-time All-American at Tennessee, Holdsclaw led the Lady Vols to three straight national championships and an astonishing 134-17 record. She was the leading scorer and rebounder in Southeastern Conference history, collected the Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete, and was hailed by many as the greatest women's player ever - before she had even collected a paycheck.
In 1999, Holdsclaw was selected first overall in the WNBA draft by the Washington Mystics, a struggling team in desperate need of some star power. The hype-o-meter went off the charts when she became the first female to appear on the cover of SLAM magazine, posing in a New York Knicks jersey and leading to an inevitable question: Was she actually good enough to play in the NBA?
In retrospect, Holdsclaw could have done without all the hoopla.
"Some people looked at it as me being stuck up. I wasn't,'' she said during an hourlong interview with The Associated Press. "I just wanted to chill. I'm sorry, but this is the way I am. Since I was a young kid, I've been this way. I never wanted to be the center of attention. That's just the way it is.''
Holdsclaw was forced to put up a wall during her formative years growing up in the Astoria section of Queens. Her father had mental health problems. Her mother was an alcoholic.
"I was so embarrassed,'' she said. "The kids would make fun of me. They would make fun of my mom. They would be saying, 'Why is your mom like that?' It made me almost like an introvert. I was always fun to be around, but a part of me kind of went into my little box.''
Still, to those on the outside, Holdsclaw appeared to be leading a charmed life. She was named rookie of the year. She started in the very first WNBA All-Star Game. She played on the U.S. team that won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
But trouble was brewing. The Mystics changed coaches constantly and never had much success, other than a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002. The following year, even as Holdsclaw was averaging 20.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, Washington slumped to last in the East with a 9-25 record.
Then, her grandmother died suddenly from a heart attack. She was only 63.
Holdsclaw was devastated.
"I think it would have been different if I was kind of prepared for it,'' she said.
In July 2004, Holdsclaw failed to show up for the Mystics' game against Charlotte. She came back for one game, then sat out the rest of the season - including the playoffs. Everyone was baffled. Holdsclaw would only rule out the most obvious possibilities: pregnancy, addiction, illness.
After the season, Holdsclaw finally revealed she was clinically depressed. Until then, she had been too ashamed to discuss her problems publicly, but felt a need to defend herself when she heard what others were speculating.
"That (stuff) was kind of insulting,'' Holdsclaw said. "I'm supposed to be this enigma, this head case. But people don't know me. I know that everything I do, there's a reason behind it. The thing that was bad, the hardest part, was the whole D.C. thing. That's where people were able to point a finger at me. I was kind of embarrassed about the whole situation.''
Dr. Don Malone of the Cleveland Clinic has studied depression and other health-related issues in sports. He said high-level athletes can be especially vulnerable to mental illness.
"Athletes are used to working through things,'' Malone said. "If you have an injury, you rehab it and get over it. When you have a problem, you're expected to just buck up and get through it. Typically, coaches, media and other people are not the most understanding people in the world. They'll say to an athlete, 'You've got everything. What do you have to be depressed about?' But depression is an illness. It's not only for people without money. It happens to everybody, in any circumstances. It needs to be treated the same way in an athlete as any individual.''
Holdsclaw sought treatment for her depression and got her life back in order. But the story doesn't end there.
After being traded by the Mystics, Holdsclaw had two fulfilling seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks. Then her knees began hurting. None of the doctors could find a problem, which led to whispers that she was merely faking the whole thing because she didn't want to play point guard.
Suddenly, Holdsclaw walked again.
"What I got from people who were close to the whole thing was, I was being a punk, I was being soft,'' she said. "But I felt in that situation, I walked away with my head held high. I felt like I communicated.''
It was hard to find anyone else taking Holdsclaw's side. She came across as a selfish, pampered athlete who would abandon her teammates at the drop of a hat when things didn't go her way.
Holdsclaw will admit that she was looking out for herself in Los Angeles, but only because she felt no one else was. Unlike their NBA counterparts, the top women's players often make the bulk of their money overseas. She was worried about losing a much more lucrative European contract if she played on bum knees.
After leaving the Sparks, Holdsclaw said she was finally diagnosed with chronic tendinitis. She underwent a new procedure known as "platelet-rich plasma,'' in which a person's own blood is used to treat the injury.
"It was painful as hell,'' she said. "Oh my God. They're basically pumping the tendon with blood. The pressure! Oh my God. I almost collapsed there one time.''
Once Holdsclaw fully recovered from the treatment, though, she felt like a new player. She carried on her career in Poland, her retirement only applicable to this side of the Atlantic.
"I had to get used to it - the language, the culture. There's a lot of differences,'' Holdsclaw said. "But once I got into the swing of things, it was great. It was peaceful. You don't understand the language, so you don't understand any criticism. You're just going out there and playing. And they're loving you because you're an American.''
Three years ago, she moved to Atlanta. Last summer, the city landed a WNBA franchise. When Holdsclaw began showing up at Philips Arena to watch the expansion Dream, it was only natural that coach Marynell Meadors put 2 and 2 together.
"Everyone knows Chamique,'' Meadors said. "I would go up and talk to her, welcome her to the games, and she would say, 'You need some finishers. I'm a finisher.' So I told her, 'Let me know when you're ready to put on an Atlanta Dream uniform.'''
Holdsclaw wasn't quite ready to return, but the Dream began making plans in case she changed her mind. Meadors, also the team's general manager, worked out a deal with the Sparks to acquire Holdsclaw's rights.
"She's one of the greatest players ever,'' Meadors said. "She needs to be in our league, whether it's on our floor or someone else's floor.''
After another season in Poland, Holdsclaw decided it was time to come out of retirement in America.
"I talked to her from time to time and she texted me frequently,'' said Pat Summitt, Holdsclaw's coach at Tennessee. "I think that she missed the game. I think she's excited.''
Holdsclaw said she would not have returned with any team but Atlanta, where she'll be surrounded by an extensive support group. She's got her friends. She's got family in Alabama. Summitt is right up the road in Knoxville.
Though no one will ever replace her grandmother, Holdsclaw's mother has reclaimed a prominent place in her life. They're more like sisters than parent and child.
"My sophomore year of college, my grandmother told me, 'I'm not always going to be there,''' Holdsclaw remembered. "I had gone three or four years without ever telling my mother I loved her. I was so upset by what she put us through. But when my grandmother told me that, I finally talked to my mother. I told her, 'I love you.' I still remember it. We were on the phone. My voice cracked. From that day forth, I accepted her back into my life.''
The Dream can't wait to accept Holdsclaw, even though she is coming off arthroscopic surgery after injuring her right knee in Poland. The team started its first season with 17 straight losses and finished 4-30. Meadors gutted the roster and brought in newcomers such as Sancho Lyttle, Nikki Teasley, Michelle Snow and No. 1 overall draft pick Angel McCoughtry.
But Holdsclaw figures to be the center of attention. Meadors isn't worried about her walking out again.
"She has grown tremendously,'' the coach said. "I know she's dealt with all the issues she had. She talked to me about every one of them. She matured, she handled them and she moved on. Now, she's in a better state of mind.
"I think this is the first time in her life,'' Meadors added, "that she's really, really, really been happy.''
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