Holdsclaw inspires students

Former Lady Vols Chamique Holdsclaw shares her story of overcoming depression in the University Center Auditorium on Wednesday. Holdsclaw's talk was aimed to encourage wellness and personal safety for the VolAware's suicide prevention campaign.

Tennessee basketball in the late 1990s started with “The Meeks.” Semeka Randall, Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw were key parts of the Lady Vols’ three consecutive NCAA Women's Division I National Championships.

All three players were instrumental to Tennessee’s unparalleled run of dominance under the late Pat Summitt, but Holdsclaw might have been at the forefront of the group.

Holdsclaw put together, arguably, the best collegiate career of any women’s basketball player ever. Guiding Tennessee to three straight national championships from 1996-98 and an unprecedented 131-17 record, Holdclaw is Tennessee’s all-time leader in scoring (3,025 points) and rebounding (1,295).

The accolades continued to pour in for Holdsclaw over her outstanding collegiate career. The Astoria, New York, native was named the Naismith Player of the Century, the NCAA Tournament’s most outstanding player in both 1997 and 1998 and was a two-time Associated Press Player of the Year winner.

Holdsclaw had her number 23 retired on Feb. 1, 2001, the fourth ever Lady Vol to have her jersey retired, and went on to have a spectacular career in the WNBA after being drafted first overall by the Washington Mystics in 1999.

On the surface, it appeared as if all was well with Holdsclaw, the six-time WNBA All-Star. But underneath, Holdsclaw struggled with depression throughout her entire playing career, even dating back to college and her time at Tennessee. A part of that came from the stigma around Holdsclaw’s sexual orientation: She identified as lesbian at a time when it was largely taboo in the WNBA.

That conflict heightened Holdsclaw’s struggle with mental illness and depression. Holsdclaw became closed off towards others, and in 2013 was indicted on counts of domestic violence and possession of a firearm. It was only after that incident that she finally opened up and sought the support of her friends and family.

“It took a lot of love, a lot of understanding," Holdsclaw said to Mind/Game in a 2016 documentary. “People would tell me they needed to talk to me, and it was finally a friend taking my hand and being honest with me, telling me things were flying off the handle. And she created a safe space for me to open up. It's a matter of creating a village and being around people who will love and support you, so when you do fall down you have people who will help you get up.”

Through those talks, Holdsclaw grew to understand her mental illness. The coming-out conversations Holdsclaw had with her family helped her realize that she could talk with people who loved her and would listen to her.

“Being able to talk about my sexual orientation with my family helped me realize I can talk about things,” Holdsclaw said. “When I was dealing with the mental health issue, I had friends who couldn't understand it, and I really had to educate people, how certain things made me feel and how I needed support from them.”

Now that she has a good understanding of her situation, Holdsclaw believes the worst of it is behind her. She still grapples some with the depression that held her down for so long, but now as she is free to be herself, Holdsclaw is living a freer, healthier life. Holdsclaw married NBA executive Cara Wright in 2018.

“Every day, waking up and living in my truth, now there are no secrets,” Holdsclaw said. “The secrets were killing me. Especially at a high level in basketball. It scared me. But as soon as I was able to speak about it and be honest, I started healing. And now I wake up and there's nothing you can say to me. I'm open. I'm a black woman, and yes, I've had these mental health issues, but when you're open about it, what can they say? I'm walking in my journey and I'm happy.”

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