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Monday, 23 March 2015 07:25

Inside Chamique Holdsclaw: From Basketball Super Star to Mental Health Activist

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After her grandmother died in 2002, and the subsequent death of her paternal grandfather two years later, Chamique Holdsclaw’s world began to unravel.

At one time, her life mostly revolved around playing basketball. She could do just about anything asked of her – and more -- on the court. From Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, New York, to the basketball program at the University of Tennessee -- where she played for the legendary coach Pat Summitt and helped lead the Lady Vols to three consecutive national championships -- to the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association), Holdsclaw was a star.

She won numerous prestigious awards, including the 1998 Sullivan Award for best amateur athlete -- male or female -- in the country, and she was named the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1998 and 1999. She was WNBA Rookie of the Year in 1999, became a six-time WNBA All-Star, and won a Gold Medal as part of the U.S. team (she didn’t play because of a stress fracture in her right foot) that won the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She was one of the most recognized faces in women’s professional basketball.

A little over a decade later, in November 2012, Holdsclaw captured headlines for something altogether unexpected; she was arrested for allegedly smashing up her ex-girlfriend's car while the friend was inside. Less than a year after that, she pled guilty to aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and other charges. She was fined, sentenced to three years probation, and community service.

In her 2012 autobiography titled Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot, Holdsclaw revealed that she had been battling depression during her professional basketball career, and had attempted suicide on one occasion.

She has established the Chamique Holdsclaw Foundation, which “promotes mental health, while educating and training individuals for the purpose of improving or developing their capabilities, and providing relief to the underprivileged through mental health and wellness focused programs.”

Holdsclaw’s compelling story is being told in a new documentary called Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, directed by Rick Goldsmith, an award-winning filmmaker, and an avid sports fan.

I recently interviewed Goldsmith, whose credits include two Oscar-nominated films; The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press. The Most Dangerous Man won a Peabody Award, was broadcast nationally on PBS's POV series, and received dozens of other honors.

Bill Berkowitz: In light of your previous focus on more overtly political themes, what got you interested in Chamique Holdsclaw's story?

Rick Goldsmith: I see Mind/Game as both political and perhaps the most intensely personal film I've done. My interest was initially stirred by reading a New York Times article in early 2012 by sportswriter William Rhoden. It told a great and uplifting story about a superstar athlete who experienced severe major mental health problems, spent years trying to right the ship, and then -- unusual for celebrity athletes -- began sharing her story publicly, both as part of her own recovery and to help fight the stigma of mental illness. I was personally moved because I've experienced mental illness in my own family. Mental illness is one of the last taboos in our society, and a critical social issue that our country needs to address.

BB: What themes are you pursuing in this film?

RG: Several: How difficult it is for competitive athletes to admit to having mental health issues and seek help; the even greater barriers, experienced within African-American communities both culturally and in access to care; the enormous power of stigma, which leads prevents people from acknowledging mental health issues, even with friends and family; and, the devastating effect of stigma on public attitudes and public policy. 

I also wanted to paint a realistic portrait of what it means to struggle with mental illness, and to address the specifics of depression, suicide, and bipolar disorder, so that people could walk away not only touched and moved, but better informed.

BB: Tell us something about Holdsclaw’s journey from star athlete to her "breakdown," to becoming a mental health advocate.

RG: Her story is fascinating and singular, but it will also resonate as familiar with millions of people and families who have experienced mental illness.  Chamique was that rare athlete who wasn't just great, but truly unique. As early as high school, she was seen as someone who could, and would, transform women's basketball. In fact, The New York Times’ William Rhoden, who is interviewed in the film and provides great insight, wrote a long piece about Chamique in The Times, , titled “The Women’s Game Just Got a Bit Bigger,” when she was just a senior in high school.  

After an unprecedented high school and college career, Chamique burst onto the professional scene. But something was not right. At age 26, she experienced her first full-blown episode of depression and like many people with mental illness, she denied it, and only reluctantly accepted professional help. She shared her diagnosis with almost no one. It took years of mental health crises and intervention by others, before she was able to accept and truly come to grips with what was happening with her. When she began her road to recovery, she learned that sharing her story publicly was both healing for her, and a way to give hope and help to others. Bringing mental illness out of the closet can begin to reduce shame and stigma, making it easier to ask for help. 

Even after we began filming, Chamique experienced unexpected setbacks [including the incident mentioned in the introduction to this interview]. These events demonstrate dramatically how coping with mental illness can be a lifelong battle.  And, as we documented these more turbulent experiences, and Holdsclaw’s responses to them, it allowed our film to go deeper, even as her life became more complicated,.. I have to say, Chamique’s commitment to staying with the film was an act of enormous courage as she reveals her personal and often painful struggles, facing the consequences of her actions and moving towards recovery.

BB: What are your hopes for the film, in terms of its social impact?

RG: Through the story of a high-profile personality such as Holdsclaw, we can reach audiences that might not otherwise be interested in a mental health-themed film: athletes, youth-sports organizations, young girls, African-American and other minority communities, young people in general. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth. And yet, we know that suicide is largely preventable if it can be recognized and shared by those in pain with their family and friends, without shame, guilt and the fear of stigma. 

This is a film for everyone. Mind/Game provides a vivid and intimate portrait of what it means to experience mental illness. While it probes the life altering impacts of depression and bipolar disorder, it also demonstrates that mental illness is not a death sentence. In the end, Chamique’s story is one of hope and inspiration that can give people and families courage and the language to talk about this subject. Through one woman’s story, the potential of recovery is made real. It is also our hope that Chamique’s story of bravery and survival helps in the fight to eliminate stigma and increase public awareness so that mental health attitudes and policy are re-evaluated and improved.

BB: What was it like when you first met Chamique and how did she react to the idea of a doing a movie about her life and struggles with mental illness?

RG: After I read the Rhoden article, I contacted my childhood friend Lon Babby, who had been Chamique's agent and is now president of the Phoenix Suns, He did an email introduction between her and me. She and I had a series of discussions about what it would mean to open up her life over a period of time (which turned out to be almost three years). She was already committed to mental health advocacy and sharing her story publicly, so the idea of a film with similar goals didn't take a lot of convincing on my part-- assuming I was the right guy. She watched my previous films, and then I went to Atlanta to meet her in person. Our first meeting was at a barbeque joint with a couple of her girlfriends. I had a camera crew standing by, just in case everything went well at first meeting. I got the green light, and the next day we shot her opening interview, some scenes at a local gym with her trainer, and we were off and running.     

BB: Anything else you want to say about the film?

RG: What you will see on-screen is both a riveting sports story of one of the outstanding athletes of our time, and an intimate portrait of someone in the grip of mental illness. A terrific “cast” of those who know Chamique the best -- teammates, coaches, family and friends -- augments the telling. But it is Chamique, who is the most powerful and charismatic presence as she candidly shares her exhilaration, pain, joy, regrets, self-reflection, and dreams.

BB: When and where will be able to see Mind/Game?

RG: The World premiere of Mind/Game will be at the Nashville Film Festival, Friday, April 17. Hopefully, other festivals will follow. It will also be shown at a suicidology conference in Atlanta in April, an event representative of the type of screenings we will continue to do — partnering with mental health advocacy groups, youth-sports organizations, and other similar groups. We expect broadcast or cable television sometime in the months ahead. People can keep up to date about the film, and upcoming screenings at www.mindgamefilm.org, as well as on our Mind/Game Facebook page.