SUWANEE - For years, basketball fans were amazed by Chamique Holdsclaw on the basketball court.
She was a four-time Kodak All-American and the leading scorer and rebounder in SEC women's history, as well as the No. 1 pick in the 1999 WNBA draft. Folks used to call her 'Baby Jordan' because her talents in the women's game mimicked Michael Jordan. Some suggested she skip entering the WNBA draft and shoot directly for the NBA.
But throughout those fruitful basketball seasons, few knew what went on with Holdsclaw - now in the midst of a successful comeback season with the Atlanta Dream - off the basketball court.
That's where the basketball phenom went through her biggest struggles, waging a courageous fight with clinical depression. The debilitating illness severely shackles the mind, yielding symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, hopelessness and guilt among others.
She's hardly alone - 19 million Americans suffer from some form of depression annually.
Holdsclaw, a native of Astoria in Queens, N.Y., disguises her inner struggles well through the warmth of her pearl-white smile, which stretches broadly across her face, piercing each one of her cheeks.
But through the beauty of her grin lies a deep hurt, one that she has struggled to erase.
Holdsclaw said she never suffered from depression while growing up, but when her beloved grandmother passed away in the spring of 2002, feelings of despondency began to set. Not long after her grandmother's death, her grandfather also died, pushing Holdsclaw mentally into what she would describe as a "dark place."
Putting up a facade for as long as she could, she faced the grief that bore down on her heart for too long. It eventually took its toll during the 2004 WNBA season.
"People initially didn't understand what was going on," she said. "But I remember thinking until you've kind of gone through (depression), you can't truly understand just how it is."
As a result, the former WNBA rookie of the year and six-time All-Star was unable to finish the season with the Mystics and subsequently landed with Lisa Leslie and the L.A Sparks the ensuing year. She played two years before announcing her retirement, citing her desire to work on her personal issues.
While away from the game, she sought the counsel of a psychiatrist, who taught her various self-expression techniques. That helped her learn better vocalization skills that would help free ill emotions once buried deep within her 6-foot-2 frame.
"I learned several coping mechanisms from my psychiatrist," Holdsclaw said. "One of which was to express myself and not keep things bottled up."
Through time, the mental scarring Holdsclaw felt began to mend and she was ready to make a return to the hardwood. But her reason for coming back wasn't totally about basketball.
The overwhelming support of her family, friends, fans and teammates inspired her to keep snagging rebounds and dropping in jumpers again.
After brief stints overseas, Holdsclaw has found shelter with the Atlanta Dream. She leads the team in scoring with a 13.9 average, despite being sidelined the last seven games due to an ailing knee.
The depression still persists to some degree, but through her renewed sense of strength she's been able to remain vigilant, taking her situation one day at a time.
"It's definitely an everyday struggle," she said. "Depression is an illness."
Holdsclaw hopes to keep on playing basketball as long as "Chamique is still playing like Chamique." And when she decides to hang up the jersey for good, her plans are to get involved in coaching.
She wants to provide her vast wealth of knowledge for the game to young people, helping to inspire and encourage them just as others had with her. Especially when she needed it most.
"They say tough times don't last but tough people do," she said, her smile shining bright once more.