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Playing by the Rules; Chamique's Grandma June raised a champion


By Maria M. Cornelius, News-Sentinel assistant managing editor/nights May 28, 2002 Editor's Note: This article was orginally published on Aug. 30, 1998 QUEENS, N.Y. -- June Holdsclaw sat in her bedroom gazing at the television and wiping tears from her eyes. Her granddaughter, Chamique Holdsclaw, was playing in early June with the U.S. women's national team in Germany, and the championship game was being broadcast live from Berlin. Chamique, 21, who's regarded as the best women's basketball player in the country, is back for her senior year at the University of Tennessee and is expected to lead the Lady Vols to a fourth straight NCAA championship. From her apartment in Astoria in Queens, N.Y., June, 61, has watched her granddaughter on television on many occasions but never wept. To understand why she did this time, you have to realize how much the grandmother sacrificed, how hard the granddaughter worked and how far they both have come. THE BEGINNING June Elaine was the third of 13 children born to Isom and Nettie Barber of Camden, Ala., in Wilcox County. She played forward for the Camden Academy High School basketball team and developed a lifelong love of sports, especially basketball, football and track. She was born Nov. 24, 1936, and came of age in the 1950s, before the social upheaval of the '60s. "The little town I was from, we all got along," June said. She married Thurman Holdsclaw of North Carolina in 1956 after meeting him through some friends in Alabama. In 1965, they moved to Queens, where he worked for a state hospital and then for the U.S. Postal Service. In 1967 June Holdsclaw began working in medical records, first at Mount Sinai Medical Center and later for the city of New York. She now works for the medical records department of Jamaica Hospital in New York and will retire at the end of the year after she turns 62. The Holdsclaws, who later divorced, have three children: Thurman Jr., who died in 1995 at the age of 29 in a car accident; Anita, 35, who survived an operation on a benign brain tumor when she was 18, graduated from a college in New York and is employed as a case worker for the city; and Bonita, 40, who works in data entry for the city, is taking college courses and lives on Staten Island, N.Y. June has lived in Astoria Houses in Queens since 1965. She raised her children there and in 1988 took in Chamique, then 11, and her brother Davon, then 9, the children of Bonita Holdsclaw and William Johnson. The three-bedroom apartment is filled with trophies and full-page framed copies of newspaper articles extolling Chamique's accomplishments on the basketball court. The coffee table in the small living room has a basketball as a centerpiece -- signed by her teammates and coach and given to Chamique to commemorate her 2,000th point at Christ the King High School in Queens, which she led to four state championships and a national title. Chamique's weathered and tattered NCAA Rawlings basketball, which she carried to the nearby courts countless times, rests atop an umbrella stand. An end table and two shelves hold photographs of June's children and grandchildren, including Kassala, 4, and Thurman Holdsclaw III, 3, the children of Thurman Holdsclaw Jr., and his wife, Stacy Holdsclaw. He was a teacher on an American Indian reservation in Montana and was on his way to referee a basketball game when the car accident claimed his life. "So many memories in this apartment," June said. ASTORIA HOUSES To get to Astoria Houses, take the Grand Central Parkway to Astoria Boulevard -- a long thoroughfare lined with hair salons, antique stores, flea markets, grocery markets, loan and real estate offices, delis, fast-food restaurants, diners, liquor stores and a funeral home -- until it dead-ends into the sprawling complex of brick high-rises. June lives in a six-story building with a ground-floor lobby. An old elevator rattles its way through the shaft. The hallways are narrow and dimly lit. Astoria Houses, with mature trees, wooden benches and a children's flower garden, is positioned along the East River. The skyline of Manhattan rises on the other side of the river. "Yes, it is the projects," June said, and the area has its share of shootings and drug dealing. "But it's some good people who live here -- working people." For the kids, the New York Police Department runs the Police Athletic League on the ground floor of one building. The Community Center of Astoria is on the other side of the complex, another youth outreach program. On a recent August day, the walkways between the buildings were teeming with children roller-blading and riding bicycles. A few were pushing purloined grocery carts as fast as they could before jumping on to ride. About a length-of-the-floor pass from June's building are the basketball courts. CHAMIQUE'S ARRIVAL Chamique Shaunta Holdsclaw, born Aug. 9, 1977, in Flushing, N.Y., came to live with her grandmother in May 1988. Her brother, Davon, who will turn 18 this week, joined them a few months later. Their parents were splitting up, and the children needed a more stable home. "It wasn't working out for them. They didn't get along," June said. "That's a part of life -- people split up, one goes one way, one goes the other. ... When there's a lot of stress in the home, kids shouldn't be there." Chamique and Davon had visited with their grandmother for several years on weekends, during the summer and over holidays. "We were very close," June said. Davon returned home to his mother two years later, but Chamique, who continued to visit her mother on a regular basis, decided to stay in Astoria Houses with her grandmother. "My grandmother was older and wiser," said Chamique, who calls her "Grandma." "She put a lot of restrictions on me. I kind of liked it." June said her granddaughter was well-behaved and only got into trouble twice -- both times involving basketball. The first episode occurred near the end of her seventh-grade year at I.S. 126 in the public school system. "I didn't fit in good with the kids," Chamique said. The girls at the school called her a "flat leaver," because when school was out she would "flat leave" them to go play basketball with the boys, Chamique said. So one day the 12-year-old decided to skip school and head straight for the nearby courts at Astoria Park. She did this for three consecutive days. Chamique usually walked to and from school, but on this particular day her grandmother came to pick her up. She was told rather nonchalantly that her granddaughter had not been in school for several days. June, who had not been notified by the school -- as required -- that Chamique was absent, said she "got everybody crazy" -- the principal, the teacher and finally the New York Board of Education. "That got it straightened out," June said. "I was upset with her because of the danger of it. She was so young ... shooting hoops up there by herself." Said Chamique, "It never happened again." Besides attending school, June Holdsclaw had one other rule: On Sundays, Chamique was to go with her to Trinity Lutheran Church in Queens. If she didn't, Chamique couldn't play basketball that afternoon. One Sunday, when she was about 14, Chamique didn't go to church. She slipped off to the courts, thinking she could get back inside before her grandmother got home. "Sunday was the big day," Chamique said. "Everybody was out playing on Sunday." June returned and walked right past the court where Chamique -- the only girl among boys -- was playing ball. June went inside and changed out of her Sunday clothes. "She came out waving her shoe," said Chamique, gesturing with her hand and still remembering the sight of her grandmother approaching. "She made me come in. To this day some of (my friends) remember it." Said June, "I embarrassed her in front of her friends. She didn't like it. She was really, really hurt. She didn't say anything for a while. (Later that afternoon) she said she was sorry and wouldn't do it again." Chamique says now she is thankful for her grandmother's rules and structure. She also is thankful for her grandmother's calm method of discipline. "We would sit there and talk about things" to straighten out matters, Chamique said. That doesn't mean Chamique didn't know how to try to bend the rules. "She loved television," said June, who didn't want "to see kids doing nothing" and encouraged reading books. "We used to fall out over television, (but) I would fall asleep so she would (sometimes) watch what she wanted." But besides the rare unauthorized trips to the courts and watching TV without permission, Chamique was a quiet, polite child who obeyed rules and respected her grandmother. "Chamique's old-fashioned," June said. "They say that comes from being raised by me. I set a time for her to be home. If we say we're going to have dinner at a certain time, she had to be there. ... You see girls outside all night talking and talking. You never saw Chamique doing that. Chamique always knew what she wanted." What she wanted was simple: to play basketball. PRIVATE SCHOOL June decided Chamique needed a good education. Disenchanted with New York's public school system, she sought to have her granddaughter placed in a private school. Chamique passed an entrance test and was admitted to Queen Lutheran School. She finished middle school there and passed another test to gain admittance to Christ the King High School. Chamique was aware of its reputation in basketball and wanted to go there. June knew her granddaughter would get an education. By now, "I was used to paying school bills," June said. "I said, 'OK, we can swing it.'|" The grandmother paid the tuition and bought Chamique's school uniforms: button-down shirts and two skirts -- "a gray one and a preppy one that she never wore; she always wore the gray one." The private school tuition "was a sacrifice," June said. "I always would manage money pretty well. We lived on a budget. I always had a job and (sometimes worked) part time, too. It was worth it. "Being raised in the country, you learn how to do a lot of things. You learn how to save." Vincent Cannizzaro, the girls' basketball coach at Christ the King who also works for the inspector general's office for the state of New York, said, "I believe Chamique understands what a sacrifice her grandmother made -- sacrifice in a sense you're bringing up a child, coming to games. June was there for her. ... I think Chamique is very much aware how important her grandmother was to her." HOMEWORK & HOOPS Chamique said she did three things while growing up: attend school, complete her homework and head for the basketball courts. She played in the winter, in the rain. During the summer, she played six to eight hours a day. She earned her way onto the court with guys, honing her game and molding herself into one of the best to play on the streets of New York. She developed a soft fall-away jumper that couldn't be blocked, spin moves in the lane, an awareness of the game that only comes from countless time spent on the court. She also turned into a competitor. In street ball, if your team lost, you sat. The only way to keep playing was to win. June said her son, Thurman Jr., who was called "T," gave Chamique her first basketball when she was 4 years old. Thurman Jr., who played basketball for Rice High School in Manhattan, used to carry his niece on his shoulders to the courts. When she was a young girl, Chamique made a hoop out of a clothes hanger, rolled up a sock and would "shoot, shoot, shoot," June said. She first began playing organized basketball in the eighth grade at Queen Lutheran School. "They used to call her 'Skinny,' " said June, pointing to a photograph of a tall, gangly youngster dribbling down court for her middle school team. She went on to high school, becoming Christ the King's all-time leading scorer and rebounder and an All-American, among a host of other honors. She was named New York City's player of the year for three consecutive years, a feat unmatched by any male or female player. By the time Chamique was a senior, she was being heavily recruited by the top women's basketball programs in the country, including Tennessee, Connecticut, Louisiana Tech and Virginia. THE VISITS In September 1994, UT coaches Pat Summitt and Mickie DeMoss were the first to make a home visit to the Holdsclaw residence. They were nervous because UT had never before tried to sign aplayer from New York. They thought convincing her to come to Knoxville was going to be difficult. Chamique and her grandmother were nervous because this was the first official visit. Chamique wanted everything to be perfect. "She worked so hard to impress them, because Chamique's no housekeeper," June said laughing. "She was so nervous. She had everything in place." June said she immediately took to the two coaches. She opened her apartment door to the tiny DeMoss and the tall, imposing Summitt. "I didn't know Pat's eyes were so pretty," June said. "I went to the door and said, 'Oh, a model.' (And) Mickie is a little doll." The four sat in the living room. June listened intently. She didn't want to hear about how good a basketball player Chamique was or how much playing time she would get. The grandmother wanted to know about discipline and academics. DeMoss said team discipline was stressed. "We sell that fact," the coach said. "We use it as a positive." When the coaches discussed a curfew, Chamique wondered if that meant she had to be in by 10 p.m. According to DeMoss, the grandmother interjected, "Chamique, that's the rule. It doesn't matter if it's 9 p.m." "If you've got discipline," June told the coaches, "that's all I need to know." The grandmother is "a very soft-spoken woman, very low key," DeMoss said. "But when she does speak, it's a very wise thing that she says." Besides a disciplined program, the coaches had one other factor in their favor -- they were from the South. Summitt is a native Tennessean; DeMoss is originally from Louisiana. Said June, "I love Southern women. There is something about them I like. I'm from the South. I trust them more. Everything they told me ... everything they told Chamique has been truthful -- playing time, keeping your grades up. They said, 'Chamique, you have to earn everything you get.' " She also wanted to ensure someone was watching after her granddaughter. Summitt acknowledged that June "was very instrumental" in Chamique's decision to attend UT. "I could sense she had a comfort level with us, to take care of" her granddaughter, Summitt said. "She was looking for a home away from home." There were more home visits from other college coaches. One made quite an impression on June, but it wasn't a good one. Chamique declined to identify the school but said her grandmother dozed off during the visit. "I looked over, and she was asleep," Chamique said, laughing. "My grandmother doesn't like people who say 'Chamique this' and 'Chamique that.' She doesn't want to hear it." Coaches from other schools were telling Chamique she would be a starter. Summitt told her she had to earn her playing time. June "was very attentive" when Summitt and DeMoss visited, Chamique said, still laughing as she recounted the story. "She was sitting up and listening to what they had to say." THE TRIP Chamique and her grandmother visited the Knoxville campus in October 1994. The coaches had insisted June make the trip with her granddaughter. June knew of Knoxville. Several of her family members and friends from her hometown in Alabama went to Knoxville College. She had never been to Knoxville but pictured it as "a nice little town," she said. They arrived the weekend of the UT-Alabama football game. "I've never seen that many people (at a football game) in all the days of my life," June said. "I was shocked when I got there. It was larger than what I thought." She wanted her granddaughter to get an education, attend a university in the South -- "to see people, how they act, their culture" -- and live in "a small little town." She settled for two out of three. Chamique settled on Tennessee because of its winning tradition. She also had played AAU ball in the summer with then-UT players Tiffani Johnson and Laurie Milligan. "I knew Tennessee would provide the best place to play for a national championship," Chamique said. By the time they arrived back in New York, Chamique seemed to sense she wanted to attend UT after graduating from high school in June 1995, June said. June said she heard some rumblings from acquaintances about her granddaughter not staying closer to home. "People talked about it, (saying) 'Why'd you let her go down there?'|" June said. "I didn't want her that close to home. I wanted her to be on her own." THE SUMMER Chamique spent the summers of 1996 and 1997 taking classes at UT and working at Summitt's basketball camps. This summer, Chamique returned to Astoria. June has a herniated disk in her back and is facing surgery next week. She postponed it so she could spend time with her granddaughter while she was home. "I didn't want to be in the hospital while she was here," June said. Chamique returned to the playgrounds of her youth and worked on her game with the guys. She played until 1 a.m. some nights and said she learned some new moves on the court. Children would come courtside to watch and ask, "Is that the girl on TV?" Chamique said. She worked out four times a week for several hours a day at an exercise club in Manhattan to get in shape for the 1998-99 season. She celebrated her 21st birthday Aug. 9 while at home. Her grandmother still falls asleep watching television but instead of watching surreptitiously, the granddaughter turns it off. Chamique says it feels good to be home with her grandmother and "know she is there." "It's been wonderful having her home," June said. A stroll through Astoria Houses with Chamique and her grandmother one warm August afternoon brings dozens of well-wishers and autograph-seekers, mostly children. Chamique, despite the championships and constant attention, is still shy and soft-spoken. She is shocked at how often she is recognized. "I never thought it would be like this in New York City," said Chamique, who's pictured in a New York Knicks uniform on the cover of the latest issue of SLAM magazine, a national publication dedicated to the hoops scene. "I go to Manhattan, I go to Nike Town, they recognize me." June has seen this before. When she came to visit her granddaughter in Knoxville last season, they went to Kroger at 4918 Kingston Pike. Lady Vols fans were stopping Chamique in the aisles to chat and get autographs. "These were older ladies, like my age," June said. "She signed so nice. She talked to them." Chamique said she is approached by people seeking autographs everywhere she goes in Knoxville, whether she is dining out with teammates or her boyfriend or out shopping. "I like to go shop in the mall, (and) I'm not going to stop that," said Chamique, though she conceded the constant attention can be overwhelming. Shopping is apparently a habit honed at a young age. One Saturday before Easter when Chamique was about 4 years old, June was shopping for Sunday outfits for her granddaughter and a nephew. She selected the boy's outfit without any trouble. Chamique immediately saw what she liked at Macy's -- a checkered jacket, blue-and-white dress and white hat. "She saw it first; she knew what she wanted (even) at that age," June said. But the outfit was expensive, so they kept shopping. However, Chamique was not satisfied with any other choices. "I went to a lot of stores" that day, June said. "I was trying to get something cheaper." Finally, after a full day of shopping in New York, they returned to Macy's for the outfit. "She always wanted the most expensive thing in the store," June said. "She thought because she wanted it, she had to have it." Chamique's "been like that since she was little ... shop, shop, shop. And I hate to shop. Well, I could shop for shoes a lot. But clothes? I don't have the patience." THE FAMILY The grandmother has traveled to Knoxville to attend some games and has been to all three Final Fours -- 1996 in Charlotte, N.C.; 1997 in Cincinnati; and 1998 in Kansas City, Mo. "When my grandmother comes to Knoxville, everyone wants to talk to her. No one wants to talk to me. I feel neglected," Chamique said, laughing. In Kansas City, some people even asked June for her autograph, having her sign their seat cushions. Chamique's mother, Bonita, also has watched her daughter play basketball and attended the Final Four in Kansas City. Chamique said there was some tension between them when she decided to stay with her grandmother 10 years ago, but they have established a good relationship. "Me and my mom have like a friendship relationship," Chamique said. "I can call my mother and talk to her. ... We're so much alike." Chamique's father, William Johnson, lives in Manhattan and works as an automobile mechanic. "My dad has always been there for me and my brother," she said. "He's very involved." She said he visits them both and provides a male figure for her younger brother. "That's very important for him," Chamique said. The family will get together over the Christmas holidays, the next time Chamique returns to Astoria. UT plays Rutgers Jan. 3 in Madison Square Garden, which should be a homecoming of sorts for the New York native. THE FUTURE June sent her granddaughter away to college to grow up, and now she's almost ready for her to return to New York. There are two women's professional leagues -- the ABL and the WNBA -- and it's no secret Chamique wants to play. There's talk about million-dollar shoe and clothing endorsements to go with a pro contract. Her grandmother hopes she gets drafted by the New York Liberty of the WNBA so she can be near her again. Chamique won't say which league she prefers, but she has an obvious affinity for New York City. "Of course, it would be ideal for me to play here," Chamique said. Chamique could have left school early and joined the pro ranks this year, but her grandmother refused to allow it. She also doesn't expect Chamique to take care of her financially. "I don't expect anything from her," June said. "I'll have my own pension. I can spend my own money. I don't know if I would move or not. I've lived here 33 years. "People on the job were saying, 'Why don't you let Chamique go pro?' I said, 'Not over my dead body.' " A New York Times article last spring outlined the amount of money Chamique could make and suggested she could help her grandmother. "They had wrote the story I was so poor," said an obviously peeved June. "I'm poor, but I'm working poor. Whoever wrote that, I wanted to pop them over the head. "Money is not everything. If she makes money with basketball, fine. If she doesn't make money with basketball, she can go on to something else she likes." Chamique is majoring in political science. If she doesn't play professional ball, she is interested in being a sports agent. "First and foremost, I am a student," Chamique said. She will leave UT next spring with the one thing promised to her grandmother -- a degree. June said she will attend the commencement ceremony. "That's the only thing she owes me -- get that college education," she said. THE GOOD-BYE Chamique left Astoria on Aug. 20 to return to Tennessee. She rode back with her roommate, Zakiah Modeste, a UT track athlete who lives in New York. It was obvious her grandmother is going to miss her. She also knows her granddaughter is embarking on her final year in college. She knows Chamique's life is going to change rapidly after graduation. She will leave the rather insulated environment of collegiate athletics for the harsher spotlight of professional sports. "I think I can cope with it if she's doing what she wants to do," June said the day before Chamique left. "You have to let it go." At 7:10 a.m., Chamique loaded the last of her duffel bags into the car. Both grandmother and granddaughter wiped tears from their eyes. They hugged and said good-bye. Later that day, June is fretting like a grandmother. "I know she had to go," she said. "I just wish the summer would have been different. I don't think she got enough rest." Chamique will call her grandmother this school year to talk and for support. "We never talk about basketball," Chamique said. "She'll say, 'Have you been to church? Are you eating right? You look skinny.' " The calls home provide a respite from the demands on Chamique's time and coaches' and fans' expectations on and off the court. "You need a break from the hype," she said. Chamique will have a puppy for companionship in Knoxville, a male golden labrador called Rolex, named after the makers of the watch. But she knows she will miss her grandmother. "Probably a lot," she said. THE GAME June will watch the televised Lady Vols games this season on the TV in her room near the bed. It is unlikely any game she watches this season will affect her like the one she watched June 7. Chamique was a member of the U.S. national team, which was playing Russia in the gold-medal match in the Women's World Basketball Championships in Berlin. June thought of the young girl shooting hoops outside with the boys, the skinny child leading her middle school team. "I never thought it would come to this," June said. "When I see her on television, when I saw her in Germany, I cried. I said, 'I can't believe this is my grandchild.'|" Chamique was the youngest player on a team of veterans with years of combined international experience. Her grandmother realized then how far Chamique had come and how much she had helped her get there. "To raise someone from 11 years old and to accomplish a lot. ... It makes you feel good. ... I was so excited. "My God, this child came from Astoria, and now look at her in Germany." With tears flowing, the grandmother watched the gold medal ceremony after the United States won 71-65 and saw Chamique and her teammates celebrating on the victory stand. "I've been to games. I've watched games on TV. I've been running behind Chamique since the eighth grade. "It was the joy. ... Chamique had grown up."