Standing ovations don't mean what they used to; sports fans today give them up easily and often. Still, few athletes get a standing "O" just for stepping on the basketball court--during warm-ups. The instant Tennessee forward Chamique Holdsclaw appeared at the Southeastern Conference tourney in Chattanooga last week, a sea of orange and white rose in the stands. A chant of "Cha-mique, Cha-mique,'' rolled off fans' tongues as easily as the ponytailed, 6-foot-2 Holdsclaw glided down the court. "It's kinda weird, but I always think they're clapping for someone else," said the 22-year-old senior before leading UT to the conference championship. "I never get used to the response that people have toward me."
She may have to get used to it. Holdsclaw (her first name is pronounced Shuh-Meek-Wah) may not turn out to be "the female Michael Jordan.'' (She wears number 23, too, but in honor of her favorite Biblical psalm, not MJ.) But she certainly has the skills and the charisma to become the breakthrough player the WNBA covets, propelling women's hoops toward major-league status. Just ask Jordan. "Meek is fun to watch--exciting with a lot of skills," he says. "She'll definitely take women's sports to a new high." Holdsclaw is already pretty far up there. This weekend Tennessee, 28-2 and ranked second in the nation, begins defending its NCAA title. If the Lady Volunteers win again, Holdsclaw will have captured four NCAA crowns on top of four state high-school championships (at Christ the King High School in Queens, N.Y.). And that's something no basketball player--male, female or Michael--has ever achieved.
"I just like to win basketball games," Chamique says. "That's what motivates me." In the SEC tournament, Tennessee trailed at halftime in two out of three of its games. Each time Holdsclaw rallied the team, averaging 21 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists per game--nearly a triple-double. And in the most frenetic moments, Holdsclaw remains calm and fluid, with a dazzling array of spin moves. She likes to play close to the basket, using her long legs to snake through the lane for a layup or rebound and her long arms to loft fall-away-a-la-MJ jumpers. About the only question left is how she would deal with defeat, an inevitable part of the pro game. Holdsclaw insists she can handle losing and more. "My grandmother taught me to count my blessings," she says. "There's always an upside to whatever bad happens."
When her parents' marriage broke up, 11-year-old Chamique moved into her grandmother's warm, stable home. Around the projects in Queens's Astoria neighborhood, Chamique was known as "Flat Out" because she would flat-out drop anything to play basketball. "Big boys, small boys, whoever, I was always ready to take them on," she says. "I wasn't scared of anybody's game." Her grandmother, who had played basketball as a girl in Alabama, tolerated her court obsession, except on Sundays when it conflicted with church. "Sometimes she had to put her foot down, but that was the only trouble she had out of me," says Holdsclaw.
At Tennessee, Chamique has been joined by 6-foot-1 Tamika Catchings and 5-foot-10 Semeka Randall, inspiring one of sports' best nicknames, "The Meeks." They and coach Pat Summitt have created college ball's greatest dynasty since UCLA's men's powerhouse a quarter century ago. "Chamique gets the most attention,'' says Randall, "but we understand 'cause she deserves it." Last year Holdsclaw passed up a chance to cash in on a bidding war between the WNBA and the now defunct ABL, opting to remain in college to pursue her degree and the unprecedented title sweep.
After the NCAAs, Chamique will go pro. The WNBA's Washington Mystic owns the first draft choice, and the entire league awaits eagerly. Says league president Valerie Ackerman, "We're hopeful that just as the casual fan would turn out to see Jordan, they'll turn out to see Chamique." Could happen. Holdsclaw is savvy and telegenic (Spike Lee wanted to cast her in a hoops movie, but NCAA rules prevented it). Though previous players have had comparable skills, she arrives when women's sports are increasingly popular, even fashionable. As her sport redefines itself, Chamique could be the cover girl on the dictionary.