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WNBA: Holdsclaw holds hype in mystical clutch

Mark Woods reports from Washington

The little girl, sat with her mother and auntie, holds up the sign as the noise builds to a crescendo at the MCI Center. 

'Be like Mique,’ it begs, a painted show of support for her favourite performer.

It's Wednesday afternoon. School's out, so is the sunshine and it seems every female in Washington DC, plus the odd pocket of male followers, are indoors readying for some hoops magic.

And who better to provide it than the Mystics? Or in the hopes of both the fans, and probably the WNBA itself, than Chamique Holdsclaw, the superstar anointed of the women's league and the figure on whom the five year old enterprise is leaning to break through to the wider consciousness, both in its home market 
and around the world.

Until His Airness comes back (or not) though, Mique, not Mike, rules in DC. And whether Jordan elects to pull on those shoes once more,  Holdsclaw is likely to remain the most dominant  basketballer here, and for many years to come. 

At only 23, the 6’2” forward possesses all the necessary tools. Blessed with both an exuberant personality and an all-round talent which is currently at the disposal of the Washington Mystics, Holdsclaw epitomises the WNBA’s sales pitch - We Got Game.

In only her third year out of the storied collegiate programme at Tennessee, she is being marketed at a much higher level than established stars like Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes.

Like Jordan (who part-owns the team), she already benefits from a range of shoes bearing her name. The duo even share a number, 23.  And on court, she has the package - a wicked shot. Three point range. And a power which leaves many of her contemporaries in their wake. Sounds like anyone else in DC?

“I’d rather just be me but it’s nice to be compared to Michael,” she smiles. “We all grew up watching him play. He stops by the gym sometimes to say hi and he encourages us in his role as an owner. He never practices with us but it kind of serves as an inspiration when you know Michael Jordan is upstairs.”

The Mystics may be among the worst of the WNBA’s 16 franchises but in attendances, they have been the league’s top draw. Holdsclaw is a major factor in that pull. 

When we meet in the locker room after yet another Mystics loss, she has already performed her obligatory duty of personally meeting and thanking those who attend the games. 

The WNBA sells itself vigorously as a fan-friendly antidote to the aloof aura cultivated by the likes of Jordan, a tactic designed to win over a still sceptical public.

“I enjoy that part,” she affirms. “I know people have been trying to put me up there as the league’s marquee talent but I hope they can be realistic in those expectations too. I’m only 23. I hope to be judged when I’m 30 and have won championships.”

During her initial two seasons in the WNBA, there was talk that the only thing holding Holdsclaw back was herself. A lack of conditioning, of following a year-round, rather than summer-long regime which took the edge off her natural brilliance. 

It is nonetheless, a complaint often directed across the league.

"What I can't understand is, it's a short season and these players have all this free time, and a lot of them are overweight and out of shape," states Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "It's their job. They get paid to be in excellent shape. What they haven't learned is that in the other nine months they are accountable for their bodies and the level of their fitness."

It is a message which the Mystics star seems to have absorbed. After missing the Sydney Olympics through injury, she spent much of last winter under the tutelage of her college mentor in Knoxville, working herself into shape. To make her hype match the reality.

"It certainly helped," she reveals. "I feel in better shape this season than before and although I have these injuries, my conditioning is better than before."

Like it or not others do look to her lead. "If that is the case, then I hope it's a good one," she laughs. "But we do have to apply ourselves to be stronger and faster because it shows out there."

According to the Mystics' new coach, Tom Maher, the Holdsclaw who reported for camp this spring has been nothing but professional. 

"She has been terrific. She's been good company, a good worker, a good leader. You couldn't fault her. She's been very receptive. She is potentially ready to meet everyone's high expectations." 

He cautions: "I think when we see potential we confuse that with actuality," he says. "She can do some extraordinary things, and you think if she could do them consistently she could be the best player in the world. But the real fact of matter is that she's 23, and when we talk about her, we talk about her as a 30-year-old."

It is a polyglot squad in DC, albeit one which again fell short in the race for the play-offs this term. 

Recruits from Brazil, Australia, France and  Russia all inhabit the room. However Holdsclaw, who has averaged 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds this season, is officially the most popular player. 105,006 votes went beside her name in the ballot for the recent All-Star Game, a tally which exceeded that of anyone else.

“That’s a lot of people,” Holdsclaw grins proudly. “But it’s important for this league that people have taken the time to be enthused and to vote on who they like. That means people care about the WNBA and we need more of that if all of us are to prosper.”

At the showpiece event, which took place in Orlando, Holdsclaw was restricted to the sidelines through another injury. With so many other top performers on site, it should not have mattered. But despite the proclamations of a sell-out made by the league’s management, the evidence proved contrary. 

WNBA staff were seen to usher folks down from the upper reaches of the venue to fill the numerous vacancies at courtside, their presumed aim  to ensure that the television cameras would offer a positive prognosis.

“The WNBA is great for those of us who grew up watching the NBA and wanted to be like those guys,” Holdsclaw states. “(but) it’s not the NBA and it probably never will be. But when I started college, it was assumed you’d have to go to Europe to earn a living from basketball. So this is a great opportunity.”

Europe, she admits, is still a potential destination to take her game.

"I thought about it last winter but I had to rehab. But it would be a chance to play in another country, to see some more of the world."

The World is surely ready to see more of Mique. The WNBA's First Lady may yet be the icon that Jordan once was, in Washington and beyond.

"Holdsclaw-ed," reads another banner. Wave it around because Chamique surely has success within her grasp.

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