The Meek Shall Inherit

  • If you've heard the talk about Chamique Holdsclaw being the Michael Jordan of women's basketball, you'd say she has some nerve picking Jordan's number 23 as her own. She's just 21, not even a pro, still a senior and a forward for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. What hype! What hubris! And how do you expect us to pronounce a name like that?

    Hold on. The number on her jersey is not some power grab at now vacant Airness but an allusion to the most important person in Holdsclaw's life. It refers to the 23rd Psalm, the one that begins "The Lord is my shepherd," taught to her by her grandmother June, who's been closer than a mother since Holdsclaw was 11 and her parents divorced. "I told her when she was little, anything you want, ask Him," says June. The Psalm provides this provocative promise: "Thou anointest my head with oil." So there's more than crossing Jordan involved here. Chamique's the one. Even the Bible tells us so. As Holdsclaw tells TIME with blatant understatement: "I knew I wasn't going to be average."

    So better get used to her name. It's pronounced Sha-MEEK-Wah. Meek for short, but don't let that fool you. She's 6 ft. 2 in., with 2,928 points (and 1,261 rebounds) so far in her amateur career. Last month she sailed past New York Knick Allan Houston's record to become U.T.'s highest scorer ever, then beat out Heisman-trophy winner Ricky Williams to grab the prestigious Sullivan Award for best amateur. No matter what happens in the current ncaa tournament (she's led her team to three titles already), when she leaves college in three months, she will be one of the highest-paid players in women's pro basketball.

    Sports attorney Kenton Edelin, who represents New York Liberty star Rebecca Lobo, says Holdsclaw's endorsement options are "unlimited." Estimates of her earning potential, including marketing, range upward to $2 million to $3 million a year. Now, as Holdsclaw prepares to graduate, agents clamor in the wings, and executives from the pro teams pray and hold their breath. Nike and Adidas have already made their interests known.

    Is she worth it? "If you lined her up against the 10 best athletes in the NCAA, she doesn't overwhelm you with her muscles," says pro-basketball coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline. "But her mental capacity to play in the big games, to compete at the highest level--and never lose--is unique. Some people compete when it's convenient. Chamique steps up when her team needs her." In a Jordannaire display in January, she and her team put an end to the 54 home- game winning streak of archrival University of Connecticut--with Holdsclaw scoring 25 points even though debilitated by a bad cold.

    Did Grandma June know she'd have a star on her hands? "I had no idea," says June of the little girl she raised in the Astoria section of Queens in New York City. "But I did think it was strange that she could throw the ball all the way from one end of the court to another in 8th grade. And she was so skinny!" Says Vincent Cannizzaro, Holdsclaw's high school coach: "June's backing keeps her on an even keel."

    But there is another woman of substance in Holdsclaw's life--Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach. For Summitt, who nurtured such pro stars as Michelle Marciniak and Nikki McCray, the prospect of coaching Holdsclaw was an opportunity to "raise the intensity level of one of the most gifted high school players I'd seen." Their relationship was initially rocky. The freshman Chamique used to laugh away losses. That earned her a Summitt razzing. "I just can't understand doing that," says Summitt, who now admits laughter may be a "healthier" way to cope. Chamique, Summit learned, hates to lose as much as she does. Today Holdsclaw calls Summitt half of the most influential "couple" in her life. The other half, of course, is June.

    Holdsclaw's dream is to play in New York City, making it easy for Grandma June to come to games. ("Madison Square Garden is 15 minutes from my house!" says Holdsclaw.) That dream may take a while to fulfill. The Washington Mystics have first pick in the wnba draft. But her entry into the pros does pose one tantalizing possibility. Michael Jordan once half-jokingly suggested a one-on-one match between himself and Holdsclaw. Maybe the new 23 will be able to lure the old 23 back to the court?