FILM | Basketball great Chamique Holdsclaw goes one-on-one with mental illness in Rick Goldsmith’s Mind/Game.
Berkeley filmmaker Rick Goldsmith is the last guy you’d expect to make a movie about a jock. Best known for his Academy Award-nominated documentaries about an old-school investigative journalist (Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press) and a Vietnam War-era whistleblower (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, co-directed with Judith Ehrlich), Goldsmith is fascinated by political history and social issues. He’s particularly drawn to individuals whose contribution and courage have been largely forgotten.
Chamique Holdsclaw, whom The New York Times first covered when she was in high school, isn’t what you’d call unknown. But the former basketball star might be largely forgotten, notwithstanding the attention she garnered in 2012 for taking a bat and a pistol to an ex-girlfriend’s car. A dominant player who won three national championships at the University of Tennessee under coach Pat Summitt, Holdsclaw was dubbed the female Michael Jordan when she was the No. 1 pick in the 1999 Women’s National Basketball Association draft. She made the All-Star team six times and won an Olympic gold medal before retiring in 2007. Why would Holdsclaw appeal to Goldsmith?
“Our society loves stories about what makes great athletes and performers tick,” Goldsmith said. “I took that paradigmand said, ‘Here’s a superstar athlete. What are her challenges that are universal and common to millions of other people and are so misunderstood?’ I had the perfect recipe: an athlete that was compelling, a sports film that was exciting, and a theme that was universal to millions—and hopefully that was going to be of some benefit.”
That theme, and the malady that affected Holdsclaw throughout her playing days up to the present, is mental illness. It wasn’t until she was in college that she was diagnosed with clinical depression, and several more years passed before doctors ascertained (in the wake of that 2012 incident) that she had bipolar disorder. For several years, Holdsclaw has channeled the determination one associates with a world-class athlete into speaking out openly and personally about mental illness, and making it safer for other people to acknowledge their condition and get help and resources.
Consequently, Holdsclaw was willing—once Goldsmith won her trust—to tell her story on film. Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw documents that act of bravery while challenging the viewer’s perceptions of pro athletes (and all celebrities, for that matter) as they’re presented and marketed by sports networks, advertising agencies, and the tabloids. Above all, Mind/Game confronts the stigma surrounding mental illness and exposes the cost of keeping one’s private life secret and separate from the public life. Of course, this reality extends beyond household names to everyone struggling with a form of the disease.
“Mental illness has appeared in the news probably more often in the last two years, three years, than ever before,” Goldsmith said. “Almost all the time it appears on the heels of a school shooting, or the German pilot who flew into a mountain. That’s not only missing the point, it’s counter to the point. Because all the articles and broadcasts are about that, it makes us fear mentally ill people—and mental illness—all the more. What do you do when you’re afraid? You don’t talk about it.”
The filmmaker requested an introduction to Holdsclaw from his friend since first grade in Queens, Lon Babby, who had been the basketball star’s agent and is now president of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns. Holdsclaw also happens to be from Queens, which probably helped Goldsmith’s case, but more importantly he had experience with mental illness in his own family. His uncle came out of World War II diagnosed with schizophrenia, and lived the next half-century without much treatment or help beyond medication.
Times have changed, but not all that much. “Even with my track record, which I consider pretty damn good, it was hard to raise money,” Goldsmith confided. “And that speaks to the stigma of mental illness.”
Mind/Game clocks in at just under an hour, a length that accommodates audience sharing and discussion afterward. The film’s target outlets—in addition to television, where all of Goldsmith’s previous films have aired—are groups ranging from churches to schools who are dealing with mental illness.
Even after Holdsclaw signed on with Goldsmith, shortly before ESPN approached her to do a film project, MindGame was anything but a slam-dunk. Just six months later, she went off on her ex’s car.
“It did make her back up a little bit, and be a little less accessible to me for a little while,” Goldsmith recalled. “But she really never wavered from her commitment to have someone else put her story on screen. And we both agreed this was a chance to make her story deeper, more personal, more real.”
Indeed, for all the stirring highlight plays in Mind/Game, the image that sticks with the viewer is of a 37-year-old woman in the throes of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Like so many big games in which she played, Holdsclaw is favored to come out on top, but the outcome is not guaranteed.
“I know full well my film is done, but her life with mental illness is not done,” Goldsmith says with palpable compassion.
Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw screens Friday, July 31, at the Castro in San Francisco and Sat., Aug. 1, at the California in Berkeley as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Chamique Holdsclaw is expected to attend the screenings.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic, journalist, teacher, and curator. He has written about film for The Monthly since 1987.