Published July 30, 2017 for The Summitt
This Sunday, ESPN’s E:60 will bring us the story of University of Virginia standout Schuye LaRue. Reporter Shelley Smith tracks down LaRue 15 years after becoming ACC Rookie of the Year. She led the Cavaliers in scoring and rebounding in her freshman and sophomore year. For most, her basketball career ends there. It was uncovered through chance encounters by the likes of Kara Lawson and Chamique Holdsclaw that LaRue was homeless and living on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Smith spent two years trying to uncover what happened to LaRue. What she discovered was a story of a young woman battling mental illness and homelessness in America. Smith spoke to The Summitt via phone leading up to the segment premiere this Sunday, July 30.
Former WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw originally brought the story to Smith’s attention. “Chamique Holdsclaw wrote a post and we saw that. The Washington Post did a story and we said, ‘We gotta find out how this happened and why?’”
Smith talked with LaRue hoping to fill the gaps in time from her failed professional career to her encounters with Holdsclaw and former WNBA All-Star Kara Lawson. What Smith found was a story of the one in twenty-five (9.8 million) Americans that dealing with a serious mental illness that interferes with or limits life activities, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
A dream deferred
It is unclear why LaRue withdrew from UVA after her sophomore season. The Washington Post article proposes the 2001 Virginia loss to Michigan in overtime of the NCAA Tournament was the main reason. In her time with LaRue, Smith heard another story. “She told me she took money under the table,” Smith shared with The Summitt. “Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea, but she said she took money under that table and she had to go pro and because she was only 18, 19 at the time, she wasn’t old enough for the WNBA …”
NCAA athletes are classified as amateurs. Receipt of any financial benefits while playing in college make a student ineligible to continue in the NCAA. If she was in violation, her only option to continue playing basketball was professionally overseas.
“She went to Italy, she said she lived in an apartment with glass from the floors to the ceiling and loved it there. But then, it was right about that [time] something happened. And we don’t know what it was and she doesn’t know what it was,” shared Smith. Whether due to a tough loss or taking monetary gifts, her decision to leave school seems by many in retrospect, as a warning sign of sorts.
The road to homelessness
LaRue returned from Italy and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. In that same year, her brother was tragically killed. Despite her struggles, the Los Angeles Sparks drafted the former UVA star in the 2003 draft the following year. The 22-year-old rookie was released by the program before the regular season ever started. ESPN reported that LaRue returned to Washington, D.C, and that’s where Smith eventually found her.
LaRue was isolated from family, friends and most everyone else. However, Smith described LaRue as charming, despite moments of instability in their relationship, “I don’t know what’s she’s like now.” However, the charm didn’t last, as LaRue’s family and close friends were all too familiar with by now.
“She was so awful to me the last time I saw her after being so friendly and charming almost. Actually, she was charming, she was. We liked her a lot … I learned how quickly it can change from someone being friendly, [to] their mental illness [kicking] in.”
A story unfinished
Smith last had contact with LaRue in January, she was jailed earlier this month. For Smith, the story is a reminder that athletes are not exempt from the challenges of society. “I always thought, you’re an athlete, it gives you something to do, it gives you the discipline, it gives you all those things that are supposed to help you through,” Smith reflected.
However, dealing with mental illness with within her family and through the story of Holdsclaw challenged her to think differently. “Endorphins do not wipe out mental illness. I think that’s what I learned most from Chamique.” It seems a tragic story for one thought to be on track to be the best female basketball player ever. Smith’s segment illuminates how drastically one can be affected by mental illness, despite talent or charisma.
As for LaRue, according to Smith, she has accepted her life. The streets bring a comfort and freedom that local shelters cannot offer. LaRue seems content, at least in her own mind, for someone sleeping in the streets.
“She wasn’t embarrassed, she wasn’t ashamed. This was her life and she said – this is a really telling quote too – she said, ’At least I’m not going backward.’ And I thought, geez, I don’t know. I don’t know about that.” LaRue will turn 36 on September 10, 2017.
For Smith’s full report and more on LaRue, watch E:60 this Sunday, July 30 at 9 am ET.