By Shelley Smith | Jul 28, 2017
The storm was closing in quickly. It was Jan. 22, 2016, and just about everyone in the D.C. area had seen the forecast for what was predicted to be one of the worst storms in city history. The temperatures were dropping steadily as the skies turned the gray that means only one thing — snow. A lot of snow. The buses stopped running. The subways would run another hour, until noon, trying to get commuters home or to somewhere safe.
Trudging down the street, just a few blocks from the White House, was Schuye LaRue, her soiled pants sagging low and too baggy for her lithe, 6-foot-2 frame, her upper body draped with a grimy army coat, her head covered by a neon green scarf under a gray, knit stocking cap, thick heavy boots on her feet. Packed in the pockets of her backpack were bottles of cold medicine, mints and a piece of day-old cake. As she walked slowly along the sidewalk, she was not oblivious to the panic that was gripping the city; she was simply unconcerned.
Once a budding superstar in the basketball world — many say she could have been the best ever — Schuye has spent the better part of the past few years unconcerned … and homeless.
Schuye shuffles to a spot under the cover of a subway station, where several others are covered in blankets. She sits down and sighs at the top of the escalator, where the heat is wafting up the moving stairs.
“Isn’t this nice?” she asks me as I sit down next to her. “It’s sitting in front of a fireplace.”
On this day, Schuye is content, even as the city is shutting down. I ask her whether she knows how to get to a shelter or where they were picking up the homeless. She says yes but doesn’t want to go.
“I want some fresh air tonight. I do,” she says.
We first learned of Schuye’s current situation in the fall of 2015. Former WNBA and Tennessee basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw posted on social media how Schuye recognized her outside a sandwich shop in Washington and how shocked Holdsclaw was to see her friend in that situation, begging for food.
Kara Lawson, who also played for Tennessee and in the WNBA, had seen her, too, sitting on the sidewalk outside a convenience store.
“There’s somebody on the street, a homeless person,” Lawson said. “And [we] made eye contact and the person said, ‘Kara?’ And I looked and I was like, ‘Schuye?'”
Lawson, too, was shocked. The basketball world, after learning of Schuye’s situation, was on edge, not knowing what happened or why. So we at E:60 set out to find Schuye to try to understand how someone with such a promising future ended up on the streets.
She was raised in southeast D.C., living with her mother and brother. As is the case for so many in that area, basketball became her game and her way out.
While Schuye starred at Archbishop Carroll High School in D.C., top college programs came to visit in droves. Everyone wanted the young woman who could play every position. She eventually chose the University of Virginia, which was close to home. And she lit up the court.
She was named ACC Rookie of the Year in 2000 and led UVa to the Sweet 16. The next season, she was a candidate for national player of the year as a sophomore and led the nation in double-doubles. Schuye was the talk of women’s basketball, and UVa had great promise with her on the court in what would have been her junior season.
“We were excited, looking forward to the next season, and then it was, Whoa, she wants to leave?” then-assistant coach Audra Smith said.
Schuye had abruptly announced she was turning pro. She claimed she had taken money under the table and had no choice.
“We were all shocked,” Smith said. “We just couldn’t believe it was time for her to stop because she was the future of UVa.”
Instead, Schuye went to Venice, Italy, where she says she lived like royalty in an apartment with windows from the floor to the ceiling. Then, just as abruptly as she left Virginia, she came home a year later in 2002.
Here is where Schuye’s life makes a dramatic turn. She explains now that she was tired of playing basketball because they were winning so much. And she doesn’t know whether family issues caused her downward spiral. Her brother had been shot and killed in a botched drug deal, and her grandfather had also died. Something inside her was gone — or at least damaged. Was it just basketball?
In the middle of all this chaos at home, Schuye was drafted by the WNBA’s Sparks in 2003 and set out for a new life in Los Angeles. But once she got there, the desire to play was gone. Schuye rarely attended practice, and coaches there sent her back to D.C. before she played in a game. That’s when her mother, Barbra LaRue, noticed something was wrong.
Schuye’s mother didn’t want to be interviewed on camera. We spoke on the phone, and then I checked on her during one of our trips to D.C. She told me she had taken Schuye to a doctor, who diagnosed her with schizophrenia and put her on medication. Schuye said the medication made her “weary” and she stopped taking it after a few weeks.
Without medication, Schuye became argumentative and delusional, her mother said. Schuye would also become so belligerent with neighbors that her mother was in danger of being evicted. She told me she had no choice but to put Schuye out to fend for herself in 2006.
Her mother is now living with another family near FedExField (a woman Schuye had gone to high school with) and takes care of their young boys.
I could see the pain on her face.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said, sadly.
With no place to live, Schuye found her way to McPherson Square and a bench, and that’s where we found her in the fall of 2015.
On that day, she was smiling, welcoming and wanting to talk about all kinds of things.
“I like to talk,” she said.
But after a bit, it was clear her mind wasn’t totally right. It seemed as if she was stuck in 2001, when she left for Italy. She wanted to know if people still played “Pac-Man,” if people like Rebecca Lobo and Kara Lawson were still playing.
“They work for ESPN now,” I told her.
“They’ve done very well for themselves,” she said.
LaRue was hungry, so we took her to a sandwich shop and watched the servers look down on her until they realized she was with us and we were paying customers. Her friend, Clarence, tagged along, and we bought him a sandwich, too. She was polite and charming. She called everyone “ma’am” and “sir,” and people in the park knew her. They knew it was her bench. They knew her story.
We walked by an ice cream shop where they give out samples. She said she never turns down ice cream, even in the cold.
“Superman,” she said, is her favorite.
We sat outside and talked for a while. I asked her what she thinks about when we’re not around her with cameras and microphones.
“What to eat next,” she answered matter-of-factly. “I really want crab cakes. I think they have some at this place.”
I asked what she missed most while being on the streets.
“Sleep time,” she said. “My own bed. Fixing it. Getting into it. Huge pillows. Big-screen flat on the TV. That’s what I want next. I want a nice lamp. I want a dish I could put something in. And I wouldn’t mind an award. Not an award, but an award from Virginia to have on the wall. Just one, mainly.”
I asked what her goals were now.
“Just to get a job and be successful. Not to be a slouch for the rest of my life,” she said. “And I want to get to a gun range, just to take a couple shots. Maybe with a .22 or something.”
After several hours, we called it a night, leaving her on her bench. My producer, Russ Dinallo, and our crew asked whether we could spend more time with her filming the next day, and she agreed, not at all embarrassed or ashamed of her life.
“How long do you want to live right here?” I asked.
“Probably forever,” she answered. “Probably forever.”
I left her that night with a very odd and revealing awareness in myself as to what it must be like to be homeless. She seemed happy and content. I kept wondering why she wouldn’t go to a shelter — we had looked up several that were close by. But she loved her freedom, the fresh air, the security of McPherson Square park and the homeless people she had befriended. Who was I to tell her she needed to go to a shelter? Shelters are tough, she said. They make you go in at 7 p.m. and out at 7 a.m. the next day. They won’t let you take your items in. They won’t let you smoke — anything. And, she said, they are dangerous.
I didn’t feel guilty when I left her. I understood her love of doing whatever she wanted whenever she wanted, but it was cold out. That’s what bothered me the most, and that’s what made me sad about her situation.
Over the next year-and-a-half, we interviewed former teammates, her former high school coaches, and Holdsclaw and Lawson. They all were concerned and wanted to help. But it was her former high school teammate Latissha Isby, who is now a licensed clinical social worker, who best helped us make sense of what we all were feeling.
“The last thing I would want to do is disrespect her by suggesting, ‘You need more help,'” she said. “So if you offer it, she takes it. If she doesn’t, cool, but it’s almost insulting to her to point out what we see as the obvious because in her mind, she’s doing fine. I know that part of the mental illness, but we have to respect her autonomy. We have to meet her where she is. And if that’s just ‘Drop me off some socks,’ we have to respect that. And it’s hard not to selfishly demand that she be more than what she is right now.”
It made it easier to accept but more difficult to think of a solution for the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. who have a mental illness, thinking they are fine living homeless.
After our first encounter, we spent the next day with Schuye. And, like the day before, she mainly made sense. But sometimes, when I wasn’t there asking questions, she was just sitting and talking to the pigeons around her. Then she would walk up to 7-Eleven to panhandle. People came up to give her food and money, and no matter what it was, she answered with, “God bless you.”
That day, with the money she had, she stopped at a sidewalk kiosk and bought a wallet. Someone had given her some cake, so she wasn’t hungry. A wallet seemed to make sense to her, even though she would lose it in the next few months.
Later, we sat at her bench and talked some more. She wasn’t as coherent but was not unpleasant. I asked her about living in Los Angeles, and she said she loved the bridges there. I told her she had so many friends who loved her and wanted to help and she said, “Oh, they just want to go out to the clubs and stuff.”
“I could sit here in the park and look at these cars go by all day,” she said. “They can’t do that; they won’t do that. They want to go play video games, go to the movies. Do something. Moving around. Antsy.”
When we returned in January 2016, the storm was getting nasty. We left Schuye at the subway station after offering to take her to a shelter. We at least got her to promise that she knew how to get there if she decided it got too bad to stay outside.
More than 3 feet of snow would fall, and the city was at a standstill. I looked out the window of my hotel that night and couldn’t see across the street. I wondered where she was and how she was doing.
When the sun came out the next day, the streets were filled with snow. The main roads had been plowed, but the side streets were still impossible to navigate, even on foot.
We went out to find Schuye again, looking first at the subway station, which was gated. I saw her blanket. “Why would she leave that?” I wondered.
We kept walking and walking, and finally, we spotted a tall figure wearing neon green headgear. It was Schuye, and she was trudging down the sidewalk and very happy to see us. She hugged me and lifted me off the ground. I said a quiet prayer that she was OK. She had stayed in the basement of a Thai restaurant that had left room to squeeze under its gate. She had been warm and safe.
“Man, I didn’t think it would ever stop snowing,” she said.
We tried to find Schuye three more times after that, the first two with no luck. It turned out she had been arrested on misdemeanor assault and possession charges and spent time at a mental hospital, where they treated her and she was found fit to stand trial. Seven days later, however, she was back on the streets and was arrested in a cocaine sting operation.
Her public defender told us that Schuye was the middleman between a dealer and a client. She carried the $20 to the dealer and was caught and charged with felony possession with intent to sell.
We went back to D.C. on the day of her arraignment on the felony charge. She didn’t show up at the courthouse, and we found her back atop the subway station.
This time, she was different. This time Schuye showed the ugly side of mental illness. I was unprepared and stunned. Where once we had formed what I thought was a friendly bond, she now had no idea who I was. She thought I was part of a murder ring. “I have pictures,” she said.
She said, “Where’s my money?” when no money had ever been talked about or changed hands.
She was hostile and delusional. Nothing she said made sense. I then fully understood what schizophrenia meant. Where once she had hugged me and picked me up, she now hated the thought of me even being there.
“Stop trying to whisper in my ear,” she said as she lay at my feet. “I have a wire on me. You don’t know who I am.”
“You and I talked … ” I said.
“He had a heart attack, too; did you hear that? You go to his funeral? You were married to him.”
“Who?” I asked. “I heard you were in Saint Elizabeths for a while.”
“OK, that lady I know as well, she’s also under charges. She’s not dead. Not in Great Britain. She was under the Canadian rule. Either you know what you’re looking for on one hand, or you’re wasting my time again.”
“I’m not wasting your time,” I said. “I’m trying to tell your story.”
It was a bad day. I didn’t think talking more would get either one of us anywhere. So I said goodbye. I left feeling very sad and shaking my head.
Schuye was arrested in July and charged with failing to appear for the felony possession charge; she currently is in the Correctional Treatment Facility — jail — in D.C. and refusing to cooperate with her public defender. Jail is a far cry from a mental hospital, and I can’t imagine what that is like for her. I can’t imagine, either, what might have been had her mental illness been diagnosed earlier or had she continued with the medication.
She could have been one of the best ever to play the game. Now Schuye is a statistic in the growing crisis of mental illness and homelessness where there are few answers and many problems.
ESPN producer Russell Dinallo contributed to this report.