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Twists of Faith

McGee has been tested by bitter custody fight, cancer, rift with twin sister, even prison, but says her spirit is unbroken

December 13, 2002|Maryann Hudson Harvey | Special to The Times

CHICAGO — Pamela McGee spent two days dressed down in an orange jumpsuit in a jail cell in Sacramento. There was no Nike swoosh on this outfit.

It was January 1998, years removed from when Pamela and twin sister Paula helped USC win the 1983 and '84 national championships in women's basketball.

Her private block in the civil section was across the hallway from a conglomeration of alleged criminal offenders. They recognized her as she was brought in -- she was a star player for the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA -- and, after an initial ruckus of "Pamela McGee, what are you doing here?" McGee, nervous, started to sing.

It was a spiritual song, taken from a Bible verse. "No weapon formed against me shall prosper," McGee began, and the jail quieted.

"Then they all started standing up and taking turns testifying," McGee said. "It was like church. One woman stood up and said, 'God woke me up and told me he was going to set me free.' And another one said, 'The Lord spoke to me last night and told me that I was going back to jail, but I'm going back with the Word.' It was something."

McGee was jailed during a Sacramento Superior Court hearing because, mired in a child custody battle with her ex-husband, the Rev. Kevin Stafford, she refused to tell the judge the location of her then 3-year-old daughter, Imani. McGee had taken Imani out of Michigan, where the couple had married and later divorced in 1996, without court permission. When the 1997 WNBA season ended, Stafford expected McGee to return Imani to Michigan, and when McGee didn't, Stafford went to court.

What ensued was a very public, biting saga of twists and turns, including allegations of sexual abuse on both sides. After two nights in jail, McGee turned Imani over to the judge, and she has never regained custody. She still has no legal visitation schedule.

McGee retired from the WNBA in May 1999, and later returned to Michigan to be close to Imani. Then, in a twist, Stafford apparently moved Imani to Los Angeles without the court's permission. According to a review of court records, transcripts and information supplied by a Macomb County, Mich., Circuit Court spokesperson, Stafford did not have permission to move Imani out of state. Stafford and his lawyer, Peter Lucido of Michigan, declined comment, citing a gag order on the case dating to 1998.

Then, in the midst of the mire, the strong bond that had always linked Pamela and Paula was temporarily lost. Pamela thought Paula took the other side when she reiterated to an investigator a sexual abuse allegation against a member of McGee's family.

For the family, the divide was unthinkable.

The twins' lives, their sister Alayna Gilbert says, had always been entwined. Even before their dad, Jimmie Jr., nailed a hoop above the garage on Esther Street. Even in third grade, when they were so awful at basketball their coach would offer them to opposing teams who didn't have enough players, saying, 'Here, take the twins,' and the girls were so tall the duped coach would do so.

When they were 9, they had a shoe size to match. At 18, they were 6 feet 2 and were among the best basketball players in the country. They led Flint Northern High to a 75-0 record and two Michigan state titles, and had their choice of colleges. Together they chose USC, and made history.

Playing in a frontcourt with Cheryl Miller, and with a backcourt that included Cynthia Cooper and Rhonda Windham, the twins were an integral part of a team that won USC's only basketball national championships.

When we last left them, Pam was giving Paula her gold medal after winning the 1984 Olympic basketball championship in Los Angeles. Pam found Paula -- who didn't make the Olympic team -- in the crowd at the Forum and ran to her. "This medal's for you too," Pam told her. They cried. Together.

Saturday night, USC will honor the '83 and '84 championship teams during halftime of its game at the Forum, and Pamela and Paula, now 40, will stand together again.

Their feud was a huge blow to a family already struggling with life's injustices. Last year, their mother, Dianne McGee, 58, had a life-impairing stroke. She is the matriarch of the family, its strength, having raised four children alone after her husband drowned in a boating accident when the twins were 15.

Two years ago, Pamela was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was caught early and, so far, having weathered a mastectomy, removal of her lymph nodes and reconstructive surgery, has won that fight. She also looks strong; her hair is long and shiny, her build, athletic.

"My family has known some grief," Alayna said. "[Pamela] has had to fight for so many things in her life, some unjust things, where one battle comes after another, and I admire her courage.

"She doesn't always fight a good fight, or the best way, but she does the best she can. And no matter who knocks her down or what comes her way she's never going be a woman who says, 'OK, I give up, I quit.' "

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