While the WNBA is considered a career advance for women
with basketball career aspirations,
all Brasileiras playing professional
basketball in the US achieved various accomplishments prior to their
debuts in the Women’s
National Basketball Association.
Brazil is a country known throughout the world mainly for three things: samba, Carnaval and soccer. One of my first
memories of my introduction to Brazil was when Brazilian soccer legend Pelé came to the US to play soccer in the North American
Soccer League in the late 1970s. While most Americans are familiar with the sport that is a national obsession in Brazil as well as
countless other countries around the world, soccer never really took off as a major sport in the US, where basketball, football and
baseball are usually the sports that Americans play in their adolescent years.
While I played all three sports at one time or another in my childhood growing up on Detroit’s west side, the only
time I played any soccer was when my gym instructors in school would make students play the sport during Physical
Education class. Unlike for millions of youth outside of US borders, soccer (or
futebol as it is known in Brazil and other countries)
never really became an important part of our culture.
Fast forward about two decades, three trips to the country and countless books about Brazil and now I find myself
keeping up with Brazil’s soccer matches, which led it to become five-time World Cup champions. While Brazil and the world
watch the exploits of Brazilian futebol "gods" such as Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo, Brazilians have also captured my
attention in my own favorite sport. What sport might that be? Well, let me develop the plot a little more first.
As I explained in my first article for
Brazzil back in June of 2001, my fascination with Brazil began on December 24,
1999, and for the next year I began an obsessive search for information on "all things Brazilian". During my introduction to
Brazilian Culture, I also began to pay more attention to the Women’s National Basketball Association games on television.
The league had been in existence since 1997 and though I had seen a few games in previous years while flicking
through the channels, I was now giving the ladies their much-deserved "propers". In the past two decades, baseball had fallen
out of favor with me as far as my interest level for the game was concerned. Thus, after the NFL and NBA seasons would
end, between the months of July and September, I was relatively sport free. The WNBA season, which lasts between the
months of May and September, became the perfect "fill-in" for me until the start of the NFL season in the fall.
Of course women have been playing basketball and other sports for an eternity but they had never had the chance
to shine athletically in a professional sense on par with the men. Women had carved out their own places in sports such as
tennis and golf, but if a female wanted to play basketball professionally, her only choice was to play overseas in various
European and Australian leagues. With the support of the men’s National Basketball Association, the WNBA gave new exposure
to veteran players such as current Phoenix Mercury Head Coach Cynthia Cooper.
Cooper had been a star athlete during college and went on play pro basketball in Europe from 1986 until 1997. Since
becoming a Houston Comet in the WNBA’s inaugural year, her list of accomplishments would impress any sports enthusiast. She
was twice the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player, won the first four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets, was MVP
of the Championship series all of those four years, earned All-WNBA first team honors all four seasons, made the All-Star
game all four years, and was the WNBA’s leading scorer, single-game and season scoring record holder to that point. She
retired after the 2000 season.
So why am I writing about the WNBA in a magazine devoted to Brazilian Culture?
Well, it was in 2000 that I became aware of a player named Janeth Arcain who was Cooper’s teammate on those
four championship years in Houston. It wasn’t until halftime of a Houston game when the producers of the WNBA on NBC
did a short feature on her life that I realized that Arcain was a
Brasileira from Carapicuíba, state of São Paulo.
"A Brazilian is in the WNBA!" I exclaimed to no one in particular. I only knew a few Brazilians at that time, but I made
sure to spread the news of Janeth’s accomplishment. As I have been watching more WNBA games this year, I soon
discovered that two more Brazilian women were playing in the WNBA for the Miami Sol team, Iziane Castro Marques and Claudia
Neves. It was then that I began to wonder just how many
Brasileiras were playing in the WNBA.
After more research, I discovered that there have been eight Brazilian women playing in the league at one time or
another. As trades and roster changes of professional teams are a frequent occurrence, below I have listed them with their
physical statistics, place of birth and their current or last WNBA team.
PLACE OF BIRTH
Guarujá, São Paulo
Iziane Castro Marques
São Luís, Maranhão
Carapicuíba, São Paulo
Alessandra Santos de Oliveira
São Paulo, São Paulo
Adriana Moisés Pinto
Franca, São Paulo
Helen Christina Santos Luz
Araçatuba, São Paulo
Cintia dos Santos
Mauá, São Paulo
São Paulo, São Paulo
While the WNBA is probably considered to be a career advance for many women who have always had aspirations
of continuing their basketball careers beyond the college level, all of these
Brasileiras had achieved various
accomplishments prior to their debuts in the WNBA.
Here is a brief summary of career highlights of these talented
Claudia Neves was voted the MVP of the BCN/Osasco Brazilian league during the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons. In
1998 she averaged 17.2 points per game and was named the Best Brazilian Player in the
Paulista (from São Paulo) League. She
was also a part of the 2000 Olympic bronze winning Brazilian Women’s Basketball team in Australia. She also played
basketball in Spain during the off-season.
Iziane Castro Marques has proven her scoring ability on the court from inside, outside and the foul line and is even a
good bowler in her spare time. In the beginning of her WNBA career she had trouble understanding parts of her game
because of the language barrier. As she had learned Spanish while playing in Spain, the coaches were able to better communicate
with her in this language until Claudia Neves was also picked up by Miami. The two
Brasileiras would often speak Portuguese while on the court together. Neves believes that Marques could become one of the best players in the WNBA as she
gains more experience. As Marques led the Brazilian Paulista League in scoring at 23.3 points per game during the 2001
season, the potential is obviously there.
Janeth Arcain is probably the most well-known Brazilian playing in the WNBA. That is mainly the result of her being
a part of the Houston Comets’ four straight championships between the 1997 and 2000 seasons. But since Cynthia
Cooper’s retirement, Arcain has come into her own. She was named the WNBA’s 2001 Most Improved Player and is the only
Houston Comet to play in all of the team’s games at this point in time. She led the Brazilian league in scoring for the 1995 and 1996
seasons, won a silver medal with the Brazilian women’s team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a bronze in 2000 and was selected to
start in the 2001 WNBA All-Star Game. During the 2001 WNBA season, Arcain was the league’s 4th highest scorer averaging
18.5 points per game.
Alessandra Santos de Oliveira was also a member of the 2000 Brazilian bronze winning Olympic team averaging 9.5
rebounds per game and 14.4 points per game. She averaged 10.4 rebounds per game and 15.1 points per game for Brazil
during the 1998 World Cup Championships, won MVP of the 1993 Sao Paulo Championships, and participated in the 1998 FIBA
Women’s World Championship in Germany.
Adriana Moisés Pinto joined the Phoenix Mercury roster this season after playing the last seven games of the last
season. Last season, she led her Penta Faenza team into the Italian Basketball League playoffs and was a member of the Brazilian
National team who played in Italy last year. She scored 13 points, dished out 2 assists and grabbed 5 rebounds in 22 minutes in
her Phoenix debut.
Helen Christina Santos helped lead Brazil to four South American Championships during the 90s and earned a gold
medal at the 1994 and 1997 World Championships. She averaged 16.4 points per game at the 1999 Pan American Games and
was part of the Brazilian women’s 2000 Olympic bronze winning team. She was also a champion in Brazil for Santo André in
1999 and Arcor in 2000.
Cintia dos Santos, like Iziane Castro Marques, also had problems with communication upon joining the Orlando
Miracle, although she speaks fluent Italian along with her native Portuguese. Like many other women who wish to play
basketball professionally, dos Santos lived and played overseas, in Italy, which she refers to as her "second home". Dos Santos
spends 11 months of the year away from Brazil and was happy to join the WNBA because she says the league "has the best
players of the world" and will improve her career. She played on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Brazilian women’s silver and bronze
winning teams and finished third in the WNBA in blocked shots for the 2001 season.
Kelly Santos played for three months in the WNBA for the Detroit Shock before returning to Brazil to play for
Vasco da Gama in hopes of winning a national championship. Santos says she didn’t have problems on the court in the WNBA
but had problems off the court. Being alone in America was a difficult transition for Santos who was accustomed to being
near her family. It also didn’t help matters much that she couldn’t speak English very well. But like dos Santos, Kelly
appreciated her international experience because playing with the world’s best players would certainly have a positive influence on
her game. Santos was also a member of Brazilian National Team that took home the bronze medal from the 2000 Summer Olympics.
The WNBA had gained a reputation as being an international league that at one point employed 50 foreign players
in a league that had 176 roster openings. Players from places such as Brazil, Africa, Hungary, Russia, Spain, Australia and
other locations entered the WNBA for the opportunity to "play for pay". While NBA players earn contracts whose salaries
can go well into the multi-million dollar range, the average woman in the WNBA earns about $55,000 per year, with the
minimum salary for a player with one year’s experience being $32,500.
The minimum salary for a rookie is $26,500. As these figures don’t necessarily promise a player a secure retirement,
many women supplement their salaries in the off-season in a variety of ways, some basketball related, others not. One thing is
certain; the WNBA will always face stiff competition for talent from European leagues where players can easily earn $100,000 per
year tax free.
With this competition, the cultural differences that foreign players must face and the call from their home countries
to represent them in Olympic and world championship tournaments, there has been talk among WNBA coaches and
executives of not making the effort to recruit more non-American talent.
As Brazil’s showing in the past two Olympics have proven, there is a wealth of talent in the women’s ranks of
Brazilian basketball that will surely continue to swell the number of
Brasileiras in the WNBA. It is also worthy of note that while
soccer is Brazil’s only national sports obsession, besides basketball, there also exists volleyball and baseball leagues operating
It’s a shame that these sports aren’t marketed with the same enthusiasm as that given to Brazilian
futebol. So what is the future for Brazilians in the WNBA? Only the future will tell, but for now, to Brazil enthusiasts who love the country and
its people, when you aren’t tuned in to
futebol, lend the Brazilian women hoopsters your attention for a minute. Even if
you’re not a basketball fan, check `em out; you’re sure to be impressed. So, readers and writers of
Brazzil, let’s take this opportunity to give them our support and extend a warm "Bem Vindas ao WNBA e à America!"
This article was written during the Brazilian National Team’s march to their record fifth World Cup Championship…
The Miami Herald
The Official Site of the Miami Sol
The Official Site of the WNBA
The CBS Sports Line
The Arizona Republic
CNN Sports Illustrated
Confederação Brasileira de Basquetebol
St. Petersburg Times
Mark Wells is an Anthropology major at the University of Michigan and has a deep interest in Brazil and the African
Diaspora. He can be reached at: Quilombhoje72@yahoo.com