There's a country in this hemisphere where women's basketball is
not a vogue stoked by sudden millions in marketing money. It's a
place where the populace is not under the misapprehension that
the game was invented by Sheryl Swoopes in 1993 and perfected by
Rebecca Lobo two years later. It's a nation that expects to win
the gold medal at these Olympics every bit as much as the U.S.
does and a country where a female hoopster has the standing and
fame of...well, not Michael Jordan, exactly, because the
equivalent standard in her homeland, Edson Arantes do
Nascimento, a.k.a. Pele, is tough to meet. But she is the next
most venerable athlete.
The country is Brazil, and the ballplayer, born there 36 years
ago in the town of Potirendaba, was named after the Portuguese
word for the flowering hydrangea plant. The hortencia, in case
you're wondering, blooms perennially. The rest of Hortencia's
name is Maria de Fatima Marcari Oliva, but you don't really need
to know that, for like most Brazilian sports heroes, she goes by
a single moniker. After averaging 27.6 points to lead Brazil to
its first world championship, in Australia two summers ago,
Hortencia retired, figuring that with that triumph and her other
great international achievement--helping Brazil win the 1991 Pan
Am Games title in Havana (and fielding congratulatory kisses
from Fidel Castro)--she had done enough. If Brazil was to add to
its trophy case the only major international crown still
missing, the national team would have to do it in Atlanta
But last spring news leaked that Hortencia was going to rejoin
the team for the Olympics, even though she had given birth to a
son, Joao Victor, by cesarean section only four months before.
On May 6 she showed up for practice, and afterward, in
accordance with tradition, she and her teammates gathered at
midcourt to engage each other in a three-point shooting contest
with a $15 prize at stake. Hortencia was one of two players to
send her first shot cleanly through the net. In a shoot-off with
the other player, the team's 6'2" power forward, Marta de Souza
Sobral, Hortencia bottomed out her second shot too. Brazilian
television reported the feat that very night, and the next
morning, papers around the country bannered the news: THE QUEEN
"I couldn't go to a gas station without the attendant asking me
to return to the game," Hortencia says of her time away from
basketball. "It was very hard to resist the pressure. And then
there's the spirit of the Olympics. I dedicated many years of my
life to Brazilian basketball and managed to go to only one
Olympics [in 1992]. I think I deserve to participate--not as a
savior but as an athlete who can help the team."
The role of nonsavior is wholly new to her. For nearly 20 years
Hortencia was the most celebrated and accomplished female
athlete in South America's most populous country. She joined the
national team at age 15, and once, in a Brazilian league game,
she scored 124 points. Hortencia isn't particularly tall (5'8")
or strong (she weighs only 132 pounds), but she has a scorer's
sixth sense for the basket, and she moves relentlessly without
the ball. Always up on the balls of her feet, her ponytail
flapping behind, she searches out gaps in the defense and angles
to the hoop with the industry of John Havlicek or of Bill
Bradley in his prime.
Like Brazilian basketball players of both sexes, she is not
known for her defense. She let her guard down even for the
Brazilian edition of Playboy, in 1988. That appearance,
royalties from a Hortencia doll and other perquisites of fame
have helped her earn six figures annually, a generous chunk of
which she earmarks for an orphanage.
"I feel sorry for any man who falls in love with me," she said
in the mid-1980s. "I'm not ready for long relationships." But in
1989 she married Jose Victor Oliva, a Sao Paulo restaurateur and
club owner known locally as the King of the Night. Pele she may
not be, but Pele was best man at the wedding.
At the '96 Games, Hortencia has been staying in the Olympic
Village with her teammates, but Jose and little Joao have been
quartered with a nanny at a nearby hotel. Whenever possible they
make visits to the Village so the Queen can discharge her
maternal as well as her basketball duties.
Almost as meaningful as Hortencia's return to Brazil's Olympic
squad was that of Maria Paula Goncalves da Silva, 34, the
unflappable 5'8" point guard who goes by Paula. Thus four of the
five Magnificent Mononyms who started Down Under are back:
Janeth, the slashing, 5'11" swing player (that's Janeth dos
Santos Arcain for those of you scoring at home) whose
buzzer-beater on Monday night defeated Italy 75-73; Hortencia;
Marta; and Paula, whose 29-year-old sister, Branca, is also in
the guard rotation.
"This is a better team than in '94," says coach Miguel Angelo da
Coming off her hiatus, Hortencia wasn't expected to be a starter
in Atlanta or even play more than 15-20 minutes a game. "I
haven't yet regained my form, and it's hard to say how much more
I'll be able to improve," she said before the Games began.
"During my career I never stopped playing for any reason, so
this is a new experience. Sometimes I know what I want to do,
but my body doesn't respond."
U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer knew better than to believe such
disclaimers. "The competitor that she is?" VanDerveer said of
Hortencia. "I'll bet my house that she'll play more than 15 to
20 minutes a game. And I live in California, so that's no idle
Sure enough, Hortencia started in Brazil's first three games in
pool play, averaging 33.5 minutes and 15 points in victories
over Canada and Russia before twisting her left ankle seven
minutes into the Brazilians' defeat of Japan. She sat out the
next two games, then scored 17 points in Brazil's 101-69 win
over Cuba on Wednesday.
While the U.S. men's team is predestined to stand atop the medal
stand, any of the semifinalists in the women's tournament could
win the gold. And in the distaff draw there's even a grudge game
in the making: a possible rematch in Sunday's final between
Brazil and the U.S.
At the world championships the Australian organizers had set up
a transportation system between the arena and the hotel that
often obliged teams to share motor-coach rides to and from
games. So it was that only two days after a 110-107 semifinal
loss to a Brazilian team that shot 65%, the Americans found
themselves sharing a bus with Hortencia & Co., who had just
defeated China 96-84 for the gold. (The Americans still shake
their heads at how the Brazilians showed up at the worlds in
lousy condition, got thumped by China and Slovakia in pool play
and then--having played their way into shape--took the title by
beating the U.S. and China in the semis and the final.) Even
today, VanDerveer seethes about that bus ride, during which the
Brazilian players made good on a promise to cut their coach's
hair if they won. Eight U.S. players went on that humbling trip.
One who didn't, Lobo, has nonetheless heard plenty about the
raucous incident. "If Tara could," Lobo says, "she'd beat Brazil
by a hundred."
Contributing to the anticipation of a Brazil-U.S. showdown is
the fact that the two teams have circled each other warily
during the past two years. Every effort by the U.S. to schedule
Brazil for a pre-Games "friendly" was rebuffed, including an
exhibition briefly set for Atlanta in April, which Brazil
According to a source in their basketball federation, the
Brazilians' strategy has been to deprive the U.S. of
experiencing their uniquely dervishlike and creative style of
play, and thereby to take full psychological advantage of having
beaten the U.S. the last time the two teams met. "If we played
the Americans 10 times, we'd probably win once," says Hortencia.
"It's better not to use up our chances."
If that logic seems a bit convoluted to you, you're not alone.
To a woman, the U.S. team thinks Brazil has miscalculated. "You
must be afraid of something if you don't play somebody ahead of
time," says U.S. guard Jennifer Azzi.
The Olympics themselves have put a sort of hex on the Brazilian
women. Hortencia and her teammates failed even to qualify in
1980, '84 and '88, and in '92 they finished a laggard seventh.
But they're fortified by the knowledge that other Brazilian
teams have thrived in the U.S., from the men's hoopsters who
stunned the American team in Indianapolis at the '87 Pan Am
Games to the soccer team that won the '94 World Cup at the Rose
Standing in the Brazilian women's way is a U.S. team that will
have been together as long--14 months--as Hortencia spent away
from the game. "I would love to be in the final with Brazil,"
says Ruthie Bolton of the U.S., who was among the guards
outplayed by Hortencia and Paula two years ago. "And I don't
want excuses--no 'This player got hurt' or 'We were burned out.'
If they beat us again, they deserve to win the Olympics.
"But that's not going to happen."
COLOR PHOTO: J.R.DURAN/COURTESY OF PLAYBOY Hortencia has taken off her clothes for Brazilian "Playboy" and put on her feathers for Rio's Carnival parade. [Brazilian Playboy magazine cover featuring Hortencia]
COLOR PHOTO: PAULO JARES/ABRIL IMAGENS [See caption above--Hortencia wearing Carnival costume]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH For 20 years Hortencia has used her speed and court vision to shred opponents' defenses.
COLOR PHOTO: ORLANDO BRITO/ABRIL IMAGENS At the Carnival parade in '92 the Queen (left) vamped in a big headdress and little else. [Hortencia]