Editor's Note: Women's basketball said farewell to one of its greats on Saturday, as Ticha Penicheiro played her final game in the WNBA. In tribute to the retirement of one of the premiere point guards in the world, Full Court is pleased to republish this article from deep in the bowels of our archives.
I still have great affection for this story, and for Ticha as well. When I wrote this story in 1999, Penicheiro was in her sophomore season in the fledgling WNBA. Much has changed in the interim. Her alma mater, Old Dominion, whom she led to the national championship as a senior in 1997, is no longer the women's basketball superpower it was back in the day. The Sacramento Monarchs, who drafted her as the No. 2 overall pick in 1998 and for whom she played for 13 of her 15 years in the pros, leading them to the WNBA title in 2005, are now one of the footnotes of the league's history, having shuttered their doors in 2009.
But other things remained the same over the years. I watched Ticha Penecheiro play throughout her career in Sacramento and she was always the tough, intelligent, inspiring player she was when she arrived in the league. Yes, she got smarter, the spectacular turnovers referenced below decreased in number, and she eventually developed a bit of a jumper, knocking down 15-of-36 from beyond the arc last year as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. She poured in 23 points against Tulsa the same year, matching the career high she had in 2002. But Ticha always preferred setting up a teammate's shot to taking one herself, and when she did score, one remembers her more often slashing through traffic to drop in a layup than as stepping out to drain a three.
Over the years, her heart remained true to her essential game, and to the sport of women's basketball even as the awards stacked up. She became a four-time WNBA All-Star, playing in the league's inaugural All-Star Game in 1999. In 2008, she became the first player in WNBA history to hand out 2,000 assists and and she retires as the league's all-time leader in career assists (2,599), assists per game (5.7) and single-game assists (11), having led the league in that category in an unrivaled seven seasons. She remained true to her commitment to defense, second only to Tamika Catchings in career steals (874), and was unfailingly reliable, second only to Tina Thompson in games played (454).
She was named one of the league's Top 15 players of all time in 2011 as the WNBA celebrated its 15th anniversary. And throughout it all, she has remained one of the game's great ambassadors and role models, always quick with a smile and willing to sign an autograph -- but even more, to sit down and talk with her young admirers, inspiring them to pursue their own dreams. It's a pity the Sky didn't think to nominate her for the Kim Perot Sportsmanship Award, one of the few honors that have escaped her. She would have had our vote.
As the years saw her lose a step in speed and her playing time diminish, Penicheiro willingly stepped into the role of mentor, passing the torch to the young points who have come along behind her. (You can read more about this most recent stage of her career in Ticha and Sloot: Two point guards who need no further introduction, by Full Court's Kelly Kline and Alex Chambers.) Now, dogged by injuries and a shadow of the transcendent player she once was, she's retiring.
"I could talk for days regarding the admiration and respect I have for Ticha's mastery of the point guard position and overall impact on the game,” said Pokey Chatman, head coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky. “It's more than the sheer numbers, although they're quite impressive. It's her knowledge, love and respect for the game, and the fact she's a great teammate that will distance her from the pack. She's meant so much to women's basketball, I simply want to say ‘thank you.’”
And so do I. Everyone involved in women's basketball will miss her -- but I think it's fair to say that I will miss her more than most.
A Tribute to Ticha (1999)
We’re not in New York, Toto.
Interstate 5 slices through the oven that is California’s Central Valley, dividing one flat brown field from another. On that long road from L.A. to nowhere in particular, just north of sleepy Sacramento, a strip mall on steroids juts from the valley floor, dust brown with a dirty white frosting. That’s the Arco Arena, elegant as overalls, graceful as gravel, home to Ticha Penicheiro, the most exciting female basketball player you’ve never seen.
Oh, maybe you caught a couple minutes of the WNBA All-Star game, or you’ve figured out she’s the one who made that blind over-the-head pass in the pregame setup. You sure didn’t see her on national TV, unless you tuned in to one of the two Sacramento Monarch games the suits deigned to let us see in the regular season. Hey, they couldn’t interrupt their wall-to-wall coverage of Chamique Holdsclaw and the dismal Washington Mystics for anything as mundane as a brilliant point guard teamed with a great center and one of the best female two guards ever to step on the floor.
No, you haven’t seen Ticha, I can safely say. And you definitely didn’t go to Sacramento to track her down. Nobody goes to Sacramento unless they have to, really, because it bakes in the summer and freezes in the winter fog. Besides, if you had a choice between San Francisco and its glittering Bay Area days and nights, and provincial Sacramento, where would you be? Most Californians drive right by Sacto on their way to gorgeous Lake Tahoe high in the Sierra, stopping only if the gas tank’s getting low and the kids are clamoring for another dose of Mountain Dew and red ropes.
But Ticha doesn’t mind. After all, she grew up in the small Portugese town of Figueira da Foz, which is about halfway between Lisbon and Porto, the two biggest cities on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula. She doesn’t like big cities, you see, and wouldn’t want to live in Lisbon, much less New York. She went to college in Norfolk, Va., another city on the periphery, and even though Old Dominion played for a national title when she was there, you probably don’t remember much about her.
If you think real hard, you might recall black hair tied up in a pony tail bouncing down the court while Stanford deconstructed in front of the horrified eyes of Tara VanDerveer and Jamila Wideman. But you don’t know Ticha’s game. You haven’t seen Ticha. Not unless you grew up in Figueira da Foz. Or hung out in Norfolk. Or make it a habit to visit Sacramento in the 100-degree days of July.
It would be great to be able to tell you exactly how wonderful she is -- but that’d be like trying to describe Allen Iverson’s quickness, or Gary Payton’s command of the floor, or Jason Kidd’s court vision. It’s undeniably there, it’s definitely spectacular, it’s what makes the game special -- but is no more tamable by words than Dennis Rodman.
But, just for the heck of it ...
Ticha in the open floor, cutting directly to the middle to improve her passing angles, hesitating slightly, changing direction. Now the ball is gone, like that, flicked under the hoop while Ticha’s eyes are fixed on the open shooter in the corner. And Ticha’s spinning now, too, maybe a 180 like she did in the All-Star game, or maybe even more.
Ticha on the break again, with one player ahead of her to the right, Yolanda Griffith, the fierce 6-4 warrior trailing her by a quarter-court length on her left. Ticha somehow senses the long legs of Griffith eating up the ground, so she slows at the free throw line, hesitates as she takes one dribble right, convincing the defender she’s decided to pull up. Suddenly the ball is airborne and Griffith extends every inch of her long arms to catch it and lay it in. The defender doesn’t move, couldn’t move, couldn’t imagine Ticha knew Griffith was there, could put the ball at the perfect spot without ever seeing her. No one else could imagine it either.
Ticha on a TV broadcast from Detroit, where two male announcers are gamely giving it their best, trying to make a fairly desultory contest between the Shock and the Monarchs sound interesting. They’re always looking for the positive, but you can’t help but notice the unctuous TV voice that knows which side its doughnuts are dunked on. Out of nowhere, Ticha steals the ball in Detroit’s end, spins, looks away and delivers an impossibly perfect pass for a layup. In an unrehearsed burst of sincerity, the color guy blurts out “That was a Magic Johnson move” -- and can say no more.
The game marches to her consistent rhythm. The bounce of the ball, echoed in the twitch of her pony tail, sets the tempo. It always has.
“I’ve been flashy since I was a little girl,” Ticha says, sitting in the Monarchs’ locker room -- which isn’t exactly the lap of luxury. “I remember being really young, and before I got to half court I was going between my legs and behind my back 20 times. I have tapes when I was 10 or 11 and I was doing fancy moves. It was me. It was fun.”
But Ticha loves to win more than she loves to have fun.
“A professor at my Portuguese school asked me one time, ‘Did you score any points doing that fancy stuff?’ I said ‘No.’ So I quit.”
Well, sort of. Ticha’s instinct for the spectacular survived her youth intact, and it routinely mesmerizes whoever sees her play. You can almost hear the 7,000 or so regulars at Arco hold their collective breath on the break, primed to explode when the next unthinkable pass arrives on target.
Allison Greene, now an assistant at Old Dominion, was the first American to see the future definition of point guard:
“I was playing for Amadora in Portugal, and the very first game was an exhibition against the best Portuguese 14- and 15-year-olds. One of the first plays of the game, Ticha almost broke the ankle of our point guard in the open court, and then went behind the back to her post player for a layup.
“I grabbed a teammate and said ‘How old are these players again?’ I just shook my head going down the court, thinking ‘That child is unbelievable.’”
But of course you didn’t see that. Neither did the horde of coaches and hangers-on who haunt age-group play in America. Ticha was at the edge of the map of the basketball world, right where it says “Here be dragons.”
Despite her isolation from the breeding grounds of the game, its attraction was instant. “I fell in love with the game right away,” says Ticha. “Forget dolls.” Her father is a coach and her brother plays professionally in Portugal, so she could always find a game. She started out playing with boys, and in fact still works out with the guys whenever she can. “They’re better,” she says, and then quickly amends her statement. “Supposedly, they’re better. They’re bigger and stronger.”
But Ticha’s not small. Even if you watched her a couple times, you don’t really realize how powerful her game is. Nobody muscles her on the court, and at 5-10, she can see over most defenders.
“She’s big for a guard,” says Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, one of the greatest shooting guards ever, and one of the most physical. “She’s strong.”
One place that strength shows up is on the boards. Penicheiro’s career high is 14 rebounds, and she averages around 4.5 a game -- a number made even more impressive by the fact that she never crashes the boards for offensive rebounds because she’s always rotating to be the deep safety.
Defense? A lot of flashy point guards keep their distance from defense, treating it like a particularly nasty communicable disease. But Ticha takes pride in her defense -- just ask Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray, two National Team players. Penicheiro guarded both in a game at Arco this summer, and they managed one basket between them in the 30 minutes or so they went head-to-head with Ticha. Oh, and no offensive rebounds either.
Even better, she’s a warrior. She doesn’t miss games, and she doesn’t come out. Coach Sonny Allen likes to play his best players as much as humanly possible, and despite a bad wrist, a bad back, and a bad ankle, Ticha was on the floor for 34 minutes a game most of the year.
Now it’s time for the disclaimer. She’s not perfect. In fact, when she’s not passing, she’s far from a pretty player. Her jump shot is as flat as a Sacramento onion field, and her penetration isn’t exactly poetry in motion. In a game against Minnesota, she scored 27 points -- but they came on head-down drives as she bulled her way into the lane, or from muscular moves designed primarily to get her to the free-throw line.
In fact, most ways she’s like an early Jason Kidd, with no outside shot but everything else you could ask for. It’s hard to imagine Ticha not working on the one glaring weakness in her game, and when she adds a jumper, she’ll simply be the best in the world.
Of course, she has to take that jumper. “One of her biggest faults is her unwillingness to shoot,” says Monarchs’ assistant Maura McHugh, and Sacramento superstar Yolanda Griffith, who benefits from many of Penicheiro’s passes, has to agree. “She needs to look for her shot more,” says Griffith, and mark that down as the first time a post player has ever said a guard needs to look inside less.
And there are turnovers. Spectacular, yes, and breathtaking in their conception, but turnovers nonetheless. Ticha’s youth and desire to dazzle often obscures her judgment, and fans in the first couple of rows at Arco have become regular recipients of no-looks gone awry.
“But she’s got a lot more years to play,” says Bolton-Holifield of her 25-year-old teammate, but even now, there are those who believe she’s the best in the WNBA. The veterans, naturally, favor Dawn Staley, though the hard truth is that Dawn doesn’t show up every night -- but when she does, she’s got more to her game than Ticha, though the degree of difficulty has dropped a little.
“Dawn used to be as flashy as Ticha,” says Bolton-Hollifield, “but Dawn has made her game complete by becoming a better shooter.”
Ticha may become a better shooter, but the flash will never disappear -- even if Penicheiro seems determined to display it only to the faithful (and those dragons).
“I couldn’t live in New York,” she says. “I couldn’t live in Lisbon. I’m not a big city girl.”
In fact, she loved Norfolk, and she loves Sacramento, but for one minor detail. “There’s no beach. In Portugal I was at the beach 24/7. I love to lay down in the sun and swim in the ocean.”
Despite that major negative, Ticha is happy in Sacramento. Even if there were such a thing as free agency in the WNBA, Ticha would be perfectly content to spend her entire career in the uncool capital of California.
After all, the Monarchs picked her in the draft, and put her picture on the side of buses all over town. “Ticha is a very loyal person,” says Wendy Larry, her coach at Old Dominion. “Sacramento wanted her.”
The same thing happened in Norfolk when Ticha arrived, an immigrant from Portugal who was unfamiliar with life in the U.S. “Our community opened its arms to her,” says Greene, “and Ticha hugged back twice as hard.”
And there are things to like about Sacramento. “I love the weather,” she says, “ hot and dry. If I want to go to the mall, I’m there in 10 minutes.”
And she makes that 10-minute trip often. “I love to shop,” she says. “I love to dress up. I can go from classic to outrageous,” and she has custom clothes made by Vasse of Los Angeles.
But at the same time she loves bright colors, she also loves black. At the same time she loves the spectacular dish, she loves being out of the spotlight. It’s the contradiction that makes her so fascinating, the contradiction between drawing attention to herself with her spins and look-aways, and her unwillingness to score herself -- or to even try to get to a team where she would be accorded her rightful place in the pantheon of point guards.
“(Her goals) don’t have anything to do with Ticha,” says Larry, “they have to do with the team. If she could give the spotlight to the team every night, she’d do it.”
Assists, after all, are a collaborative art. “The pass is everything to her. Not a good pass,” says Larry, “but the great, flashy pass. The spotlight’s on her but she’s still sharing it with someone else. That’s her inner spotlight -- that’s the spotlight on Ticha’s heart.”
And long may it shine. Long enough, at least, for more than a few lucky provincials to bask in its extraordinary glow.
- Ticha and Sloot: Two point guards who need no further introduction
- Teammate quiz, with Chicago Sky's Ticha and Courtney.