"Basketball is everything to me": De Souza's story of struggle and triumph

September 28, 2012 - 3:06pm
Erika de Souza has been the starting center for the Atlanta Dream since the team was founded in 2008. (Photo by Andrew Snook)

Erika de Souza has been the starting center for the Atlanta Dream since the team was founded in 2008. (Photo by Andrew Snook)


What if I told you there was a player in the WNBA whose family needed her to make a living playing basketball or they would be trapped in poverty?

Maybe you'd say that's not so unusual. There are a lot of players from very poor backgrounds.

OK, what if I told you she spent the last 10 years living away from that family?

Again, there are still a fair number of players who fit into that category, though admittedly not quite as many.

All right, what if I told you this same player bore the weight of an entire nation's Olympic dream on her broad shoulders? What if her performance determined whether her nation's team would win or lose?

Well, now we've narrowed it down to just one athlete: Meet Erika de Souza.

De Souza grew up in Rio de Janiero, and "grew up" is exactly the right phrase. She's now 6-5, and coming from a country where the average female is 5-4, she always stood out from the crowd. Her family, though, was far from special. They were part of the 40 percent of Brazilians who live below the poverty line -- which in this case meant living on less than one U.S. dollar a day.

But even though her height in some ways made it more difficult to find her way, it also steered her towards athletics and early on, she excelled in team handball and volleyball.  In 1996, while playing in a volleyball tournament, de Souza was spotted by a local basketball coach who asked her to try out for his club team. 

Encouraged by her mother to give basketball a shot, Erika picked up a basketball for the first time at the age of 16. She took to the sport so quickly, the top club team in Brazil soon recruited her; which is where she met Iziane Castro Marques, a sister Brazilian National Team player and WNBA veteran.

“She came to my team when she first started, so I saw her from scratch,” recalls Castro Marques, currently with the Washington Mystics.  “She was just a tall girl that didn’t even know how to stand on the floor or what to do with the ball. But she had so much potential and that first year she learned so quickly and was soon playing like the rest of us.”

Castro Marques also recalls the two-hour bus rides de Souza had to take just make it to practice, and how occasionally she fainted in practice because she often ate only one meal a day. “Before she came to our team she didn’t even have shoes. Her mom had to pay for her to eat or had buy her shoes. There was not enough for everything, but only just enough to get by," says Castro Marques about the reality of Erika being one of four children raised by a single mother.

No matter how difficult the situation, however, Erika knew she must play, that sports would be the one opportunity she had in life. “When I started playing basketball, I didn’t like it at first,” says de Souza.  “But I started to play well and my family encouraged me to continue playing, and I had a chance to go to some better teams in Brazil and that’s when things changed for me.”

Change came quickly -- while still a teenager, Erika signed her first pro contract with a team in Spain. There an agent recognized that her talent was good enough for the WNBA, and helped cut a deal to bring her to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001. At the time, the Sparks were the reigning WNBA champions, and it was the height of Lisa Leslie's career.   She was widely recognized as the best basketball player in the world and was also the face of the WNBA.

For a young kid from Brazil, this was a dream come true. As a rookie, playing behind Leslie, Erika saw playing time in just eleven games.  She became Lisa’s main competition in practice, and despite the language barrier, de Souza soaked up everything she could from the MVP.

“I really looked up to Lisa,” says de Souza who made the most of the situation,  learning what it was like to play at the highest level from Leslie and tried to apply what she learned to her own game.  In 2002, the Sparks successfully defended their title and de Souza added WNBA champion to her growing list of accomplishments.

Even better,  her rookie salary, which was pretty meager by American standards, was worth three times as much in Brazil. Add in the playoff and championship bonuses, and it was enough money to remodel her mother’s entire home.

The next season, de Souza didn’t return to the Sparks, instead opting to play in Spain over the next four seasons, where she was able to draw much more lucrative contracts.

This also meant over time she would make enough money to change everything for her family.  De Souza bought a bakery in her hometown, which her family now uses as its source of income, but still de Souza kept playing and working on her game.

In 2004, she made the Brazilian National team and represented her country as the starting center in the Athens Olympics.  Also while playing abroad, de Souza twice guided her team to the Spanish league championship and was twice named the Spanish MVP. 

Carme Lluveras was De Souza’s coach and general manager for five seasons in Spain (2004-09) and describes her as the best player in the Spanish league and one of the best centers in the world -- as good as other centers such as Sylvia Fowles and Ann Wauters.

“When she first came to Spain she was young; young in everything. But she’s a very hard worker,” says Lluveras. “She wanted to improve in everything and she has the mentality to give 100 percent effort all the time and only wants to win. The fans love her very much.”

It was her MVP performance in Spain in 2006 that put her back on the WNBA radar. Los Angeles traded her rights to the Connecticut Sun and a year later Marynell Meadors selected her in the expansion draft when the Atlanta Dream were formed in 2008. But just days prior to being drafted by Atlanta, her mother had  passed away after losing a long and painful battle with cancer.  Still, de Souza pressed on, knowing it was her mother who had most encouraged her to pursue basketball.

When de Souza arrived in Atlanta, a friendly face greeted her in Castro Marques. Meadors, known as a great talent evaluator, had also drafted Castro Marques with the idea that reuniting the Brazilian teammates would help build the Dream. 

The Brazilian duo became an instant hit in Atlanta where for the first time both players earned a starting position in the WNBA.  In year two with the Dream, de Souza posted 12 double-doubles, averaged 12 points and nine  rebounds a game, led the WNBA in offensive rebounds and was named to the 2009 All-Star Team.

“I am thankful for Marynell, because in my opinion I wasn’t being used in Connecticut,” says de Souza about coming to Atlanta where she is now the anchor of the Dream’s post game. “She was the one who really gave me a chance to show myself in the WNBA and now I feel complete that I reached this level and have been able to help my team here (in Atlanta).”

Now in her fifth season with the Dream, de Souza continues to post double-doubles and has made a name for herself as one of the toughest centers in the WNBA.

“Erika is strong as hell,” says Lauren Jackson, a WNBA MVP with Seattle who played against de Souza in the 2012 Olympics. “You really have to focus on her, guarding her is very hard because she is so strong and such a force inside.  She’s definitely gotten better with age. I’ve got a lot of respect for her and everyone in the game knows how good she is.”

The fans in Atlanta know she’s a hidden gem and at any given home game a group of several dozen faithful fans can be seen in Philips Arena waving the Brazilian flag and cheering wildly for de Souza. 

Atlanta coaches will tell you DeSouza is one of the major factors in Atlanta going from worst to first in the league. After going 4-30 in 2008 with de Souza on the sidelines with an injury, Atlanta jumped to 18-16 in 2009, the biggest single-season turn around in league history -- and the Dream also made the playoffs for the first time.

“Erika is a walking double-double,” says current Atlanta Dream coach Fred Williams. “Her impact inside is really tremendous.  No one can really move her off the block -- she’s a tremendous player, one of the best in the world at her position.”

Erika de Souza boxes out Maya Moore during a pre-Olympic game at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

The past two seasons Atlanta has made it to the WNBA Finals, where they have fallen short both times at the hand of Seattle and Minnesota. Last year, de Souza missed game one of the Finals when she opted to play with the Brazilian National Team in the FIBA Americas tournament.  The Brazilians won the tournament (de Souza was MVP) to qualify for the 2012 Olympics -- but unfortunately for the Dream, without de Souza, they lost game one 88-74 and were eventually swept by the Lynx.  

Many criticized de Souza for not appearing in the game, but such is the pressure on de Souza in her home country, where she is widely recognized as the best player in Brazil since Janeth Arcain and is seen as the key returning her country to Olympic prominence in women’s basketball.

De Souza’s hometown of Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympics, a move that has the entire country buzzing with anticipation. In an effort improve athletics nation-wide, the government passed a law allowing corporate tax writeoffs for supporting athletic programs. Professional women’s basketball has traditionally floundered in Brazil, but for the first time in 2013 the influx of corporate dollars will make it possible for a sizeable competitive pro league to survive. For the first time in 10 years then, de Souza won’t play in Spain and will be able to return to her own country to play professionally.

When she talks about returning home, you can hear a sigh of relief. “It’s really important for me personally to come back to Brazil because this is the moment that I can help my country. I have been playing abroad for 10 years and it’s been four years since I lost my mom, so for me it has real meaning because I can be close to my family and help my country get better in basketball.”

But winning gold for Brazil is four years away, and right now she has unfinished business with the Atlanta Dream, who are in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.

“It’s really important to me for the Dream to win a WNBA championship. Right now we are under pressure because we don’t just want to be the Eastern Conference champions, we want to win a title -- this year we are going for it.”

Going for it is just what this kid from Brazil did years ago, taking a chance that changed everything for her and her family.

“Basketball has given me everything in life,” says Erika. “I cannot imagine my life without basketball. I could be in Brazil living a regular life, but here I am, and I’m very grateful to the many coaches and friends who helped me along the way and encouraged me to see my life in a different way -- basketball is everything to me.”