When he saw the basketball player from Old Dominion in the
receiving line at a State Department reception last April, Vice
President Al Gore beamed. "You know where I'm from, don't you?"
the Tennessean said to the 5'11" point guard.
"Yes," she replied, smiling back at him, "but I won't hold it
A couple of Secret Service guys recognized her too, and told
her, out of Gore's earshot, that the Lady Monarchs "were robbed"
in their 68-59 loss to the Lady Volunteers in the NCAA
championship game the month before. But the guest of honor at
the State Department reception, Portuguese prime minister
Antonio Guterres, had to be reminded why this young woman with
bangs and a puckish smile was standing in front of him. She's a
citizen of Portugal, he was told, a star jogadora de basket. Her
name? Ticha Penicheiro.
It's the name that hundreds of prepubescent girls have screamed
at every home game as the No. 2-ranked Lady Monarchs have bolted
to an 8-0 record that includes victories over highly rated
Illinois and Louisiana Tech. It's the name on the back of the
replica jerseys that little boys don before Old Dominion games,
and it's the autograph that lovesick adolescent boys beg for
afterward. It's also a name that was on every significant
All-America roster last year, but it's not one that always
resonates with the average--or even the highly placed--citizen
December 22, 1997
Penicheiro finds this amusing. "I guess it's ironic that I come
from a tiny country and this is where I'm noticed," she says.
Noticed? Penicheiro, a nearly telepathic passer and a
sticky-fingered ball thief, has spent the last three years being
feared by opposing coaches and idolized by the Lady Monarchs
faithful, who hadn't seen her sort of hoops legerdemain since
the days of Nancy Lieberman (class of '80). At week's end
Penicheiro was averaging 5.0 steals and 6.5 assists a game,
which puts her on pace to eclipse Lieberman's school record for
steals and perhaps break her mark for assists as well. Even if
Penicheiro falls short of those records, the two U.S. pro
leagues and a slew of European club teams will come calling next
"In certain respects Ticha [pronounced TEE-sha] is eerily
similar to Nancy: that confidence, the way she's almost
worshiped by the people watching her," says Old Dominion coach
Wendy Larry, who was a Lady Monarchs assistant in Lieberman's
senior year. "Nancy could turn a crowd on with one no-look pass.
Ticha does the same things. She's very entertaining."
The second-coming-of-Nancy buzz had preceded Penicheiro to the
Old Dominion campus in Norfolk, Va., when she arrived in the
fall of 1994. Still, none of her teammates was quite prepared
for the way she played the game. "You'd see her going up for a
layup, and suddenly she'd pass the ball, and it would hit you in
the face while you were looking at the basket," says senior
center Nyree Roberts. "We all learned to run up and down the
court with our hands in front of our faces."
"It's wild being on the court with Ticha," says former teammate
Stacy Himes, who graduated last year. "You're so often in awe,
wondering how she makes those passes. I swear she's got eyes in
the back of her head."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who watched Penicheiro score 18
points, get six assists and help hold Player of the Year Kate
Starbird scoreless from the field in the second half of Old
Dominion's 83-82 overtime win over the Cardinal in the NCAA
semifinals, compares Penicheiro to Magic Johnson. "She's flashy
but in a positive way," says VanDerveer. "She'd be fun to play
Penicheiro's teammates say that she's also fun to be with, that
she's a generous and optimistic spirit who wants, says sophomore
guard Natalie Diaz, "for everyone to be happy." Larry calls
Penicheiro "the provider," and she isn't talking simply about
assists. Penicheiro gives hours of her time to sign autographs,
and she provides a sympathetic ear for troubled teammates, the
neatest class notes to borrow and the party tapes that the Lady
Monarchs listen to on the team bus. A stylish dresser,
Penicheiro also sets the Old Dominion standard for shopping
zealotry. "You can't stop her on the court or at the mall," says
When junior college transfer LaToya Small was homesick last
year, Penicheiro zeroed in on her like a sheepdog on a wandering
lamb. "I'd want to stay in my room and mope, and Ticha would
screw up her face into this pleading, childish look and say,
'Plllllleeeeeaaase come with us!'" says Small. "Everyone on the
team knows that face is impossible to resist." So Small would
soon find herself among all the other Lady Monarchs, trying on
clothes at the mall, munching popcorn at the movies or doing
synchronized hand movements to Portuguese nursery rhymes in the
middle of the locker room. "Ticha takes care of you and keeps
you involved, on and off the court," says Small. "But you know
what's the best thing about her? With all the talent she has,
you'd think she'd be conceited. But she's so modest. She doesn't
gloat. If I were her, I would gloat."
To the contrary, Penicheiro is quick to point out her own
deficiencies. For one, her English. She studied the language for
seven years in school in Portugal, refined it at home by
watching countless hours of The Simpsons and MacGyver with her
brother, Paulo, and has further polished it during her three
years in the States. But to Penicheiro it's still flawed. Not as
it used to be, she assures you, when her H's were in the
linguistic lost and found. "I used to say, ''ello, welcome to
Hold Dominion,'" she says. "Or, 'I'm 'ungry, let's go heat.'"
Studying in her second language, Penicheiro was named to the
Colonial Athletic Conference's All-Academic team last year, has
made the dean's list four times in six semesters, has already
earned one degree in communications and is working on another.
But as hard as she works academically, she remains, above all, a
student of the game. "She's obsessed with basketball," says
former Lady Monarchs teammate Clarisse Machanguana, who also
played with Penicheiro on the Santarem club team in Portugal.
"She videotapes and watches games all the time--men's, women's,
boys', girls', it doesn't matter."
Penicheiro has learned much from her hours of viewing, but she
insists that the things that really define her as a player--her
ball handling and court vision--are gifts. "I don't know how I
see who's open, but I do," she says. "I see mismatches forming,
holes opening. And my ball handling is natural. You give some
people a pencil, they can just draw."
Over the summer, while in Portugal for the quarterfinals of the
European Championships, Penicheiro returned to the scruffy
little playground in Figueira da Foz, the northwestern beach
town where she grew up. "This is where it all began," she said
expansively as she emerged from the car. She looked around and
sighed. "City hall just doesn't keep this place up anymore," she
said, noting the bent, netless rims and the cracking asphalt
court, surrounded by dreary, five-story apartment buildings
strung with drying laundry.
Even in its heyday 15 years ago, this little patch known as
Traseiras (Backyard) wasn't much to look at. It was just a
rectangle of sand then, but it was where Penicheiro spent most
of her free time as a little girl, dribbling, passing and
shooting until, as she likes to say, "the moon replaced the sun."
It was also where vacationing Portuguese men's club players
played pickup games with the locals on summer evenings. Paulo
would get there early for the 6:30 games, usually with Ticha,
four years his junior, tagging along. "At first the boys
wouldn't let me play, but then they started picking me first,"
says Ticha. "I was sneaky, I liked to steal a lot." With the
much taller guys looming everywhere, she quickly learned that
she could best contribute by passing the ball. "She knew her
shot would get blocked, so she had to do all that fancy stuff to
make things happen," says Paulo, a computer programmer who plays
small forward for a club team in Leiria.
By the time she was 10, Ticha was a showboat who was liable to
make five spin moves and dribble behind her back a dozen times
before reaching half-court. One phys-ed teacher tried to shame
her by asking, "How many points did you score with all those
fancy moves?" But even now, with her hot-dogging days long
behind her, Penicheiro finds it difficult to make her own
shooting a priority. "My job is to make my teammates look good,"
Her approach to the game hasn't always sat well with her
coaches. "Sometimes Ticha turns the easy thing into the complex
thing, which doesn't necessarily produce the best results," says
Portuguese national team coach Jose Leite. "When she was
younger, she didn't care about discipline, so she was difficult
to coach. But she feels the game differently than some of us.
That's what makes her the player she is. That's a lesson for us
Larry, who describes herself as a "maniac for organization,"
usually has had point guards who thrived in highly structured
offenses. Penicheiro, for her part, was appalled when she first
learned that she would be expected to run an organized fast
break. Some adjustments had to be made on both sides. "Having
someone so creative was difficult for me as a coach, because it
meant I had to lose a little control," says Larry. "But to
stifle Ticha would take away too much of her game. So we have
reached a happy medium. Now she sees the value in organization,
and I see the value in creativity."
Larry also sees the value in points scored, which is why she is
insisting that Penicheiro shoot more this year. "I have always
looked to shoot as my last option," says Penicheiro, who is
averaging 11.5 points a game. "I don't have a lot of confidence
in my outside shot."
Indeed, for all her other blessings, Penicheiro has never been
the pure shooter that Paulo and her father, Jo?o, are. Jo?o, now
56 and a youth-league coach as well as a human resources
director at a Portuguese paper mill, had perfect shooting form
as a star player for clubs in Coimbra and Figueira da Foz in the
1960s. "He had this move," says Paulo. "He'd put the ball
between his legs, then fake an over-the-shoulder pass and
finally shoot. That wowed everyone back then."
Ticha may not have inherited Jo?o's perfect form--"Her hand
placement is kind of weird," says Larry--but she certainly got
the wow. Old Dominion assistant coach Allison Greene, a former
Dartmouth star, spotted it on the first play of Greene's first
game for the Portuguese club team Amadora, seven years ago.
Amadora's opponent was the junior national team, whose
15-year-old point guard was the skinny, short-haired Penicheiro.
"She made a no-look pass that took my breath away," says Greene.
After the two teams met again, Penicheiro told Greene of her
dream of playing in the U.S. A few years later, after she had
been hired by the Lady Monarchs, Greene remembered Penicheiro
and encouraged Larry to take a look. Larry, properly wowed,
proceeded to woo.
Penicheiro wasn't a hard sell. On her recruiting visit, she fell
in love with the campus. "It was 15 minutes from the beach," she
says, "just like home." She signed on immediately and convinced
Machanguana to join her. Mery Andrade, a national teammate of
Penicheiro's from Lisbon, followed the next year and is now a
junior averaging 14.9 points and 5.8 rebounds a game.
Penicheiro expected to feel homesick but never has. Her parents
visit once a year, and over this season's Christmas break
Penicheiro and her teammates will get to visit them in return.
The team left on Sunday for a 10-day exhibition tour of France
and Portugal. Her parents also keep in touch by following her
games on the Internet and by sending Ticha clippings about her
exploits from the pages of Portugal's three national sports
dailies. Interest in women's basketball, which has long lagged
far behind soccer, men's basketball and team handball in
Portuguese affections, has increased with Old Dominion's
success. But some of the home folks still wonder what the big
deal is. The small articles about Penicheiro's games usually
feature her name in the headlines, but the things she does
best--passing and stealing--never make it into the box scores.
"In Portugal, the papers just list points after a player's
name," she says. "If you scored more than 20, it's considered
good. If you didn't, you must have had a bad game."
By Portuguese newspaper standards, Penicheiro hasn't had a good
game yet this year--her high game is 17--but she's having
another banner season. Though she suffered a few moments of
horror in the season opener when an Illinois opponent fell on
her and caused Penicheiro to twist her ankle, the gamble she
took last spring when she decided to stay at ODU for a fourth
year instead of turning professional seems to be paying off.
"As I saw it, I had two good options," says Penicheiro. "I
decided to stay because I want to increase my education and work
on my game. And we didn't win the NCAA title. This year it will
be harder to get there, but I still have that dream."