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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Mommy With a Jumper : Posing for Playboy Only Part of Legend of Brazil's Hortencia

July 25, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — After a long, flamboyant reign during which she slew two American national teams, won a world title, posed nude in Playboy and was known all over the globe by one name--Hortencia--the goddess of basketball just got another:

Mommy.

Or in Hortencia Marcari Oliva's native Portuguese, Mamae. Her 5-month-old son, Joao Victor, is here and her husband too. On days off she tends her baby; on game nights she hoops it up for the Brazilian women's team.

She's supposed to be going or gone. She's 36, an age when few males are still stars and none of them have gone through nine months of pregnancy and borne a child. In Brazil's opener, she scored a meager 10 points and people nodded wisely.

"You know what," asked old opponent Cheryl Miller the next day, "just the fact you ask that question alone, 'How good was she?' How good is she, still?"

Pretty darn good, it turns out.

In her second game, Hortencia scored 20 points and had six rebounds and four assists as Brazil mashed favored Russia, 82-68. Straining mightily to keep up with the play at times, she still dominated the game in a way few women ever have.

"I was retired," she said later through an interpreter. "I decided to become pregnant. When I had my son, the Brazilian national team was already in training.

"But everybody began pressuring me, lobbying me in a sense, 'C'mon back!' I'm a person who likes a challenge. I said, 'Why not, let's go for it!'

"I thought I deserved it as much as anybody. I've worn the national team jersey for 20 years. I wanted to be here. I wanted to be in the Olympics. I deserved to be here. I'm going to do the best I can to help my country.

"The Olympic spirit beats in my heart more than I ever imagined it did."

*

Thank heaven for the Brazilians.

They have enlivened many a stodgy competition and are rolling in this one, with center Marta de Sooza Sobral having dyed her hair gold, a la Dennis Rodman ("I just like the hair, don't take it any farther.") and describing the next opponent, Japan ("They run up and down the court on their little legs. They look like little mice.")

Before one sees Hortencia, one imagines another Oscar Schmidt, a no-conscience gunner whose idea of a good game is 40 shots, whether or not any of them go in.

Hortencia, it turns out, is nothing like Oscar. She is not big; at 5-8, she's not even an average-size shooting guard. She isn't cat quick. She doesn't look remarkable at all. But she is actually a natural, a miracle, like Fernando Valenzuela emerging as a teenager out of the Sonoran desert.

Says Miller, "The first time I saw her I said, 'This is the person who's been lighting everyone up?' I'm like, give me a break.

"I was 16 years old and I'd heard so much about Hortencia. And she popped about three of them in my eye before I got the hang, that I had to go out there and really challenge her on every shot."

Lacking any gift except a preternatural feel for the game, Hortencia rose from humble surroundings to make the national team at 15. By the mid-'80s, the Americans knew all about her. By the mid-'90s, they had the broken hearts to prove it.

In 1983, Teresa Edwards, then 19, now the grand old lady of the U.S. team, got her first look at Hortencia, then 23. It wasn't anything she'd forget.

"I didn't stop her," Edwards said. "The entire team had to stop her. We designed a crazy defense for her--like three people playing zone, two people playing her."

In 1991, at 31, Hortencia led Brazil to a Pan Am victory over the U.S. in Havana, en route to a gold medal. In 1994, she scored 32 points in a semifinal victory over the U.S. as Brazil won in the World Championships.

In between, she reigned in Brazil as a star and more.

"She is a personality in Brazil," says Marcel Souza, the former point guard on the men's team, now a coach and commentator. "Not just in sports. She has charisma. She has passed beyond sport."

For sure. She posed nude for the Brazilian edition of Playboy, which put her on the cover and devoted 10 pages to her. She defended the decision, telling the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo she was "religious and hoping to get married some day and have children."

She also told the paper, "If I'm going to take my clothes off, it's got to be for lots of money."

This was in 1987. She has, indeed, married--Joao Victor Oliva, a wealthy restaurant and nightclub owner, is her husband--and has a child. The decision to pose is but part of her legend.

"I don't know what's the big deal about that," sputters Souza. "It was so many years ago. Everybody poses for Playboy in Brazil, if you have a body to show. Don't they do that in the United States?"

Yes but it's controversial, someone says.

"In Brazil, it was controversial too," Souza says.

In Brazil, Hortencia remains a great star, and anywhere else they see her play, but next week, it will all come to an end.

"I'm just here for the Games," she says. "When they're over, that's it. I go back to the old decision, back to the family, back to my son.

"Now, I must balance everything. Today I didn't see my son. That's no problem. I'll be with him all day tomorrow. The most important thing for today was the game against Russia. The most important thing tomorrow is my son."

The most important thing in two weeks will be her son too, so watch while you may.

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