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Ticha Penicheiro Featured In ESPN Article

Courtesy: ODU Athletics
         
Release: August 25, 2010
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Aug. 25, 2010

ESPN Feature by Mechelle Voepel:

Funny to think that all those years ago, when Ticha Penicheiro was first emerging at Old Dominion, the main word we'd use for her was "flashy." Behind-the-back Ticha. No-look Ticha. Showtime Ticha.

Actually, very early on, in newspaper stories in Virginia, she was sometimes still referred to by her given name, "Patricia," before her nickname was firmly established.

As for her last name ... well, I've told this story before, but this is how I learned to spell it correctly. My best friend from college worked with me at a newspaper in Newport News, Va., across the water from Norfolk. And one day, he pointed out that you just needed to think about the song "Old MacDonald" to correctly remember the order of the vowels in "Penicheiro."

EE-I-EE-I-OH!

And so it is, some 16 years later, that I still sing "Old MacDonald" when I spell Penicheiro, even when I really should no longer need to. It's just automatic.

Now, this story is not meant to sound like some kind of "farewell to Ticha" or anything like that. Yes, she will be 36 in September, and she's not sure what will happen next season. She's on a one-year deal with Los Angeles, and it might not be until February or later when she's totally sure what summer 2011 will bring.

But considering that this season, she's still the WNBA's assists leader (6.9 a game), still one of the best defenders at her position the league has ever had and still loves her job ... we'll very likely see her again next year.

However, she is at the point in her hoops career where, obviously, there are more seasons behind her than ahead. Where it's more of a struggle for the body and brain to do all the little and big things required of a pro athlete.

"I've played 13 seasons, pretty much all year around. It's not an easy thing to do," Penicheiro said. "I do it more for the love of the game than anything. Mentally and physically, it's tough. There are days you have to fight your mind, because you don't feel like getting up. Your body hurts, and you don't want this to become a burden. You want to enjoy what you do and play with a smile on your face.

"I know it's something I can't do forever, so I make the most of it while I can. I think it's a day-to-day, year-to-year thing. As long as I have the passion, I can deal with anything. Once that dies down, it will be different."

So it's important to take time to appreciate the 5-foot-11 point guard, as Penicheiro's L.A. Sparks -- yeah, that sounds weird, doesn't it? -- face Western Conference favorite Seattle in the WNBA playoffs' first round.

Her opponents certainly do. Basketball players observe a lot of things about their foes, but no position notices more about them than point guards do. That's because no position notices more about anything than point guards do. It's kind of in their DNA.

Penicheiro's starting counterpart for Seattle is Sue Bird, whose powers of observation and memory are razor-sharp. She probably could tell you at any moment, with the door closed, exactly what's in her refrigerator, how much there is, and what shelf it's on.

So you can be sure that Bird has always noticed what Penicheiro does.

"Of course, people are always going to talk about her not really looking to score," Bird said. "And yet the player who you know probably isn't going to shoot can still do the things that she's doing: setting up her teammates, getting people in the right spot.

"We've played her five times this year, and I can tell she is coaching her team on the floor. And the value in that is tremendous. People know what she's going to do, and you still can't stop her."

Notice that Bird didn't mention the creative flair Penicheiro has as a passer. Not because Bird is unaware of it, or because it's no longer evident. It's just that long ago it stopped being the hallmark of Penicheiro's game.

She can still be flashy ... but that's definitely not what has kept her a starter in the WNBA since her rookie season of 1998. Penicheiro does the things that draw raves from people who mark on clipboards and studiously break down game film. She keeps a team in offense, saves busted plays, gets critical rebounds, plays consistently smart defense. And, of course, she runs the show the way all great point guards do.

I've told this story a few times, too, but have to mention it again. ODU was at the 1997 Final Four, and the transcript of one of Penicheiro's news conference answers reads like this: "As point guards, we drive the sheep."

Of course, what she actually said was "drive the ship." But the transcriptionist didn't understand Penicheiro's Portuguese accent quite right, making a pretty standard observation mistakenly sound like a hilarious one.

Then again, point guards everywhere probably would grin and say, "Nah, she was right either way: We drive the ship and the sheep."

In all seriousness, Penicheiro always has respected her post players, and she gets that back. Tina Thompson said one of the factors influencing her return to the WNBA this season was the opportunity to play with a point guard as skilled as Penicheiro.

Admittedly, as Bird said, Penicheiro has never been known as a good shooter, especially as she gets further from the basket. She has a 23.7 career shooting percentage from behind the arc. She's currently averaging 4.9 points per game.

But her biggest asset never has been putting the ball in the basket. It has been putting it in the hands of the player who's going to put it in the basket. And you'd be hard-pressed to find any point guard more adept than Penicheiro at getting the pass exactly where the recipient needs it.

That is in large degree a natural skill, but also something she has learned how to improve and can teach to younger teammates. L.A. guards such as Kristi Toliver and Andrea Riley have one of the best to learn from.

"They shot a lot because they had to," Penicheiro said when asked about mentoring two players not exactly known for passing up shots while in college. "On this team, you have other scorers, so it's not good to always call your own number. You see what the defense is giving you.

"Kristi now is playing a lot of the '2' [shooting guard], and it's a role that fits her well. Andrea, she's taking everything in; she's a great competitor. She wants to be the best she can be. I just try to tell her to stay positive, continue to learn and work hard, because her time will come."

The thing is, many players' "time" has come and gone in the 13 years Penicheiro has been in the league. The first 12 of which were in Sacramento, the 2005 WNBA championship franchise that stunned its players and fans by shutting down operations after last season.

Penicheiro has adjusted to wearing the jersey of the former sworn-enemy Sparks. And she appreciates the chance, when she has some rare time off, to take advantage of the nearby ocean.

"I like to go to the beach, something I couldn't do in Sacramento," she said. "I'm a beach girl; I grew up on the beach in Portugal. There are lot of places to go in L.A., way more restaurants, but ..."

She sighs, because those things -- while benefits of Los Angeles -- can't replace what was lost from the California capital city that was her summer home for so long.

"I sure do miss Sacramento, the camaraderie with everybody," she said. "And I think our fans in Sacramento were heartbroken, and that breaks my heart."

Such is the bond that a player like Penicheiro had with Monarchs faithful that some of them now find themselves doing what was previously unthinkable: rooting for Los Angeles.

The Sparks have needed all the good vibes they can get, having lost Candace Parker and Betty Lennox during the season to injuries. Penicheiro, Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones have been the aging yet durable pillars the Sparks have relied upon in coach Jennifer Gillom's first year with the franchise.

"The excuses were there if we wanted to use them," said Penicheiro, who also dealt with chronic Achilles tendinitis and a sprained ankle at the start of the season. "But we're a veteran team, and we know excuses are for losers. Even without Candace and Betty, we still have a talented team and we have to make the most out of it."

Great attitude, but it has still been a long haul this summer as L.A. scraped and clawed to get into the postseason. The Sparks didn't get back-to-back victories until July 24-27 against Connecticut and Minnesota.

"After the Minnesota game, I was telling Tina, 'I've never been so excited in my life to win two games in a row,'" Penicheiro said, laughing. "We appreciate how hard we have to work every game.

"As a player here, I think my role is pretty much the same as it's always been: Get other people involved, call the right plays for the right players. But as far as being 'the' leader, there were other people here in L.A. before me, like DeLisha and Tina. So I stay a little more in the background. I say what I think needs to be said."

Yes, way back when, we once thought the "flash" defined Penicheiro. Turned out that wasn't it at all.

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