SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — SHE was born on the first day of spring in a Brazilian city called Potirendaba, ``bouquet'' in the local Indian language. Her parents named her Hortencia, the Portuguese word for the hydrangea flower. And yet the long-legged athlete went off at age 13 to do something that most Brazilians don't associate with flowering feminity: play basketball.
``People told me, `you'll get too many muscles, the woman players are all gay, it's a men's sport,''' the Brazilian star player, age 30, recalls today. ``I'm proud of my muscles, I put them there,'' she counters. ``When I go out at night, I get dressed up and look feminine. You have to compete not with men but with yourself, and do the things you like.''
Hortencia and her sport became popular in Brazil when the national women's basketball team began to win international championships. In 1987, the team placed second at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis.
``The team has a tradition of victories against quite good adversaries,'' says Alfredo Ogawa, newsroom chief at Placar, a top Brazilian sports magazine. Mr. Ogawa calls Hortencia ``one of the the four best women's basketball players in the world.''
Formally, she and her teammates (some of them imported from the United States) are amateurs. The teams are sponsored by local companies. But a few players, like Hortencia, are paid such substantial salaries that they may as well be professionals, according to Ogawa.
Hortencia Fatima Macari Oliva, captain and star of Brazil's national women's basketball team, plays in the world women's basketball championship games this month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Fans in the United States may catch a glimpse of her later this summer: She plans to be in Seattle to shoot a few baskets at the Goodwill Games, July 31 through Aug. 5.
``Others don't even come close'' to Hortencia in ability, says Antonio Chakmati, director of the Sao Paulo women's basketball federation. ``She makes 35 to 40 points a game. She's a fighter who only likes to win. She doesn't like to lose, not even a training game ... and she doesn't try to ride on her fame. She goes onto the court like a beginner, every time.''
Like Brazil's better-known soccer stars, Hortencia came up from nothing. Her father was a mason, barely literate. She didn't have the money to buy tennis shoes, but she did have the drive to succeed:
``I was always very active; I would jump on the sofa, do somersaults. I bounced balls the most, did the best of all the girls. When I started middle school, I learned to play handball overnight, and began to play very well. I won medals in running and jumping,'' she explains.
She began to play basketball with a Japanese-Brazilian coach, and did very well. As a young teen, she decided to focus on basketball. ``I didn't like track and field because it's very solitary. In basketball, we played with friends and traveled together. If we won, we all won. If we lost, we all lost.''
Today, Hortencia takes her baskets very seriously. She trains on her own about five hours a day, and with the team, four and a half. ``I shoot about 500 baskets a day,'' she says proudly. ``It gives me good aim.''
Hortencia, the only one of six children to finish college, now supports her entire family. She plans to play for two more years, and then stop to have her own children and maybe coach a little.
Children are some of her most ardent fans. Halftime at a typical game in a Sao Paulo suburb consists of giving out hugs, kisses, and autographs.
In Brazil, Hortencia is something of a Cinderella legend. Last year, she married Uitor Oliva, Sao Paulo's top restaurateur and nightclub owner. Attended by thousands, the fairy-tale church ceremony tied up traffic for an entire afternoon. Pele, Brazil's world-famous soccer star and a close friend, stood up for the couple. Afterward, poor passersby made away with the real fruit used to decorate the church.
Hortencia says she has proved that ``a woman basketball player can be very feminine, beautiful, [if she] knows how to put herself across, to carry herself well.''
``A woman can do what she wants as long as she has bearing.''