Game of basketball not foreign to Lynx post Dantas
MINNEAPOLIS — As she receives hand-signal instruction from Lynx assistant Shelley Patterson, there’s a distance in Damiris Dantas’ eyes.
The rookie power forward knows what she thinks she should be doing. But whether that’s what Patterson’s asking remains walled off by a vast language gap.
Patterson, in turn, isn’t sure what little instruction she just doled out registered. But as soon as Dantas begins setting mock screens on the block and popping out for elbow jump shots, the coach can relax and institute the drill. Patterson feeds her chest passes, and Dantas does exactly what she’s supposed to do — feign a solid pick and then knock down shots.
Swish. "Asiste!" Patterson exclaims in unconfident, inaccurate Portuguese, Dantas’ primary language as a result of her Brazilian upbringing. The actual word for assist is "assistencia," but it doesn’t matter.
Upon hearing something that resembles her native tongue, Dantas’ eyes light up. The fog lifts. A smile tugs at the corners of her youthful, 21-year-old face.
Despite knowing little more than a lick of English, Dantas has settled masterfully into her role as Minnesota’s starting post opposite WNBA veteran Janel McCarville. Her block exploits — seven points per game on 55.6 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds per game and a 29.6-minute average — are eye-popping enough.
But to do it all while adjusting to a foreign country where the language is just as alien?
"I don’t know what she doesn’t understand, but it seems like everything that we do, she gets," head coach Cheryl Reeve said. "So I really don’t know how lost she is. I really don’t, because she’s just hidden it that well."
A locker room full of teammates willing to help her along helps. So do scouting reports in Portuguese and Google Translate, the same online application used to conduct an interview with Dantas for this story.
But for all the complications that come with battling a language and cultural blockade, her seemingly inexplicable understanding is simple, Dantas told FOXSportsNorth.com.
Hoops is a universal language.
"Basketball is basketball," Dantas typed in Portuguese onto a reporter’s laptop, "anywhere in the world."
Tudo comecou em Sao Paulo (it started in Sao Paulo)
Dantas was born Nov. 17, 1992 into a single-mother household in the Ferraz de Vasconcelos district of Sao Paulo, Brazil. When she was 9, her mother passed away, leaving her and her two sisters — one with cerebral palsy — to be raised by an aunt and uncle.
"This was very difficult to accept," Dantas said. "I miss (my mother), but she is still super important at this time of my life.
"I have a wonderful family that supports me in everything I do."
That family introduced to her athletic competition of all sorts, but basketball became her favorite activity and escape from the pain of losing her mother. At the age of 13, she began training professionally at a center in her hometown of Sao Paulo.
There, she met a long, tall woman named Janeth Arcain.
Tia Janeth (Aunt Janeth)
If Arcain’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she was a staple of the Houston Comets dynasty that won four championships from 1997-2000. If it doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because she was an original WNBA player and has long since moved on to developing talent in her home country of Brazil.
But in teaming up with Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes during the league’s infancy, Arcain had her own barriers to overcome. Unlike Dantas, she didn’t have a personal translator or a smart phone with translation apps to help her along.
"I felt the same situation as Damiris is feeling right now," Arcain told FOXSportsNorth.com in an email, "but I came alone and had to learn the language in a way or another, but I always believed that basketball is basketball and the language I would learn with time."
Rather than leave Dantas to her lonesome in the Twin Cities, Arcain spent training camp and the first two weeks of the season acting as Dantas’ translator and personal confidant. Long before that, she molded her into a swift, athletic four that played in the Spanish League in 2011-12 and spent two years in the Brazilian League.
With little scouting knowledge other than hearsay from international contacts, the Lynx drafted her 12th overall in the 2012 draft and allowed her to spend two seasons playing internationally before signing her this past offseason.
In addition to cultivating Dantas’ skills and technique, Arcain’s imparted wisdom about playing and living in a new place proved invaluable. By the time Dantas showed up for training camp in April, she already knew about adjusting thanks to playing for RC Celta Vigo in the Spanish League at the age of 19.
She even picked up a little Spanish, a language somewhat similar to Portuguese.
Dantas also has garnered a wealth of international experience along the way, playing in the 2012 Olympics, 2011 FIBA Americas Championship, 2011 FIBA under-19 Championship (she earned MVP honors) and the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Brazil, among others.
"Janeth helps me a lot since I started playing basketball with advice, conversation and everything I need in life," said Dantas, who played for Brazilian pro clubs American and Maranhao. "She is ‘Aunt Jane.’"
But now, Aunt Jane is back in Brazil tending to her training duties.
"She has to feel confident, and she is," Arcain said from Sao Paulo. "It decreases the distance, and the Lynx (have) great teammates to help her when necessary. I hope to return in September to watch the final in the league."
As in the WNBA championship series.
A linguagem do basquete (the language of basketball)
Reaching players on a personal level and maximizing their production has been a hallmark of Reeve’s time as Minnesota’s head coach, a span that includes two WNBA titles in the past three years and a trio of consecutive finals appearances.
But all those players, except for Dantas, have spoken English. And furthermore, Reeve usually had more than word of mouth to rely upon when it came to their abilities.
"My goodness, playing her 30-plus minutes in a starting role — a day before training camp, I don’t know that I would’ve guessed that," Reeve said.
"Even a week into training camp, I don’t know if I would’ve guessed that."
But Dantas has been able to fill in admirably for injured forwards Rebekkah Brunson and Devereaux Peters, both of whom suffered knee injuries before the season began. For one, Dantas’ hoops IQ affords her a general idea of where she’s supposed to be.
But playing the post in Minnesota’s system is full of nuances — several different types of picks, facilitating and quick-thinking help defense. So is Reeve’s playbook, which features terminology that varies little from set to set.
Yet somehow, Dantas has been able to grasp most of it.
"When she looks at me kind of confused — she might not understand the call or have something a little twisted in her mind — if she just looks at me, thumbs up (means) OK," center Janel McCarville said. "If not, I can see it on her face that it’s not right. I’ll just point her in the right direction, and usually when that happens, she gets it. She just automatically picks up ‘oh yeah, that’s where we’re supposed to go.’"
It’s a phenomenon with which McCarville and the rest of Dantas’ new comrades are familiar. Almost all of them spend the WNBA offseason playing overseas in countries where English isn’t the first language spoken.
Their willingness to try and learn some Portuguese words and carry on translated conversations puts her at ease, Dantas said. All of Minnesota’s scouting reports are translated into Portuguese for her, and Reeve and assistant coach Jim Petersen will compare each copy side-by-side and identify Portuguese terms that may allow them to communicate with Dantas while she’s on the floor.
"She teaches us," beamed Petersen, who works primarily with Minnesota’s bigs.
Peters made her season debut Friday, and Brunson is expected back at some point this season. That might mean decreased minutes and a bench role for the 6-foot-4, 193-pound youngster.
But there’s little reason to believe Dantas will fade too far into the background. Not with the statement she’s made so far.
Without speaking a single word in English.
"It’s hard to even quantify how much respect I have for her and her abilities to not speak the language, to come in and then do exactly what you want her to do," Petersen said. "There are players that speak perfect English that don’t do exactly what you want them to do and forget. She might forget a thing or two, a small detail of a play set, but she gets the big things right time and time again."
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