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Archive for Wednesday, July 11, 2001

WNBA has become melting pot

Record 53 international players often makes it difficult to communicate on floor

July 11, 2001

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"What's up, girl?"

It's one of the most common phrases in America. The friendliest and quickest way to greet someone.

And yet, three years ago, those simple words shot tremors through Detroit Shock point guard Claudia Maria das Neves.

"I didn't know what it meant," das Neves said. "So I didn't answer. I just said 'Hi,' and walked away."

Das Neves shakes her head, and an embarrassed giggle escapes.

"I had to go home and look in my books," she said.

Hear a strange combination of words.

Break out the tattered dictionary.

It's the routine das Neves has perfected since joining the WNBA and she isn't alone.

The Brazilian is one of a record 53 international players in the league, some of whom speak little or no English. This year, teams drafted more foreign players (15) than ever.

And as the WNBA becomes more global, some franchises are finding themselves with a communication barrier none more so than the Shock.

The Shock has a league-high eight international players on its roster, five from non-English speaking countries. In one practice, you can hear Spanish, French, English, Russian and Portuguese.

When das Neves arrived in Detroit in 1999, she spoke Spanish and Portuguese. But other than "I love you," and a few choice phrases, she didn't know any English.

"It was very difficult, because everyone here speaks English, and I don't speak it very well," das Neves said. "(My teammates) were always joking with each other, and I couldn't understand. I just look, look, and I was sad because I wanted to understand."

And das Neves needed to understand.

Most foreign players rely on what coaches call "basketball English" to cross the language barrier, universal words like "offense" and "defense" that transcend the globe.

"When I say 'rebound,' when I say 'cut to the basket,' you know what I mean," said Phoenix Mercury coach Cynthia Cooper, a two-time WNBA MVP.

"It's more when you're trying to explain the particulars and specifics that something gets lost in the translation."

But it's those particulars das Neves needed to understand, and relate. As the Shock's primary point guard, she directed the offense, which was exponentially harder with her limited English.

To help alleviate that, coaches substituted hand signals for verbal commands. But practices began resembling mime contests. Grand prize went to whoever gesticulated the most.

The solution? Learn English, and learn it quickly, which is exactly what das Neves did.

You can see Williams going over a play in English.

You can see das Neves translating to rookie Kelly Santos in Portuguese.

You can see Elena Tornikidou join the conversation in Russian and add a little Spanish before turning to Oksana Zakaluzhnaya and speaking Russian.

And finally, you can see center Astou Ndiaye-Diatta speak to everyone. Ndiaye-Diatta, from Senegal, is fluent in five languages.

As for the rest of the league?

Brown said she thinks most foreigners either know English or learn the language when they come to America.

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