- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The Atlanta Dream, in just their third season of existence, are one victory from the WNBA finals. Can you believe it? Iziane Castro Marques can even if two years ago at this time, she had to keep reminding herself that basketball is supposed to be a lot of fun. Because in 2008, it really wasn't.
The star of the Brazilian national team and a starter in the 2004 Olympics, Castro Marques did not play in the 2008 Summer Games. In June 2008, in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Spain, she had a dispute with Brazil head coach Paulo Bassul during a game. She was booted from the squad and didn't go to Beijing.
Her longtime friend/teammate, Erika de Souza, didn't play in the '08 Games, either, because she had a fractured leg. Without the two of them, the only thing that kept 1-4 Brazil from finishing dead last at the Olympics was 0-5 Mali.
Nothing else that summer was going too well for Castro Marques. She had been traded by Seattle to the expansion Atlanta Dream, who were having a rough inaugural season.
OK, "rough" might be a euphemism. The Dream would finish 4-30 that year. That's like having to stay in the boxing ring after being hit so many times that both your eyes are swollen shut.
De Souza had been taken by the Dream in the expansion draft, coming from Connecticut, and played just 12 games in Atlanta that summer because of her injury. So while their former WNBA teams took part in the playoffs at the end of September 2008, Castro Marques and de Souza were left wondering what the next year might be like for them and the Dream. It had to get better, right?
It did. Draft day 2009 brought two players who became starters, Angel McCoughtry and Shalee Lehning. Chamique Holdsclaw joined the team. An 18-16 record and a playoff appearance set the stage for 2010.
And even though Holdsclaw left, the Dream didn't backslide from the success of 2009. Instead, Atlanta built from it, starting the season 6-0.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Castro Marques said. "And then when we had that run at the beginning, I thought, 'Well, we could be pretty good. I think we could make it to the finals this year.'"
There have been some ups and downs since then, but indeed, the Dream -- the No. 4 seed in the East -- might make it to the finals to face Seattle. That's the place where the 6-foot wing player Castro Marques first really emerged in the WNBA.
She began her WNBA career in 2002 at Miami, when she was just 21. The next season, she played for Phoenix but saw action in just 16 games. She was waived by the Mercury in 2004 and didn't play in the WNBA that season, focusing instead on the Brazilian national team and the Athens Olympics.
It ended up being a blossoming time for Castro Marques. The next year, she joined the Storm and has been a fairly regular starter in the WNBA ever since.
There were times in Seattle when it was obvious she was still growing as a player. But to see her now -- having averaged 16.9 points and 2.6 assists for the Dream in her best WNBA season yet -- you can tell how amazingly far she has come from randomly taking up the game as a 12-year-old because a teacher suggested it.
"I got in basketball by accident," Castro Marques said. "I have no athletes in my family, so I was never really pushed toward sports. I did ballet and swimming. With swimming, it was mostly because I lived on the beach, and it's safer to know how to swim. And ballet was because of my mom. She liked it.
"Nobody in my family had ever played basketball. But the first time I did it, I was like, 'Oh, I love this!' It was like, 'OK, I can do this! I'm going to keep doing this!'"
Castro Marques speaks with such infectious enthusiasm that you can't help but start smiling just listening to her. You can easily imagine little Izi running around the court with a big grin, having discovered her new passion in life.
"Off the court, she is great, very easygoing," Dream teammate Alison Bales said. "But on the court, she has a fiery temper. She's really got that competitor's spirit. You really want her on your team."
Castro Marques was a quick and able learner. By age 15, she was a professional basketball player.
"My mom was not happy when I left home," said Castro Marques, who has one older sister. "She did not want to sign my contract to let me go play. My dad was the one who signed it. He said, 'This is what she's going to do, we have to let her go.'"
It was also fortuitous that the same year Castro Marques took up basketball, in 1994, the Brazilian women won the World Championship, upsetting the United States in the semifinals. Brazil stars Hortensia, Magic Paula and future Houston Comets standout Janeth Arcain were on that team.
"They were all a great influence for me. I watched them win the championship in 1994," Castro Marques said. "Hortensia is my idol, she's a goddess. Now she's on the national team [as director], and I'm going back to it because of her. I can talk to her about things, and it's a big comfort."
It's a comfort for the Brazilian team, too. Its 2008 Olympic finish was a huge disappointment, considering the Brazilians had been fourth in both the 2004 Olympics and the '06 World Championship, which Brazil hosted.
But the issues of 2008 are in the past, with Hortensia in place as the director of Brazil's national-team programs and a new head coach for the senior team, Carlos Colinas of Spain.
Castro Marques will be with the squad (as will de Souza) for the upcoming World Championship in the Czech Republic, and her mother will go to that event, then stay with her awhile longer as she competes in the winter months in Turkey.
Castro Marques is even looking ahead to future Olympics -- not just London in 2012 but the 2016 Games, too. They will be in her homeland, as Rio de Janeiro will be the first South American city to host the Olympics.
"In 2016, I'll be 34," Castro Marques said, laughing. "I say, 'I hope I'll be up to it!'"
She turned 28 in March and is at the peak of her basketball career. Which is perfect timing for the Dream.
"There's been a lot of adjustments for me over the years, but the main thing is I'm doing what I want to do in life and I'm happy," Castro Marques said. "Whether I'm here in the United States or in Europe, I just take that as a part of my life and try to learn from everything. New cultures, new countries -- just to get the good stuff from everywhere I go. And to grow as a person."
Communication is a big part of that, and in that regard Castro Marques is a particular help to the quieter de Souza, who is a little less confident in her English, . They are as close as sisters, and almost always speak their native Portuguese to one another. But Castro Marques, a languages whiz, is also fluent in English, Spanish, Italian and French.
So what language does she dream in? Again, Castro Marques laughs.
"You know, it depends on which country I'm in," she said. "Because the language that you talk more of, that's the one you dream in. Right now, I'm dreaming in English."
And in any language, you can guess what the dreams are about: winning a WNBA championship.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.