De Souza worthy of center stage

Atlanta center Erika de Souza is averaging a double-double in the playoffs (10.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg). David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- Erika de Souza has come to love Atlanta. She says it actually reminds her a bit of her Brazilian hometown, Rio de Janeiro. Well, minus two important things.

"What's missing are my family and the beach," de Souza said.

Alas, she has had to give up a lot of time with both for much of her teen years and all of her adult life. It's a big world, and the Dream's 6-foot-5 center has seen a lot of it on her basketball odyssey.

The past six seasons, she has played for the Dream, having been chosen in the expansion draft in 2008 after a season in Connecticut. This year, she averaged 12.9 points and 9.9 rebounds in the regular season, having fully established herself as a force.

"De Souza is one of the premier centers in the world," said Indiana coach Lin Dunn, whose Fever fell to the Dream in the Eastern Conference finals. "She's a tremendous basketball player. She's a veteran. She's got playoff experience. She's big, strong, and physical. She can go off and singlehandedly beat you."

It has been a long hoops journey for de Souza, who turned 31 in March, and some of it has been quite difficult. Then again, de Souza has made it this far because she has so much willpower to get through tough times. Her family was mired in poverty in her youth, and basketball -- which she didn't even start playing until her mid-teens -- was the proverbial way out. Both for her, and the people she loved.

She has been able to earn a good living through her international play for the last decade-plus. But it has come at a cost. When her mother died from cancer in 2008, de Souza barely had any time at home with her, because she was playing in Spain.

De Souza has had to carry the hopes of her family, the Brazilian national team, and whatever teams she has played with overseas and in the WNBA. For the Dream, she's not the centerpiece -- that's Angel McCoughtry -- but de Souza has been a very critical part of what's gotten the franchise to the playoffs for the five consecutive seasons.

"I think this year has been one of her best years," Atlanta teammate Armintie Herrington said. "We don't know how long she's going to play in this league. But she has given us her all. Throughout the playoffs, she has texted us all every night saying, 'Let's go, let's stay focused.' It's helped us."

When you see the fire with which de Souza plays, you understand what this sport means to her. For as good a player as she is, though, she's lesser-known by WNBA fans. That's at least in part because she's not as confident with her English as, for instance, her former Dream teammate and fellow Brazilian Iziane Castro Marques.

When Castro Marques was with Atlanta from 2008-11, she helped de Souza communicate with teammates, coaches and media. Now, de Souza understands English a bit better, but prefers to speak with the media via a translator. Her agent, Fabio Jardine, did that for this story, and he is part of de Souza's support system in Atlanta.

"She doesn't demand attention; she just plays her game," Herrington said. "Because she doesn't speak a lot of English, she doesn't get much of the spotlight. But we make sure she knows we appreciate what she does.

"She and I have a great relationship on the court, and I can kind of ask her the best way to say things so she can understand. Angel and Sancho [Lyttle] have good relationships with her, too. Those of us who have been here for a while understand her and know how to communicate."

Lyttle, a 6-4 post player, has missed most of this season, first because of her commitment to the Spanish national team, and then because of injury. So there has been even more weight for de Souza to carry inside for the Dream. Then again, she has been preparing to handle that for quite a while.

De Souza first came to the WNBA at age 20 in 2002, when she was a reserve on Los Angeles' championship team. The big city itself wasn't intimidating, since she'd grown up in Rio and then played in Sao Paulo when she was just 16.

However, the language barrier was very difficult, and she also knew there wouldn't be many minutes available considering the stars on the Sparks' roster then. Still, she made the most of it.

"During the first year, I didn't have any idea of what the WNBA was," de Souza said. "I was lost; I signed a contract and went there, but I couldn't 'get' many things because of the language. I couldn't see myself getting much playing time with Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones there, but it was good to get the practice time with them."

Then de Souza didn't return to the WNBA until the 2007 season, when she was 25 and had a few more years of international play under her belt. She played in 32 games for the Sun, but started just two and never really felt like she had the opportunity to contribute the way she knew she could.

The Dream, who launched in 2008 as an expansion franchise, recognized she would be an impact player immediately for them. It was a tough first season for Atlanta, which went 4-30. But with McCoughtry joining the team as the No. 1 draft pick the next year, the turnaround was quick.

De Souza played in just five of the Dream's eight games in the 2011 playoffs because she had commitments with the Brazilian national team. Last year, she competed in the 2012 Olympics and played about half the regular season in the WNBA. This year, she has played in every Dream game.

She still has one more Olympic appearance in sight: the 2016 Summer Games, which will be in her hometown.

"It's going to be a really great opportunity to show the world that Rio can be a nice city," de Souza said.

She and the Dream know they have a big task in front of them now in these WNBA Finals. Minnesota came into the series as the favorite, and the Lynx won Game 1 in emphatic fashion Sunday, 84-59. Still, de Souza had 10 points and seven rebounds, and made her presence felt.

"She's been a very dominant post in the WNBA, especially in the Eastern Conference," Minnesota's Janel McCarville said. "She got a couple of go-to moves that she really likes. And if you don't keep her off the glass, she's going to hurt you severely."

Watching the Dream throughout this season it was evident that de Souza helped inspire them to get to the WNBA Finals not just with her play, but with her passion on the court. In that way, she speaks a universal language.

"I don't feel like I am a leader of the team," she said. "But on the other hand, because I'm so emotional, and give 100 percent, I feel like I have the respect of everybody.

"During the game, I forget about all my problems outside of basketball, and just think about my goal to win the game. And even if my English isn't perfect, everybody feels the same and is on the same page with wanting to win."