Ticha Penicheiro passes her way into Women's Basketball Hall of Fame

Ticha Penicheiro made no-look passes commonplace. This weekend, the former Old Dominion and WNBA point guard will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Nobody played basketball quite like Ticha Penicheiro.

It wasn't just the no-look passes that separated the Portuguese point guard from the pack. The four-time WNBA All-Star was part artist, part magician, all panache. Her signature was her ability to deliver a creative pass -- behind-the-back, around her neck, between her legs -- with precision.

When she retired from the WNBA in 2012, no one had amassed more assists than her 2,599.

This weekend Penicheiro will join the 21st class of inductees to be honored at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it's a cool coincidence for a player who wore 21 her entire career.

"I'm overwhelmed honestly," said Penicheiro, 44, who will be inducted along with Ruth Riley, Valerie Still, Nora Lynn Finch, Joan Cronan, Carolyn Bush Roddy and Beth Bass. "It's amazing how much joy basketball has given me, whether it's people I have met, places I have been, money that I've earned. To get this accolade, that people feel what I did is worthy of the Hall, is humbling."

Pony-tailed Patricia Nunes Penicheiro didn't visualize herself in anyone's Hall of Fame growing up in Figueira da Foz, a resort known for olive trees and its casinos as much as the white sand on its beaches. Even before Ronaldo was born, soccer was the favored sport in Portugal. Yet Penicheiro's father, Joao, and brother Paulo "breathed basketball," and so did she.

"I used to play [basketball] with a tennis ball and the curtain rod, and my brother and I, we broke all kinds of things in the house," Penicheiro said. They even dunked -- over the rod -- and entertained themselves with various versions of one-on-one.

"At 6, when I finally got my own basketball," Penicheiro said, "it was over."

She was outside more than in. Figueira da Foz didn't have many courts, but a park across the street from the Penicheiro home became her playground. Never mind the uneven cement and rimless hoops. That's where Paulo and his friends played, and he didn't mind including his little sister, four years younger.

"They were stronger, bigger and more physical than me, and when they came in to block your shot, you had to find a way not to let that happen," Penicheiro said. So she passed -- the more sauce on it, the better.

She also grew. Penicheiro, now 5-foot-11, was taller than most girls her age as a teenager. She played against a tall, lanky forward named Allison Greene, a Dartmouth graduate, who played against her in a game and walked away wowed.

"Who is that?" Greene wondered to herself, impressed by the 16-year-old with the dizzying spin moves and sticky hands.

After the game, Greene encouraged Penicheiro to consider coming to the United States to play basketball in college.

Penicheiro said she'd love to but was clueless about the process. "I gave her the number to my parents' landline, no smart phones, no internet then," Penicheiro said.

They didn't write or talk again until Greene was hired as Wendy Larry's recruiting coordinator at Old Dominion in 1994. ODU was the first school to show interest, and the combination of basketball and a nearby beach sounded perfect to a kid with a dream.

"The hardest part was leaving my family," said Penicheiro, who would become a two-time All-American at the school, a Wade Trophy winner and instrumental in the program's run to the 1997 NCAA championship game. "I wanted to follow my dreams and my passion to play in America. It was the best decision of my life. It changed everything for me."

Penicheiro graduated as ODU's all-time leader in steals and ranked second in assists to Nancy Lieberman. Little girls wanted her to sign their own replica No. 21 jersey, and everybody felt comfortable calling her "TEE-sha."

"She was unique," said Mery Andrade, who played alongside Penicheiro on the national team and at Old Dominion before her own career in the WNBA. "Yes, she gets your attention by her no-look passes that are beautiful to watch, and I'm even going to take the risk to say that NBA players don't have the ability to deliver the ball like Ticha.

"But her style of play goes beyond that. She knows where everybody is supposed to be, and she anticipates what's coming next. She has a plan A, B, C, D and E."

Penicheiro was courted by both the ABL and WNBA and was such a media sensation in Norfolk, Virginia, that she held a news conference to announce her decision.

"The ABL threw more money at me, but the whole time I was thinking WNBA," she said. "When the league started, that's where I saw myself playing."

"I wanted to follow my dreams and my passion to play in America. It was the best decision of my life. It changed everything for me."

Penicheiro went from being a Lady Monarch at ODU to a Monarch in Sacramento, which drafted her second overall. She starred there until the franchise folded in 2009, glory years that included a championship in 2005. She describes that memory as the pinnacle of her 15-year career in the league.

"We tried to win the championship for a long time, but the Houston Comets and L.A. Sparks kept getting in our way," she said. "Of all the championships I've won, that one was the most special, especially winning before a sellout crowd in front of our fans."

John Whisenant coached that Sacramento team and as impressed as he was with Penicheiro's flashy style and defensive smarts -- she's second all time in WNBA career steals behind Tamika Catchings (and Sue Bird eclipsed Penicheiro's career assists mark in 2017) -- he touts her humility.

"There's not many people, period, women or men, that are as selfless as her, that get as much satisfaction from seeing a teammate score or a play work," he said. "We had a whole team like that, but it started with Ticha."

Penicheiro later played with the Sparks and concluded her career with the Chicago Sky in 2012. Four years later, she was named to the WNBA Top 20@20, a list of the top 20 players of all time in celebration of the league's 20th anniversary.

"The individual accolades and championships and all that stuff is amazing, but the best part about basketball is all the friendships that I've made all over the world and the places I've been because of this game," said Penicheiro, today a sports agent whose client list includes Courtney Vandersloot, Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride, Allie Quigley and reigning national player of the year Megan Gustafson. "If I were to look at my contacts, I'm sure most, if not all, of them are people I've met because of basketball. I wouldn't trade that for the world."

Many of those friends will be in Knoxville for the festivities and Saturday's induction. Greene and Larry will escort Penicheiro to the stage. Former WNBA stars Swin Cash and Laura Harper will be part of the cheering section, as will best buddy Felecia Allen, the former equipment manager from Old Dominion whom Penicheiro befriended and saw through cancer.

They'll watch one of the game's all-time best point guards savor the game's highest honor.