Brazil’s captain, Iziane Castro Marques, set to retire after team’s final contest in Rio Games

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RIO DE JANEIRO – In the summer of 2012, the Olympic journey of fiery Brazilian shooting guard Iziane (“Izi”) Castro Marques was over even before it began. Castro, who has played for several teams in the WNBA, signed as a free agent out of Florida International University by the now-defunct Miami Sol in 2002. She saw action for the Phoenix Mercury, the Atlanta Dream, the Seattle Storm, and most recently, in 2013, the Connecticut Sun. Since then, Castro has restricted her play to Europe and Brazil.

But if Castro’s time in the “W” was peripatetic, her relationship with her national team can only be described as a very stormy emotional roller coaster ride. One of the team’s best players, Castro chafed under the leadership of several of her coaches. She was left off the 2008 Beijing Olympic squad for refusing to re-enter a game after a verbal dispute with head coach Paolo Bassul at the 2008 Olympic Qualifying tournament; Castro said afterward that she would never again play for Bassul.

Castro returned to the Olympic team for London 2012 under new coach Luis Chichetto, but was again given the boot just eight days before the Opening Ceremony for “violating a team rule.” The Brazilian team would not say just what that violation was, but Castro later told the Brazilian press that she was cut for “having taken her boyfriend to her hotel room.” Castro reportedly apologized and pleaded to be restored to the team, but Brazil Basketball wasn’t having it. That left Brazil without one of its best, as well as a player short: Since Castro hadn’t been injured, the team was unable to name a replacement.

But Castro is back — and in a big way — here in Rio, now named as captain of her national team. Her return to the national team had a lot to do with another curtain call — the return of head coach Antonio Carlos Barbosa. A brilliant tactician and scout, and for years a mainstay of the national team program, Barbosa guided Brazil in its hey-day from 1976 to 1984, returning to the helm from 1996 to 2007. And it was Barbosa who led Brazil to its most recent Olympic medal in the sport, a bronze at Sydney 2000.

Now 70, Barbosa retired (together with the team’s star Janeth Arcain) in 2007, after leading his team to silver at the Pan-American Games. Both were honored with silver plaques for their services to the national team, but Barbosa was said to have gotten a nudge out the door thanks to political differences within the federation as well as between the Brazilian Basketball Federation (CBF), which governs the national team program, and the Women’s Basketball League (LBF), which controls Brazil’s professional league. (This strife remains ongoing, leading most recently to an LBF boycott of the national team’s test event.)

But last year, after the most recent in the series of national team head coaches, Luiz Agosto Zanon fell ill, Brazil turned again to Barbosa in hopes of returning the team to its former glory at the first Olympics ever to be held in South America.

Castro credits the comeback of Barbosa as playing a big role in her own decision to return to her national team. “He’s a good coach,” she told in the mixed zone after Brazil’s opening game, a 66-84 loss to Australia, the behemoth of Group A. “He believes in me. I can play for him.”

And play she has. Though it was her first day back in action after a 20-day lay-off for a calf injury, Castro led all players with 25 points, plus five boards, in that opening day loss. And, though they would obviously have preferred to have secured a win in their first appearance before an enthusiastic home crowd here in Rio, she proved a good leader. Brazil gave Australia as good as they got for three quarters, before the proverbial wheels came off the bus in the final period.

Wearing hot pink lipstick that could be spotted from the highest reaches of the stands here at Deodoro Youth Arena, she maintained control of her emotions in spite of that loss, leading her teammates in saluting the fans in the arena and remaining upbeat in her comments after the game.

She spoke of the pride she and her teammates took in hosting the Games here in Brazil, and of the inspiration she drew from seeing one of Brazil’s athletic legends, Hall-of-Fame woman’s basketball star Hortência Maria de Fátima Marcari, known here in Brazil by her first name alone or by her moniker “the Queen,” selected as the penultimate torch bearer at the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Games.

“I thought she would be the very last one, ” said Castro of Hortência, whom she described as her “menton” and “role model.” “The very last one to actually light the Olympic Flame.”

In yet one more sacrifice on behalf of the nation’s basketball hopes, Castro watched the Opening Ceremonies of the first Olympics ever to be held in South America on TV from the Athletes’ Village, together with her teammates, who have committed themselves exclusively to training for the past three months. Much as they would have preferred to have taken part in the historic event at the Maracanã Stadium, the Brazilians decided, as a team, said Castro, to forego the Ceremony, which involves hours of standing for the athletes, so their legs would be fresh and their minds focused for their opening game.
Barbosa would not say whether his team would return to their place on the medal stand in these Games — “Australia is a strong team. There are many strong teams here,” he said, but the importance of a strong performance in front of the home crowds here is lost on no one.

Unfortunately, though, things have not worked out well for the home team, despite Castro’s leadership, as the preliminary rounds have progressed. They lost, and lost badly (66-82), to Japan, a perennial underdog who has surprised most observers of this tournament. Castro struggled to score in that game, notching only six points on 1-for-13 shooting (8%) from the field and coming up empty on her five attempts to from beyond the arc.

Castro and her teammates still had bright faces despite the loss to Japan, but most were despondent, some of them crying, when entering the mixed zone after a heart-breaking two-point loss to Belarus (63-65). Brazil, who led by as many as 18 points (38-20) in the second quarter, but let the win slip from their grasp, in the game’s final minute.

Castro, who had once again struggled to score (6 points) and with turnovers (6 of them) in that outing, at least shot the ball more judiciously, taking only nine attempts on goal and netting just two of them. The window was closing on Brazil’s medal hopes by that point, with the next two games must-wins for Brazil.

Still, Castro kept a brave face on things, acknowledging her job as team captain was to help her teammates put the close loss behind them. “We still want to do well for [our country],” said Castro. “We have been preparing for months to do this.”

Up next against France, the reigning silver medalists, Brazil traded blow-for-blow in the opening quarter, then dug themselves a hole in the second. Though they kept things close the rest of the way, they could never regain the upper hand, falling 64-74.

Thursday’s loss, in which Castro once again found herself mired at just six points, once again netting just one of 13 shots from the field, dropped the Brazilians to the bottom of their group, and put the kibosh on any hopes to move on to the quarterfinals. This time the mixed zone saw Castro announce her retirement from basketball.

Traditionally, Brazil plays from its heart, one of the things that makes them so dangerous, and beautiful to watch when things are going well for them. But that strength also represents the team’s greatest weakness: When things start to go badly, they tend to respond emotionally, creating a downward spiral in which one mistake or missed opportunity seems inevitably to create the next.

So greatest challenge of Castro’s career remains ahead of her: Whether she indeed retires from basketball or eventually thinks better of it, as team captain she must find a way to put the brakes on the downhill slide and prepare mentally, not just for herself but her teammates as well.

A win for Brazil against Turkey on Saturday will not put the home team in the medal round. It’s a winnable game, but certainly no easy one, and win or lose, Brazil will not reach the quarterfinals, instead moving into the classification round with all hope of medalling out of range.

But Castro and company can still save themselves the humiliation of leaving the tournament winless and reward their fans with an outstanding performance. Those fans, whose cheers (and boos of opponents) have been deafening as they echo off the corrugated metal walls of the arena here and will be sorely missed when the quarterfinals move over to the main Olympic Park and Carioca Arena, deserve no less tomorrow than their national team’s best, and it will be Castro’s job to inspire her teammates to deliver.

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