“She morphed in to any player we needed her to be.”
Featuring WNBA legends in the studio and on the call for some of ESPN’s broadcasts has given fans insight in to the game they love to watch from some of the best to ever play. During the July 6, 2019, game pitting the Connecticut Sun against the Minnesota Lynx, Cynthia Cooper dropped that opening line about her former teammate, exposing many of today’s followers of the league to a name they may not have heard before: Janeth Arcain.
Like many of the WNBA’s early stars, Arcain had been a professional and a league MVP before she signed with the Houston Comets. Her story begins in Brazil.
Born in São Paulo, Arcain grew up playing volleyball and football. The Brazilian National Team was competitive in basketball in the Pan American Games but struggled on the global stage. Then, in 1983, Brazil hosted the FIBA World Championship, and a young Arcain became hooked on basketball.
Just four years later, she helped take Brazil to a silver medal in the Pan American Games, followed by gold in Havana in 1991. She averaged 14.6 points per game in the 1992 Olympic Qualifiers to lead Brazil to a shot in the 1992 Olympics, and though they finished 7th there, the upward trend had started.
In 1994, Arcain was the third-leading scorer overall with 23.2 points per game — and adding an impressive 7.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists — in the FIBA World Championship, leading Brazil to a gold medal finish with a 6-2 record and final win over China. It was a major win for Brazil and made them a lock for the 1996 Olympics.
Unfortunately for them, 1996 in Atlanta was the jumping-off point for what has become the most dominant team Olympics run for the United States, but Arcain was still dominant, averaging 17.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists to earn a silver medal for her home country, the first Olympic basketball medal for Brazil.
Over those years, she also honed her game playing professionally in Brazil, winning two Brazilian League Championships (1990 and 1997), and she was an MVP of the Brazilian League three times.
Team USA certainly knew the name “Arcain,” as did anyone lucky enough to watch her play in Atlanta that year, and her rise to the top set up a chance to play in the upstart WNBA in the United States in 1997.
Whereas Arcain became the face of the Brazilian National Team in the ’90s, it was during her time with the Houston Comets that she showed off perhaps her strongest skill: the ability to become what her team needs.
After giving birth to her son, Swoopes joined the team in August for their 20th game of the season. Arcain got key starts to help the Comets get to 12-7 through that first segment of the season. She finished the season in the starting lineup as Swoopes worked her way back, including their two postseason games on the way to the first WNBA championship.
She averaged 10.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.5 steals in that first season, shooting 44.0% from the field and 89.4% from the free throw line. As would become a staple of her game, she didn’t lead the team in any category, but her diverse game helped fill the gaps for the WNBA’s original dynasty.
Year two was much of the same for the Comets, though the configuration of the roster changed with the full-time return of Swoopes. Arcain came off the bench in the majority of her games. Her production dipped as a result, though her impact remained firm.
By this point, the Brazilian sensation’s penchant for game-winners and dagger shots earned her the nicknames “The Silent Assassin” and “J Money”. She wasn’t leading the team in scoring year after year, but she was as capable of leading the team in scoring in any given game, and she did so many times.
The Comets went 27-3 that year, and head coach Van Chancellor specifically acknowledged the impact of his best player off the bench who had averaged 6.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 21.9 minutes per game.
“If there was an award in this league for Sixth Man, it would have to be Janeth,” he said, acknowledging the hypothetical award which wouldn’t be a part of the league’s end-of-season honors until 2007.
The Comets continued to dominate the league, finishing 1998 and 1999 with two more championships on the backs of their Big 3 (Cooper, Swoopes, and Thompson) and reliable bench production from Arcain and company.
2000 brought four expansion teams and a shakeup of rosters across the league. The Comets lost Sonja Henning to the Expansion Draft, and Arcain found herself back in the starting lineup. The three-time and only WNBA champions didn’t miss a beat. They rolled to a 27-5 regular season finish and never lost in the Playoffs, beating Sacramento, Los Angeles, and New York each twice to win their fourth title in as many years.
Arcain had an average year for her, putting up 8.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.3 steals. She did shoot a career-best 46.8% from the field over her 30.5 minutes per game, at the time a career-high.
What no one could know at the time was what that year was setting up.
Cooper, the four-time Finals MVP, stepped away from playing after the 2000 season, and Swoopes — the reigning league MVP — was away from the team after undergoing ACL surgery. Chancellor had to retool his roster around Thompson and Arcain.
Starting all 32 games, Arcain’s production skyrocketed. She averaged 18.5 points per game in 36.1 minutes per game in 2001, adding on 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.9 steals. She had career highs across the board from the free throw line, making 135 of 150 attempts, good for 90%. She was top-10 in the league that year in minutes played, field goals, free throws, and steals per game.
Her heightened role for the still-defending champs earned her a nod as All Star starter in the third WNBA All Star Game. She was named to the All-WNBA First Team at the conclusion of the season, and her major turnaround resulted in her being named the WNBA Most Improved Player that year.
The Comets failed to defend their title for the first time that year as the Sparks took over at the top of the league. Arcain continued to play with the Comets for three more seasons, missing the 2004 season to prepare for another run at the Olympics.
She remained a starter the remainder of her career, contributing double-digit scoring and top-10 efficiency from the free throw line every year. Excluding the 2004 season, she played in every regular season and postseason Houston Comets game from 1997 to 2005, bringing her career total to 254 in the regular season and 32 in the Playoffs.
Over her eight seasons, Arcain averaged 10.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.4 steals over 30.1 minutes. She shot 43.7% from the field and 86.7% from the free throw line. That free throw line efficiency is still top-15 all-time in the WNBA.
Hall of Famer
During her time in the WNBA, Arcain could be the star scorer, but she was comfortable being the team’s best bench player. Either way, she was a pivotal part of that early Comets dynasty, just as important a piece of those four championships as the likes of Cooper, Swoopes, and Thompson. And by the time she stepped off the court for the last time in the WNBA, she had the individual accolades to show that.
During her WNBA days, she continued to represent Brazil internationally, including two more runs averaging double figures in the Olympics (bronze in 2000 and a fourth place finish in 2004). She represented Brazil in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and the 2007 Pan American Games, marking her final playing days, as she didn’t return to the WNBA.
In 2015, Arcain was inducted in to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, joining many of her teammates and coaches throughout the years. Hortência and “Magic Paula” preceded her, just as they did on the Brazilian National Team decades before, and her name is enshrined alongside many WNBA greats, including her Comets teammates and coach.
Finally in 2019 she is also being enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame, alongside fellow global playing great and WNBA legend Margo Dydek. The fact that this honor comes more than 30 years after Arcain began representing her country speaks to exactly that quality Cooper called out on national television. She wasn’t just a great basketball player; she had the ability to become what she needed to be, whether that was being the go-to scorer or unofficial Sixth Woman of the Year, and that was a key part of her longevity in the game.
After falling in love with the game as a teenager, Arcain would do whatever was necessary to just keep playing basketball. It meant everything to her, as she told the Houston Chronicle years ago.
“Basketball is my life. It’s what I like to do.”
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