Kamilla Cardoso’s “Spontaneous” Personality And The Journey To Unlocking It

It was almost over before it even started for Kamilla Cardoso.

She knew she had something. Everyone did. Cardoso was 6-foot-5 by age 12 and gifted well beyond anyone else on a basketball court in Montes Claros, Brazil.

Half a world away in Chattanooga, Tenn., Hamilton Heights Academy girls’ basketball coach Kiki Hunt got a call from a college assistant.

There was a middle school prospect searching for her next move. A quick pop of the tape was enough.


“She had recommended that she [Cardoso] come to Chattanooga to play for me,” Hunt told GamecockScoop. “So I looked at her video. She was running up and down the floor as fast as a guard. She was dribbling the ball, rebounding well —and I mean going and getting the ball, not just standing there.”

No-brainer, right?

To Hunt, for sure. But she still had to clear it with the school’s headmaster, a far trickier hurdle than anticipated. The question — unbelievably, as Hunt remembers — was about why she even wanted Cardoso.

“He was one of those admins who was only into boys’ sports,” Hunt said. “He said, ‘Maybe I just don’t know about women’s basketball.’ And I said, ‘Maybe you don’t!’ I had to argue with him to get her, because he had to approve her scholarship and get her I-20 paperwork done and all that.”

Hunt won the argument, and Cardoso won an opportunity to play abroad.

Ever since her career in America almost stalled on the launching pad, she has added enough tangible titles to her name to fill a scroll. McDonald’s All-American. All-conference player in both the ACC and SEC. FIBA AmeriCup MVP and gold medalist with the Brazilian national team. National Champion at South Carolina. She will likely be a first-round pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

None of them scratch the surface of her achievements.

The Smile

The smile appears out of nowhere, like a basketball Jack In The Box.

It is common to see Cardoso draw a foul, then chuckle at the free throw line a few seconds later. Over what? Who knows. Show up early to a game and you will see her take a turn in a pre-game layup line, immediately followed by some laughter at something in the stands or from the player behind her.

There is no such thing as the wrong place to start dancing. The spirit sticks out everywhere and to everyone; even Dawn Staley had to take notice during the season-opening Paris trip.

“I see Kamilla taking a lot of selfies in the background,” Staley said when asked who was having the most fun. “I think she’s enjoying it.”

Cardoso looks comfortable everywhere, a natural in any room. It is a testament to her work, and the people who surrounded her over the last eight years.

‘We became a family’

This personality always existed, but the early Chattanooga days buried it. Fighting homesickness, a language barrier and desperation to prove her value on the court closed the lid on her eccentric side, at least temporarily.

“She was very shy and timid,” Hunt said. “And she actually had been made fun of most of her life for her height. I think that was why she was shy and timid. And as she started to blossom over here, she got over that.

“Even in class to present something, she would rather take a bad grade than get up and present. And she had done the work, she just didn’t want to get up there and talk.”

Ironically, one of those obstacles turned her tide.

Back to the headmaster at Hamilton Heights with more litigation beyond the scope of a teenager in a foreign country. This time surrounding Cardoso’s — among others — living situation. He allowed the boys’ team to rent apartments with RAs, but not the girls.

Coaching a roster full of international talent with few other options, Hunt took matters into her own hands. Her home became a team space, regularly housing players throughout her tenure.

“Counting my daughters, I always had at least seven kids living there,” Hunt remembered. “We became a family.”

Family. The one thing Cardoso needed most of all.

Kamilla being Kamilla


There was no choice but to bond with her teammates. Every high school team shares practices, games and study halls. Few toss in weekends, offseasons and downtime.

It flipped the switch. The radiant personality she regularly displays for South Carolina fans took its American origins within those Chattanooga walls.

“Spontaneous,” teammate Ruth Balogun told GameockScoop is her word to describe Cardoso. “Basically, you don’t know what she’s going to do next. She just does stuff out of impulse.”

The hilarity of warm-ups at Colonial Life Arena with her teammates? Call them an extension of constant pranks on Balogun.

Unrelenting motivation and fire made her a spark plug every time she checked into a game, a natural winner for last season’s SEC Sixth Woman of the Year award winner, given to the league’s top bench player. It comes from a high school player who loved to “spread the energy” wherever possible.

If you think her hair looks slightly different every time you turn on the Gamecocks, your television pigment is fine. It was a regular occurrence in high school, and still is.

“I was laying in my room,” Balogun remembered. “And she came to me and was like, ‘I want to do something with my hair.’ And she walked into my room with a bob and bangs, like the old woman in The Incredibles.

“I was like, ‘Bro, these are the worst bangs ever.'”

That’s just Kamilla being Kamilla.

‘A one in a million player’

Basketball looks simple after you conquer the English language and life on another continent.

Everything else fell into place once she was comfortable enough in her skin to let the personality out. The size alone made her a nightmare for any opposing frontcourt, but her skill garnered national attention. She blocked shots for fun — including once on a PE teacher who thought he could score on her during an exhibition at an elementary school — and scored just as easily.

Hunt’s vision of a 12-year-old on film who could grow into an elite high school and eventually college player materialized.

“At first I didn’t know how good of a player she was,” Balogun said. “She made basketball really easy for me. After leaving high school and stuff, I was literally playing with a one in a million player.”

This was always how it was supposed to go when Cardoso bet on herself. She spent her freshman season at Syracuse before transferring to South Carolina, reuniting with her former AAU teammate Raven Johnson.

Yet another member of what is now an extensive American family to go with her Brazilian one.

“She’s just very dominant,” Johnson said. “She’s the best big in the country. If she brings her A game every game, who’s beating us?”

If nothing else, nobody was going to beat Cardoso. Internal stressors went by the boards, giving way to a clear-headed, confident star with a Hallmark smile and a cheerful personality.

“I’m just so proud of her because it was hard to get her here,” Hunt said. “I had to go to bat for someone I didn’t really know yet.”

A cantankerous headmaster had his shot blocked, and she has been doing the same ever since.

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