Although the Houston Comets did not win their fifth straight WNBA championship, there were still reasons to celebrate the team's season. One reason was the emergence of guard Janeth Arcain, who in the absence of marquee players like Cynthia Cooper (retired) and Sheryl Swoopes (injured) stepped up and became one of the premier players in the league. At the end of the regular season, the Brazilian native was named the WNBA's most improved player. Little wonder: She ranked fourth in the league with 18.5 points per game, fourth in free-throw percentage at .900, and seventh in steals with 1.88 a game.

Those who follow women's basketball closely probably weren't surprised by Arcain's emergence. In her native country, better known for its soccer than its basketball, she twice was the leading scorer of the Brazilian League, not to mention a multiple MVP award winner. She even earned a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a member of the Brazilian team.

The 32-year-old Arcain quickly has won over fans in Houston, not only for her roundball skills but also for her wide-eyed enthusiasm. "In Brazil, we don't have as good an organization as here," says the five-foot, 11-inch Arcain. "We don't have as many fans as here. And I enjoy it here. I love to be here."

During the Comets' off-season, Arcain still plays professional basketball in Brazil, with Team Vasco da Gama, named for the Portuguese explorer. The team won its league last year. Because of her hectic schedule, Arcain hasn't had much time to rest during the past five years, and this off-season is no exception. As soon as the Comets' playoff run was over, Arcain headed for home to continue shooting hoops in South America. However, she says she would like to spend more time in Houston, adding that the only thing she really misses about Brazil is her family.

"The place where I live there is on the beach," says Arcain. "But I like the Houston weather."

She also feels at home at Fogo de Chão, the Brazilian-style rodizio on Westheimer where the chefs know their way around a piece of meat.

Right now, Arcain can't stay year-round because of the contract in Brazil, she says. "But I hope one day to stay here and enjoy more of my time and get a little closer with the fans. It would be nice for me."

And for Comets followers.

"My mom, bless her heart, was an awful cook," drawls Larry Perdido. His parents emigrated from the Philippines to Houston in the '50s, and his mom, a nurse, soon learned to mangle American dishes as thoroughly as she wrecked those of the Southeast Asian islands. Out of self-defense, seven-year-old Larry taught himself to cook by following the directions on the mac 'n' cheese box.

PBS urged him to aim higher. He admired Julia Child's French technique, and he laughed at Justin Wilson's Cajun wildness. And then there was Martin Yan, of Yan Can Cook, who mixed Asian recipes with American flamboyance. The combination must have held special appeal to Larry, a brown-skinned, dark-haired kid who talks like John Wayne.

But Larry couldn't afford to see Yan as a role model. Yan was like Evel Knievel: a cool guy who existed mainly on TV. Kids like Larry didn't aspire to be Evel Knievel.

Larry was supposed to be a doctor, and he almost became one. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in biology and chemistry, applied to med school, and made it onto UTMB-Galveston's waiting list. He knew he was supposed to want to be accepted.

But while he was waiting, he heard a radio ad for the new Culinary Institute of America. Cooking! he said to his fiancÈe. That's what I want to study. They U-turned on U.S. 59 and drove straight to the school. Larry enrolled that day, and told the medical school to forget him.

His parents were horrified, but in the last few years, they've come around. Larry and his partner, Chuck Smith, made such a success of their first restaurant, Saba Blue Water Cafe in Austin, that they opened a second Saba in downtown Houston. The menu is complicated and California-ish, American fish and produce cooked with an Asian inflection.

In June, Larry even got to cook beside his childhood hero. Martin Yan was doing a star turn at Central Market, and Larry signed up to assist with the class. They hit it off, and that evening Yan ate dinner at Saba. Larry stayed in the kitchen, sending out little bites of his best dishes.

But Yan was hardly alone at the table. Foodies mobbed him, mostly people who, like Larry, knew him from TV. Somebody asked for an autograph; somebody else took a photo. Yan was gracious. And in the kitchen, Larry was ecstatic. In a weird way, he'd exceeded his childhood dreams. He hadn't grown up to be Martin Yan. But he had grown up to cook for him.

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