GOD WAS IN HIS HEAVEN, AND all was right with the world He had
just created. Almost.
''Ah, Lordship,'' said one intrepid angel. ''About this Brazil.
You've given it gorgeous beaches and rivers, mountains and dales. The
flowers! The land is bountiful, the vistas spectacular. The foliage,
the birds, the rocks, the fruit, the climate! But isn't this all too
much for one place? There won't be ! enough good things left for
''Relax,'' God said. ''It will all balance out. Wait till you see
the people I put in this place.''
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue
The joke is one that Brazilians tell on themselves. The sweet and
charmingly apathetic denizens of this vast, sprawling nation
acknowledge its image as the Land of the Laid Back, rich in resources
but riddled with debt. When visiting French President Charles de
Gaulle said, in 1964, ''Brazil is not a serious country,'' the locals
were furious -- for about 10 seconds, or approximately the time it
took them to refocus their energies on having a good time. Blame it
on the bossa nova.
And what more definitive example of the national style than that
seemingly everybody in Brazil is known by a single name? To use
anything more would be overly formal, superfluous, scarcely worth the
extra breath, too . . . too . . . serious. And so, the wondrous
musician and composer, Jobim. The soccer legend, Pele. And the
current Brazilian national celebrity, Oscar.
Even now, few people outside, or even inside, Brazil know Oscar's
full name -- Oscar Daniel Bezerra Schmidt -- including a fair number
of aficionados of international basketball, a sport in which he has
been a major star for the better part of a decade. Many of the good
folks of Caserta, a town near Naples in southern Italy, still don't
know his surname, even though Oscar and his wife, Cristina, have
lived among them since 1982. While there he has played for teams
under three different sponsors and has won five consecutive scoring
championships in the limb-and-life-endangering Italian league. He has
been called the Gunboat of Molbigirgi -- after the name of the
furniture company that once sponsored the team -- but he has seldom
been called Schmidt.
And in the summer of '87, in Indianapolis, when the U.S. contested
the gold medal in the 10th Pan American Games against Brazil, Team
U.S.A. certainly played as if it had never heard of Oscar, by last
name or first. When the Americans jumped ahead by 20 points late in
the first half of that game, the boys red, white and blue didn't seem
to care that this Oscar had scored 53 against Mexico only two days
As with most foreign-bred basketball players, the 6 ft. 8 1/2 in.,
220-pound Oscar was better known by the U.S. team for what he
couldn't do. He couldn't pass, couldn't dribble for long, absolutely
couldn't play defense. O.K., fine. But how about what Oscar could do?
Oscar could do this: Bang, bang, bang, you're dead. And America
was. Oscar could shoot. Long . . . longer . . . longer still . . .
forget about it. Streak shoot. Scatter shoot. Shoot from any and
every angle. Shoot with Ianquis flying at him and dangling from him
like tassels on a samba dancer. Shoot the very strings off the net.
Thus, to the everlasting sorrow of David Robinson (who was to foul
out), Willie Anderson (who was a particularly burned victim) and U.S.
coach Denny Crum, Oscar started to shoot in the second half. And
shoot. And he didn't stop until he had made six three-point baskets,
35 points in the half and 46 for the game. After one scoring foray he
roared unintelligibly, tore at his hair and slapped the sides of his
temples as if to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. (For months
afterward the American side denigrated Oscar's effort by claiming
nobody actually guarded him, but Oscar was fouled twice behind the
three-point parabola, and he made 13 of 15 free throws in the game.
Somebody was trying to guard him.)
When the visitors from Brazil won 120-115, it was as shocking and
spectacular an upset as there had ever been in international play.
The Americans had the home-court advantage. The U.S. had never given
up 100 points in a game. And Brazil? Heck, throw some occasional ball
denial and rough stuff out there and this fabulous shooter, this
shuffle-stepping, insouciant, 30- year-old Oscar, would surely back
down, exhibiting his country's traditional indolence, and melt away.
''The Americans are the best team every time,'' Oscar says. ''We
have no illusions about that. If we play 10 times, Brazil wins maybe
once, twice. But we always play hard. No matter how we look. And, who
knows, when that one time comes, we have to snatch it. We always
think maybe, just maybe, it will be in the gold-medal game.''
Snatch it they did at Indy. And as Oscar and Marcel (31 points)
and Israel and Gerson and all the rest of the Brazilian one-names
were hugging and screeching and rolling around on the court in wild
celebration, the Market Square Arena crowd began to applaud, not out
of courtesy so much as in recognition of a brilliant performance
sustained to fruition. ''In the restaurant later the people stand up
and clap when we come in,'' Oscar said. ''This was unbelievable. The
whole scene, how can I say it? This was what we dream. It was the
time for my life.''
It changed his life as well. And basquete in Brazil may never be
the same. Ari Vidal, the Brazilian coach, complains that his country
is a sporting ''monoculture,'' with too much emphasis on soccer:
''We're number 21 of sports. Soccer is number one, two, three, four,
all the way down to 20.'' But the Pan Am basketball triumph happened
to come at a time when King Soccer was struggling in Brazil: Violence
on and off the field, scandals, subpar performances and an absence of
heroes had tarnished soccer's golden image.
As the Brazilian national basketball squad toured southern Brazil
in recent months, it became clear what winning the Pan Am Games had
meant for the sport. The Brazilian club leagues have expanded by 20
teams; attendance is at an alltime high, up 30% over last year. Every
one of the 13 men's and women's Olympic qualifying tournament games
was televised in Brazil, many by two or more networks. The women's
team has enjoyed huge popularity, thanks in large part to 5 ft. 8 in.
Hortencia, the much-publicized 28-year-old glamour queen who led last
year's distaff Pan Ams in scoring and who spread her quite unadorned
natural charms over the cover and 10 pages of a recent Brazilian
edition of Playboy. Alas for Hortencia-oglers, Brazil's women's team
was eliminated in the pre-Olympic tournament and will not compete in
Seoul. But for the men's team, the ride continues. Following the Pan
Am success, Vidal landed a lucrative new coaching job in Spain (which
he will assume when the Olympics have concluded). And at home Oscar
copped an Ouro (gold) credit card commercial from the Bank of Brazil.
OSCAR: ME SENTI UM BEATLE NOS EUA (''I felt like a Beatle in the
USA''), a Brazilian headline quoted Oscar after the Indy upset. ''In
Brazil now, everybody ((in the public)) knows everybody ((on the
team)),'' he says. ''You must understand, this was the victory of the
generation. Everybody loves me. It is great. It is beautiful.''
Despite the fact that he spends nine months of the year in Italy,
Oscar is instantly recognizable in Sao Paulo, where he and Cristina
have an apartment in the Morumbi suburb with their two-year-old son,
Felipe. After a team training session last month along the beach in
the resort town of Sao Sebastiao, Oscar waded into the surf, only to
turn around and be confronted by a huge crowd that waited for him to
return to shore. One woman rushed into the water and flipped her baby
son into his arms for a kiss. ''I love all of this,'' Oscar said. ''I
really do. Especially the childrens.''
In many ways, Oscar is still one of the childrens. He has, for
example, a legendary love of sweets; Vidal once rewarded him with
candy for defensive plays, but that only indicated Oscar's devotion
to D -- dessert, not defense. (''I do not really have the mentality
for defense,'' he says.) Oscar, who has shortened his hair to a
Sting-like, spiky brush cut, retains a kind of big-lug demeanor. A
simpatico soul who seems almost timid off the court, he is still
called bebe chortao (crybaby) by his friends -- not because he is a
spoiled brat but because he wears his emotions on his sleeve. When
the deed was done in Indianapolis, Oscar fell on his back on the
court and screamed Portuguese cusswords; then, wrapping himself in a
Brazilian flag, he wept uncontrollably.
Oscar's grandparents, the Schmidts, were emigres from Germany, and
his father, Oswaldo, was a navy pharmacist based in north coastal
Natal when Oscar was born. After the family moved to the capital city
of Brasilia, in the interior, an uncle got Oscar interested in
playing basketball for a local club. The coach of the national team
at the time, Edson Bispo (two names? stop the presses), convinced the
older Schmidts that the kid had a future in the sport.
As a result, Oscar went to live in Sao Paulo, the business center
of the nation and the only true basketball hotbed. At 17, Oscar, then
a center, was cut from the national squad. Two years later Vidal,
who had become coach of the national team, brought him up to the big
time and switched him to forward to take advantage of his shooting
Oscar was 20 when he first played in the world championships, in
Manila in 1978. He made all-tournament. But by the following season,
trouble was brewing. Vidal had not only forced the young gun upon his
older national teammates; he had also demanded that they feed Oscar
and that Oscar shoot. A team insurrection ensued, after which
Brazil's basketball federation supported the veteran players and
dismissed Vidal. For the next five years Brazil foundered in
international waters, slapping upon the rocks of ego, jealousy and
disunity. ''I remember one game Oscar scored 42 points, I scored 38
and an older guy scored 30,'' says Marcel, Oscar's teammate and close
friend. ''The third guy was upset. We had won by 50. The environment,
it was awful.''
The 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were a nadir: Brazil
finished a disastrous ninth. ''It was obvious they didn't like each
other. It was every man for himself,'' says the New Jersey Nets'
player-personnel director, Al Menendez. The Nets had already drafted
Oscar, and the Brazilian flew a red-eye to New Jersey to talk
contract. But the club was over the salary cap and could offer him
only the minimum $75,000. Oscar was making almost three times that at
Caserta. He gave up his NBA dream and went back to Italy.
''I understood,'' Oscar says. ''I know my limitations, my defects.
But I could never only play 10 minutes a game. NBA is great if you
are a star. But if not, you get moved around. My friend ((a
Bulgarian, Georgi)) Glouchov played a year with Phoenix. He tells me
bad stories about NBA. The guards no like him, so they don't pass him
ball. I would no like that. I could no stand that.''
Oscar has had mixed American reviews -- ''He speaks better English
than he plays defense,'' admits Menendez. But his understanding of
the one-on-one game has never been in doubt. And oh, that shot! ''I'm
convinced Oscar could have been our backup small forward for a year
and then moved into the starting lineup,'' says Menendez. ''People
who say he isn't tough enough should watch him in the Italian league.
You try to hurt this guy and you'll be in a fight. He gets up and
keeps on firing. And that long-range shot? I'll put him up there with
the Birds, the Barrys, the Sudden Sam Smiths, anybody. He's in the
top 10 shooters I've seen in my life.''
''I live to shoot,'' Oscar said recently.
''Yes, I figured you love it,'' said a visiting journalist.
''No, you no understand,'' said Oscar. ''I live to shoot.''
Dan Peterson, an expatriate American coach who has worked in Italy
for 15 years, says, ''In a shooting contest Bird would have his hands
full. Oscar's got that same up fake, drop back and sling shot.'' In
consecutive years, '86 and '87, Oscar paced Snaidero Caserta to the
Italian championship series, only to lose to Tracer Milan each time.
Concurrently, with Vidal back at the helm in Brazil and with all the
malcontents purged forever, Oscar led the national team to fourth
place in the '86 Worlds and to the first-place gold in the '87 Pan
Ams. Evincing the fiercest of what the Brazilians call garra (intense
fighting spirit) in two games against the U.S., Oscar made 28 of 51
shots and scored 89 points.
Despite his heavy schedule on both sides of the Atlantic, Oscar's
enthusiasm for the game never seems to wane. To Oscar, R and R may
simply mean reload and resume firing. This past June he finally took
his wife and son to Walt Disney World for his first vacation from
basketball in three years. ''I love to play,'' he says. ''I will play
until I die.''
Or until somebody cuts off that shooting arm. O Metralhadora (the
Machine Gun), Marcel calls him. The two friends joke about their shot
totals, about their passive defense, about the Brazilian media people
who criticize their blow-it-out style. Vidal proudly likens the
effect of their ultraoffensive attack to ''the feeling of sitting in
an electric chair: you know the shock is coming; you don't know when.
If we thought too much defense, we would lose the naturalness of the
shooting. That is the Brazilian way.''
Defense? ''Let us dispense with the defense,'' says Marcel. ''We
do not have a defensive attitude, it is true. But what is good
defense? It is winning the game by one point, that's what.
''Everybody asks, How do we let Oscar shoot so much? You must
understand, Oscar is the one overwhelming star. Inside us, everybody
wants to be a star. But if you let this attitude sprout, it can be
dangerous to a team. Worrying about bad shots can only divide us
more. So he takes them. Good and bad. We can figure it out: Better to
have one star and win than have five stars and lose.''
Recently the one overwhelming star was asked if he knew that
Americans considered the Brazilian victory last year a fluke, that
the U.S. team was unprepared for his stunning assault, that they
relaxed on defense and let the game get away; that the next time
revenge will be at work, and that some American defender will be
dogging him to his very soul in Seoul.
'' 'Fluke'? What is that?'' Oscar says. ''It's not my problem. I
think we win that game because we make much pressure. Young players
suffer in international competition. I talk to them many times in our
comeback. I point to scoreboard. I say 'Shoot, shoot, go ahead,
shoot.' I think this bother them.''
Thinking ahead, the Brazilians have projected themselves into the
Olympic semifinals, figuring they will finish, at worst, second to
the U.S. in their preliminary group and play the third-place nation
from the other prelim round (the assumption is that the U.S.S.R. and
Yugoslavia will take the first two places) and win, advancing to the
final four. That is what happened in the '86 Worlds.
''The first time we face the American full-court press it should
cause us problems, but it will not matter,'' Oscar says. ''The second
time ((the medal round)) will be the important one.
''Worried?'' He laughs. ''Of course. But the U.S. should be
worried about more than us -- about Russia, about Yugoslavia. This is
the high point for everybody. Another dream. Look, we know who is the
best and that we come somewhere down the line. But after Pan Ams, we
also know this: We can beat America. It has happened. It can happen