For basketball legend Oscar Schmidt, Brazil always mattered more than the NBA

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RIO DE JANEIRO – The high-fives came from the man known as The Holy Hand – “Mão Santa” in Portuguese – of Brazil. Oscar Schmidt, the greatest basketball player this nation has ever produced and arguably the greatest from anywhere to never suit up in the NBA, is a 58-year-old fan of his national team these days. And after Brazil won its first game in these Olympics – on a miracle tip-in against Spain – Schmidt waited to greet every member of the team. A few were smothered in bear hugs, all came in contact with the right hand that produced the most points ever scored in the Olympic games.

“Of course they remember me,” Schmidt shouted, incredulously, when someone wondered if the players were aware of the high-scoring, straight-chucking game that sent him into the Hall of Fame three years ago.

During the Opening Ceremony of these games, Schmidt was introduced to fans at Maracanã and received a loud ovation that rivaled in length to that catwalk by supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Schmidt’s love for his country and the national team – which he led to five Olympic games from 1980 to 1996 – was so strong that he shunned overtures from the NBA because of a now-obsolete rule that prohibited its players from participating in international competitions.

Brazilian basketball legend Oscar Schmidt is introduced prior to the 2013 Global Games. (Getty)
Brazilian basketball legend Oscar Schmidt is introduced prior to the 2013 Global Games. (Getty)

At age 26, Schmidt declined playing for the New Jersey Nets after going in the sixth round of the 1984 draft. Instead, Schmidt elected to continue racking up his more than 49,000 points, across four countries, until he was 45. Had he decided to come to the NBA and tested his talents against the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, Schmidt is fairly confident in what he would have done.

“I would be top 10. Ever,” Schmidt said, waving his hand near his chest for inflection. “For sure. One guy can’t defend me. You need two. At least.”

Schmidt will forever be revered in this futebol-crazed but basketball-hugging country, but he is somewhat envious of this current Brazilian national team, which has a chance to play Olympic games on their home soil. “That was my dream to play a competition like that,” Schmidt said.

The thirst to wear a Brazil jersey over one with the NBA logo has at times put Schmidt at odds with current players with different dreams and opportunities who delicately tried to balance both responsibilities. When Schmidt was coming up, the riches that came from being in the league weren’t nearly as lucrative, nor were the risks that come from participating with the national team in the offseason. Even if the pride and love for country were always there, to Schmidt, bypassing a summer spent playing for Brazil was reason to question someone’s patriotism.

Fewer than three years ago, Nene and Leandro Barbosa were lustily booed in their homeland. The NBA brought the Global Games to South America for the first time in October 2013, as the Washington Wizards played the Chicago Bulls, but the love was nowhere to be found at HSBC Arena for two of the country’s best. It didn’t matter that Nene was the first player from Brazil to reach the NBA, or that Barbosa was second.

On that night, Schmidt made a late entrance and was given a standing ovation from the time he walked through the tunnel until he found his seat. He then stood to raise his hand as highlights on his career played on the jumbo screen and the crowd chanted, “Ole, ole, ole Oscar. Os-car! Os-car!”

For failing to play for the Brazilian national team earlier that summer, Nene, then a member of the Wizards, was jeered every time he touched the ball, and Barbosa, then a spectator in attendance in support of his friend, got panned when his image was shown in the arena. That Barbosa was recovering from a torn ACL and Nene was resting nagging foot and knee problems got them no sympathy. Schmidt’s harsh criticism of any player who didn’t share his no-excuse passion for the national team certainly fueled the emotions of the fans. “If you don’t want to play for national team, don’t talk about your country,” Schmidt said at the time.

Nene was so distraught by the reaction that he wept privately before leaving the arena with his family and friends. Barbosa was dumbfounded. “It was different than what I expected to hear at the time,” Barbosa said this week, “but it’s the past.”

Brazil and two of the best basketball players it has ever produced have all moved on, putting aside any hurt feelings in pursuit of an end to a 52-year medal drought. In their tournament-opening loss to Lithuania, the old guys led a thrilling but inevitably futile comeback against one of the best teams in the world. Matched up with younger, nimbler foes, Nene was still tossing around his muscle, throwing elbows and grabbing rebounds, while Barbosa, a step slower from his blurry-speed youth, was still finding holes in the lane and getting to the bucket.

Nene and Brazil could have a tough time advancing out of group play at the Olympics. (Getty)
Nene and Brazil could have a tough time advancing out of group play at the Olympics. (Getty)

Barbosa made a pull-up jump shot to bring Brazil within four points – nearly competing a rally back from a 30-point deficit – and the home fans erupted with so much boisterous approval that Carioca Arena 1 was trembling. Nene and Barbosa were once again embraced by their countrymen, the love measured in piercing decibels.

“You heard. You heard,” said Nene, the Houston Rockets big man. “They say, ‘We believe,’ and we believe. That gave us big boost.”

Nene and Barbosa started this journey on the Brazilian national team together as teenagers, never imagining that they’d one day become NBA players or multimillionaires. Nene was the kid from São Carlos who was so poor that he kept his first pair of basketball shoes together with duct tape after he outgrew them. Barbosa survived the gang-infested favelas of São Paulo, sharing one sleeping space with four siblings, his parents and no beds. They’ve been close, they’ve bickered and they’ve reconciled. Now, they’re representing their country, possibly one last time, at the time when it is at the center of the athletic world.

“It’s a dream come true. First of all, just to put this shirt right here on, and defend my country in the Olympics, is really special,” said Barbosa, who returned to the Phoenix Suns this summer. “You don’t know what’s going to happen after this national team. We’re just trying to do our best and hopefully get the medal. That’s why we’re here. We’re going to have to fight, big time.”

Some familiar faces also aren’t around to join Nene and Barbosa as Brazil’s best basketball generation continues to chase an honor that even Schmidt couldn’t claim (Schmidt’s teams never finished better than fifth in 1988 and ’92). Anderson Varejao recently had back surgery. Tiago Splitter is recovering from a hip injury. But Brazil still has seven players with NBA experience and another – 24-year-old big man Augusto Lima – whose play in these Olympics should warrant some attention on the other side of the equator.

The pressure to deliver a medal on home soil is immense and a 1-2 record – with an upcoming game against rival Argentina – provides little comfort for them to even advance beyond group play. The Olympic host nation hasn’t medaled in basketball since the United States in 1996.

“We don’t need to think like that. We believe in our group, and our talent, our capacity,” Nene said of the stress to deliver for their country. “We know how capable we are, to do something special here. And that’s what we’re going to do. We have more work for that medal. We go for the medal. That’s our belief. It doesn’t matter what color. Just the medal.”

Oscar Schmidt was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. (AP)
Oscar Schmidt was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. (AP)

Having overcome testicular cancer and knee surgeries and battled other injuries throughout his 14-year career, Nene hasn’t always found a sympathetic audience in his homeland. Nene also had other disputes with the Brazil basketball federation over insurance concerns, which makes these Olympics only his fourth international competition since entering the league with Denver in 2002. Though the fans and Brazilian media have been hard on him at times, Nene refuses to hold a grudge.

“We didn’t communicate very well, but right now we’re on the same page,” Nene said. “They have my back. They have our back and they understand everything that I’ve been through, that’s what makes it so special. All those years, working and sacrificing my body, everything for my family, for my friends, for my country, for my Lord, for everything. Now is the moment. I’m always going to give my best.”

Nene was the last Brazilian to head to the locker room after the win over Spain. He spotted Schmidt standing behind a divider waiting to congratulate him. They shook hands and nodded, saying very little. Earlier, Schmidt shouted for Barbosa and gestured with his index finger for him to come. Barbosa smiled and Schmidt laughed as he shook and embraced him. “Everything is about now and right now, we are in a situation in the Olympics to make history, so let’s do it,” Barbosa said.

Afterward, Schmidt was asked about the differences he’s had in the past with Barbosa and Nene and he interrupted. “I don’t have difference with anyone. I just want players to respect the national team,” Schmidt said. “They deserve to be on national team because they are great players and they’re playing good, so it’s good. National team, for me, is the best.”

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