Original Old School: The Mighty O
Brazilian Oscar Schmidt never played a minute in the NBA. But that didn’t stop him from earning the Dream Team’s respect.
Until recently, I was under the impression that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the all-time leading scorer. I also thought that Brazil was strictly a soccer country—minus a select few in the L. Then, in issue 112, SLAM went and ran this Old School. I don’t know much about Oscar Schmidt so I’m not gonna rap too much about him. All I’ll say is, If Chuck thinks he was that good, he was that good. Game recognize game—as always.—Tzvi Twersky
by Gregory Dole
“My man Oscar! Long time no see. How are you? What are you doing here? These people, they think they know basketball, but they don’t know you. You were the man. Not many guys in basketball history could score the ball like you. Boy, could you shoot. You were one of the best scorers of all time. You were the man.”
This was Charles Barkley talking. I had been walking toward the exit following the 2004 All-Star Game in Los Angeles with my Brazilian friend Oscar, when Barkley spotted Oscar and singled him out in the crowd. He came running over to us and gave the Brazilian a big hug.
None of the crowd at the Staples Center had any idea who Barkley was praising. His name is Oscar Daniel Bezerra Schmidt, former star of the Brazilian National Team and European leagues in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. In Brazil, he is known simply as Oscar, in the one-name style of all the country’s top athletes. He averaged 30.7 points per game in his professional career, for a record total of 49,737 points. Strange but true: He is technically the all-time leading scorer in professional basketball history. In Brazil they call him “Mao Santa”—the Holy Hand. In Italy, where he starred for many years, they call him “Oscar the King.”
Obviously, Barkley was a big fan: “He was a great, great offensive player. He could score on anybody,” Chuck says of the 6-8, 225-pound sniper. “He was like a smaller Dirk Nowitzki. Man, he could just score. He could shoot the hell out of the ball…I’d say he would’ve been a bona fide NBA scorer. They say he was gangly but I didn’t see him as gangly. Every Dream Team I’ve played on, Oscar got his 40 (points). I just think he was a great scorer and he would have been fine in the NBA.”
Oscar played small forward around the world, from Brazil to Italy and many places in between. Drafted by the New Jersey Nets in ’84, Oscar never signed an NBA contract because he did not want to forfeit his right to play for the Brazilian National Team in the Olympics. Yet, Oscar, who retired for good in ‘03, still left a huge mark on the game.
Perhaps Oscar’s greatest moment in basketball came when he led Brazil to a stunning come-from-behind victory in the gold medal game against the US at the ’87 Pan-Am Games in Indianapolis. It was the first time an American national team was defeated on home soil. Oscar put up 46 points in the win, defeating a team starring David Robinson, Danny Manning and Rex Chapman, among others.
In ’92, at the Olympics in Barcelona, Oscar willed a weak Brazilian squad to a surprising fifth-placed finish. Along the way, he led the tournament in scoring with 198 total points, besting the likes of Barkley, who netted 144 points, and Michael Jordan, who ended up with 118 points.
His records are numerous—most career points in the World Championships (893), most career points in the Olympics (1,093), most points for a national team (7,693). In Olympic play at the ’88 Games in South Korea, Oscar set 10 Olympic records, including most points in a game (55), most total points at one Olympics (338), highest scoring average, most three pointers made, most field goals made and most free throws made.
Oscar is a legend in Italy, where he played for 11 years and holds several records, including being the first person to score over 10,000 points. In the ’90-91 season, he set an Italian league record by averaging 44 points per game. One of his most famous fans from his days in Italy is Kobe Bryant, who grew up watching Oscar light up his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.
Now working as a motivational speaker and pursuing business ventures while splitting his time between Brazil and Florida, Oscar looks back at his playing career fondly.
SLAM: Do you still play basketball at all?
Oscar Schmidt: No. The only sport I play is soccer. My friends and I have a team in an over-40 league.
SLAM: Why do you think you were so attracted to basketball?
OS: Like so many Brazilians, soccer was my first love. But the first time I had a basketball coach, he instilled in me a love of basketball and it soon became my life-long love.
SLAM: The Hall of Fame considers you one of the top 100 players of all time, one of only five non-Americans on the list. Did you ever dream of being amongst the best of all time?
OS: When I was a kid, I never thought about becoming one of the best players in the world. But when I got older, I practiced with the goal of being the best player in the world. That was my objective and that is what motivated me to work on my shooting for eight hours a day. Of course, I didn’t reach the goal of being the best player in the world, but I’m satisfied that I did everything possible to try to reach that goal.
SLAM: Any regrets about not playing in the NBA?
OS: No. I made the decision to not play in the NBA because the rules at the time stated that I could not play for my national team and an NBA team at the same time. I chose to play for my national team. Of course, I think I would have been a good player in the NBA because I always played very well against the American teams, including the Dream Teams. As a matter of fact, I always had two defenders on me in Europe, making it much more difficult to score.
SLAM: Which NBA player did you most admire?
OS: Larry Bird. In my opinion it is much easier to be a dominant basketball player when you are also athletically more gifted than the other players. Larry Bird managed to be one of the best without having a great vertical jump or great running speed. For that reason, I have more admiration for Larry than, say, Michael Jordan.
SLAM: Why was playing for the Brazilian National Team so important for you?
OS: My father was in the Brazilian Navy, as was my brother. We are extremely patriotic in my house, in my family. The most important thing in the world for me was to defend my country, to represent my country, to bring pride to my country. This was an easy decision, picking between my country and the NBA.
SLAM: Charles Barkley was a big fan of yours—why do you think that was?
OS: I played well against him. We matched up several times, beginning with rookie camps I participated in with the New Jersey Nets and later in the ’92 and ’96 Olympics. I think we both see the game of basketball the same way.
SLAM: Kobe Bryant has said that you were one of his basketball heroes while he was growing up. Are you surprised?
OS: I am not surprised. Kobe grew up seeing his father play against me for years. I would also meet up with Kobe and his father every year at the Italian All-Star game. I remember him running onto the court to shoot during the halftime of games. When he was young, he would always be running around the court, sitting under the score tables and things. I was so happy and proud when he was drafted into the NBA. Now he is my favorite player in the NBA and I think he could go down in history as being better than Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
SLAM: Are you surprised by the number of Brazilians who are now in the NBA?
OS: Not at all. As the League begins to look outside the USA, there will be more and more great players from Brazil. We are a nation of great athletes.
SLAM: Which current Brazilian player is your favorite?
OS: I am most impressed by Leandro Barbosa of the Suns.
SLAM: What were your greatest memories of playing basketball in Europe?
OS: My best memory was from my first year in Caserta, when my team won and got promoted from the A2 (second division) to the A1 (first division). The city went crazy. Everybody in the city was so grateful. I also remember the big Cup Championship games, but most of all I remember the love and passion of the fans in Europe.
SLAM: Your game against Drazen Petrovic’s Real Madrid squad at the Saporta Cup Final in March of ’89 is considered by many basketball commentators to be the best game ever played in Europe. What are your memories from this game?
OS: Drazen and I were friends. I think everyone recognized his special ability. If he had not died so early in life, he would have been one of the NBA’s legends. As for the game, it was unreal. I don’t remember all the details, but it was an epic match that neither side wanted to lose.
SLAM: The Pan-Am Games Gold Medal Game in ’87 was obviously a big moment for you, for Brazilian basketball and for the international game in general. Was the victory against a US team that featured players like David Robinson a surprise to you and your team?
OS: As athletes, we prepare ourselves for a long time so that in those moments, when we have the opportunity to beat the best, we are well prepared to take advantage of that chance. At the Pan-Am Games, we had a perfect team with a great coach. We had prepared ourselves for years and we had the right mix on that team. Before the game, nobody believed we could win. But after we won, I don’t think it was luck. I don’t think there is “lucky” in sports. We went out and beat the Americans.
SLAM: You did not miss a game over a seven-year period in the Italian league. How important to you was it to not miss games and how come you were able to avoid injury for so many years?
OS: I actually missed four games in 13 years in Italy and that was because the team doctors put me in a cast. The night before, with my shooting hand broken, I went out and scored 34 points against the Montecatini team. I always hid my injuries from the team doctors and played through the pain. I would always try to cure myself at home. I bought medical equipment and would treat myself at home as best I could. I played injured so many times. That is what I did throughout my career. I always said that pain and fatigue was part of putting on the uniform as a professional athlete.
SLAM: You retired the all-time scoring leader in professional basketball. Does this record mean anything to you?
OS: I don’t really care about scoring records, but I am proud of that one in the sense that it shows my longevity. I played at a high level for 26 years. It was almost non-stop as well, because I would go from playing in Italy to playing for the Brazilian National team. I did not stop over those 26 years. No vacations at all. So my scoring record is more of an example of my hard work in basketball over a 26-year period. And that hard work is what makes me proud as I look back.