“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Fabricio Oberto – Hard-working star
I remember seeing Fabricio Oberto for the first time at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but I admit that in a tournament full of stars, I didn’t pay much attention to an Argentina squad that finished ninth. It was easy to miss the talent of a kid on a national team that was not yet what it would become. However, Oberto, who was born on March 21, 1975, in Las Varillas, Argentina, did not need much time to prove that he was worthy of sharing the stage with the game’s greats.
Only one year later, at the McDonald’s Open in Paris – in my opinion the best of those events in the 1990s – the all-tournament team was made up of Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls), Eric Struelens (Paris Saint Germain), Arturas Karnisovas (FC Barcelona), Dragan Tarlac (Olympiacos) and Oberto (Atenas de Córdoba). Aside from the aforementioned clubs, the other participant was Benetton Treviso, with the likes of Riccardo Pittis, Zeljko Rebraca and Denis Marconato, plus Zeljko Obradovic on the bench. FC Barcelona had stars such as Sasha Djordjevic, Rafa Jofresa, Andres Jimenez and Marcelo Nicola; Olympiacos featured Johnny Rogers and Panagiotis Fasoulas; PSG had Stephane Risacher, Richard Dacoury and Alfonso Reyes; and the Bulls had names like Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley.
The opening game was on October 16, 1997, between Benetton and Atenas. It proved to be the first upset, 87-78 for the Argentinians. With veterans like Hector Campana (33 years old), Marcelo Milanesio (32) and Diego Osella (28), a 22-year-old Oberto looked like a young kid on the Atenas team. But his 22 points and 11 rebounds against Benetton started his road to glory. In an 89-86 loss against Olympiacos, Oberto scored 16 points and added 6 rebounds and 3 assists, which is probably when Dusan Ivkovic, then coach of the Reds, decided to sign the 2.08-meter Argentinian big man. Oberto’s game, at first sight, might have looked simple, but that is a hard thing to achieve in any sport: doing things as second nature, as if anyone could do them. If I had to define his game in one word it would be “efficiency”. When he got the ball, he won position with ease and played well with his back to the basket and so hardly ever missed when close. If we add rebounding, good defense and solid passing, we have a complete player with simple but efficient solutions. Atenas finished the tournament third after defeating PSG 88-78. Oberto would stay with his team, for which he had started playing when he was 1.98 meters tall, for one more season. His first number was 7 and he considers that to be his lucky number.
From Atenas to Athens
In the summer of 1998, after winning the league title and being elected MVP in Argentina, Oberto changed addresses from Atenas to Athens, where he joined Olympiacos in Greece. Before making his Olympiacos debut, he played for Argentina at the 1998 World Cup in Athens. I would say that the great Argentina we came to know, which six years later won the Olympic gold medal in the same city, started its golden generation that year. You had the experience of Milanesio – who was Oberto’s idol during his childhood – Juan Alberto Espil (30), Esteban de la Fuente (30), Diego Osella (29), Marcelo Nicola (27), Hugo Sconochini (27), Carlos Simoni (27), Alejandro Montecchia (26) and Ruben Wolkowyski (25) as well as young players like Manu Ginobili (21), Pepe Sanchez (21) and Oberto (23). Yugoslavia won the title, but its most difficult game was in the quarterfinals against Argentina. On August 7, 1998, Yugoslavia won 70-62, but for some 30 minutes, Argentina was the better team. This was also the first time that Dejan Tomasevic (10 points, 11 boards) and Oberto (6 points, 8 rebounds) – a great duo later at Tau Ceramica and Valencia – would play against each other.
After taking ninth place in Atlanta, Argentina placed eighth in Athens and Oberto finished the tournament with 8.3 points and 3.6 rebounds, enough to expect a good season with Olympiacos. But that didn’t happen. His adaptation to European basketball was slower than expected and Ivkovic didn’t give him much playing time. In 22 EuroLeague games, Oberto averaged 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds over 16 minutes. Olympiacos reached the Final Four in Munich but lost in the semifinal against eventual champion Zalgiris, 87-71, and defeated Fortitudo Bologna for third place, 74-63, with Oberto contributing 9 points and 8 rebounds in 20 minutes.
My friend Alejandro Perez, a Buenos Aires-based journalist and a connoisseur of South American basketball, told me the story of how once, in the summer of 1999, a disappointed Oberto told him that he was thinking of going back home. But then the offer that changed his life arrived. Dusko Ivanovic of Tau Ceramica called him. In his first season in the Spanish League, Oberto improved his numbers to 9.5 points and 7.0 boards even though Tau would fall to eventual champ AEK Athens in the Saporta Cup. Oberto missed a few games in the Spanish League due to injuries.
Oberto’s second season in Vitoria, 2000-01, was much better. He played all 34 regular season Spanish League games plus nine in the playoffs and amassed 9.0 points and 6.2 rebounds. Tau fell in the semifinals to Real Madrid 3-2 but reached the finals of the first edition of the modern EuroLeague, where it lost 3-2 to Kinder Bologna. Oberto posted 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in the EuroLeague.
24 seconds in Indianapolis
The arrival of Tomasevic to Vitoria in the summer of 2001 triggered the birth of a great duo of big men. They both had the same height (2.08 meters), they shared some attributes (scoring, rebounding, a sense for assists, high basketball IQ) and a winning mentality. In their first season together, they first won the Spanish King’s Cup at home. Tau Ceramica worked hard to defeat Joventut Badalona 74-72, topped Unicaja 83-72 and then edged Barcelona in the final against 85-83. Tomasevic was named MVP of the tournament, but Oberto was also a main contributor. Tau had a great team with Sconochini, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Elmer Bennett, Laurent Foirest, Chris Corchiani and Sergi Vidal. A few months later they would also win the Spanish League title against Unicaja, sweeping the finals 3-0.
When the season ended, the big news in Spain was that both Tomasevic and Oberto were moving together to Pamesa Valencia. However, before the start of that season, the two friends had a new commitment, the 2002 World Cup in Indianapolis. Argentina and Yugoslavia reached the title game, the former with great authority and the latter after struggling in the first phase, but with a great win over host USA in the quarterfinals. A brilliant Oberto (28 points, 10 boards) had his team on the brink of the gold medal with 24 seconds to go. However, two threes by Dejan Bodiroga and questionable defense by Vlade Divac on Sconochini on the last play forced overtime, in which Yugoslavia was better and won, 84-77.
Together again, Oberto and Tomasevic led Pamesa Valencia all the way to the club’s first European title, the 2002-03 EuroCup, in the first edition of the competition, which was then called the ULEB Cup and organized by Euroleague Basketball. On April 15, 2003, Valencia defeated KRKA, on the road in Novo Mesto, by a score of 78-90 behind 14 points and 7 rebounds from Oberto. Seven days later, at home in Valencia, the win was closer, 78-76, but the title stayed in Spain. The duo formed by Oberto (13 points, 8 rebounds) and Tomasevic (28 points, 11 rebounds and MVP honors) shined again.
As EuroCup champ, Valencia earned the right to play in the EuroLeague the following season, making its debut in the top European competition. The team had a good season and reached the Top 16 but missed a Final Four appearance. Valencia was tied with Maccabi Tel Aviv in their Top 16 group with a 4-2 record but lost the tiebreaker to reach the Final Four. Maccabi had won their first game in Valencia by a 74-89 score, and then Valencia suffered a 20-0 defeat in the rematch for refusing to travel to Tel Aviv.
In the summer of 2004, Argentina soared in the Athens Olympics. The key game was in the semifinals against the USA. Argentina, led by Ginobili with 29 points, won 89-81. In the final against Italy, the team had no problems and cruised 84-69 to claim the gold medal, even though Oberto had to miss the game due to injury.
“I was very fortunate to play four years alongside Fabricio, a great player and a great friend,” Dejan
Tomasevic told me years later. “I am sure that he helped me become a better player and I tried to do the same for him. Not long ago I saw bits of the ULEB Cup final we won with Pamesa and I felt great satisfaction for what we did and how we did it.”
The ring in San Antonio
In the summer of 2005, Oberto decided to leave Valencia and try his luck in the NBA. He left behind 219 games in the Spanish League, with averages of 11.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists. At 31 years old, he became the San Antonio Spurs’ oldest rookie ever, but head coach Gregg Popovich trusted Oberto. His role was helping the second team and he delivered. In the 2006-07 season, in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, he played 31 minutes and averaged 14.0 points, way above his usual numbers, which were between 4 and 5 points. The Spurs would go on to win the title, Oberto’s crowning moment in five NBA seasons. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Oberto won his second medal, a bronze, after an 87-75 win over Lithuania. After four years in San Antonio, where he played alongside his friend Ginobili, he played one season in Washington and a few games of another in Portland. Oberto then suffered some heart problems and had to stop playing. In November of 2011, he announced his retirement. He had played 336 regular season games in the NBA (3.2 points and 3.5 boards) and 46 playoff games (4.2 points and 3.9 rebounds).
When he had recovered, Oberto played once more with his first club, Atenas Cordoba, and even with the national team in the pre-Olympic tournament of 2012 in Mar del Plata.
Alejandro Perez pointed out that Oberto had traveled to the 1993 World Cup in Toronto as the 13th player, not to play, but to gain valuable experience early in his career. I remember Mirko Novosel having done the same thing 20 years earlier, with Mirza Delibasic in the World Cup in Puerto Rico. Perez told me that Oberto always attributed his success in sports to hard work.
“I am the result of hard work. I don’t have the talent. Everything I ever did was because I practiced hard. I practiced in my career what others would need three lives for. That’s the number of hours I spent in the gym,” Oberto said.
Once retired for good, Oberto lived in Cordoba and worked as a music journalist with his own radio show, something he had done for fun in Valencia. Oberto also appeared on a TV show doing exclusive interviews with well-known people from Ginobili to Eva Longoria. He also owned a winery with a friend that produced some 400,000 bottles a year. He plays guitar, enjoys rock and roll and spending time with his daughter. He once said: “I prefer that Wikipedia says about me that I was a better person than a player.”
Why not both? The great player he was and the great person he is.