“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!
Oscar Schmidt – The Holy Hand
FIBA used to run a competition, the Intercontinental Cup, that existed between 1966 and 1982 and made a brief revival recently. South American champion Sirio de Sao Paulo, Brazil faced EuroLeague winner Bosna Sarajevo in the 1979 title game. Sirio won 100-96 in overtime at home in Sao Paulo, which led to a big on-court celebration, Brazilian style. Oscar Schmidt was 20 years old back then and finished the game with 42 points, shocking head coach Bogdan Tanjevic of Bosna with his extraordinary talent. Decades later, Tanjevic told me a fact from that game.
“Never before or since in my entire life did I see a player who played a great game even though he couldn’t stop … crying,” Tanjevic said. “Bosna, my team, led for almost 35 minutes and Oscar was crying for real because he thought that the world champion title was slipping away from him in front of his fans. He forced overtime and single-handedly beat us in the extra period. That is when I decided that if I ever coached a team outside Yugoslavia, he would be one of my foreign players – Oscar Schmidt. His talent was beyond all doubt and those tears of his proved his winning mentality.”
Tanjevic moved to Indesit Caserta in 1982 and kept his own promise by signing Oscar Schmidt along with a Serbian point guard, veteran Zoran “Moka” Slavnic. Tanjevic was known throughout his career for having the courage to give playing time to very young players like Mirza Delibasic, Ratko Radovanovic, Nando Gentile, Dejan Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka. Now, he had brought an outstanding young player to Caserta. Schmidt would become a fan idol for eight years, a relentless scorer, a truly one-of-a-kind player who, with all respect to Caserta, deserved to play on a European superpower. Tanjevic has an explanation for Schmidt’s loyalty: “Oscar is a very honest man. He was thankful to me, the club and to an entire city that welcomed him with open arms. He had offers to go to other clubs but stayed there for eight years.”
Oscar Daniel Bezerra Schmidt was born on February 16, 1958, into a family with German origins in Natal, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. He started playing for Palmeiras at age 16. He went to his first major international competition, the 1978 World Cup in Manila, the Philippines, still as a Palmeiras player. Brazil finished third and young Oscar was the second-best scorer on the team with 159 points (17.7 per game), right behind Marcel de Souza, who had 189 points (18.9 ppg.). Schmidt signed for Sirio right after the World Cup and, as mentioned, won the Intercontinental Cup in 1979. I saw him live for the first time at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. It was the first of his five Olympics appearances. I also followed him at Los Angeles 1984, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and at the 1990 World Cup in Argentina. Tanjevic places Oscar among the “best three offensive players of all time,” and I fully agree with him. Oscar Schmidt’s nickname was Mano Santa – Holy Hand – and it was more than justified: he shot and scored with fascinating ease. The Brazilian press nicknamed him “basketball’s Pele”. He surely was not the most all-around player, but if we speak about shooting, I really don’t know whom I would rank over him.
“I practiced all my life to become the best basketball player ever, and didn’t make it, but I am really proud of what I did,” Oscar said on May 26, 2003, the day he retired at age 45 after playing for 32 years. He couldn’t hide the tears that day, which were so different from those in 1979, at the start of his brilliant career. He left some impressive milestones behind. He was 297 points short of getting 50,000 for his career, but still owns the mark for the most points by any player in basketball history. Some years before that, he had beaten Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record – 46,272 points – established in 1989.
Even though Schmidt played until age 45, his golden years were those in Caserta, a humble club in southern Italy that Oscar led to an Italian Cup title in 1988. He also played the Italian League finals in 1986 and 1987, as well as reaching the Saporta Cup title game in 1989, in an unforgettable showdown against Real Madrid in Athens. The game was one of the biggest duels ever between two great scorers. Madrid beat Caserta 117-113 in overtime behind 62 points from Drazen Petrovic, who played all 45 minutes. Oscar “rested” a little bit and had 44 points in as many minutes. Drazen made 8 of 16 three-pointers while Oscar drained 6 of 11 from downtown. Three years before that, in 1986, Caserta lost the Korac Cup final against Banco Di Roma despite 33 points by Oscar in the first leg and 20 in the decisive game.
The man who beat the United States
One of Oscar’s best games came against the United States, in the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, where Brazil downed the hosts 120-115. Oscar finished the game with 47 points! The victory was history-making in two ways: it was the first defeat for a U.S. team on its own soil and the first in which the U.S. allowed more than 100 points.
His size (2.05 meters), weight (106 kilograms) and big feet (size 48) made him a strong forward and a good rebounder, but Oscar’s best basketball weapon was shooting. He was able to score from any position and at any distance, with his opponents’ hands in front of him, despite being fouled, wide open, mid-range or long-range. He started to play when the three-point line was not yet implemented in world basketball but had the luck to benefit from it starting in 1984. It was the perfect rule for a shooter like him. Once he left Caserta, Oscar played in Pavia, Italy for three years. He scored 1,760 points in 40 games in the 1990-91 season, an incredible 44-point average! Throughout the most important part of his career in Italy, he played 403 games in 11 seasons, scoring 13,957 points (34.6 ppg.). At age 39, Oscar moved to Spain and signed for Valladolid, where he scored 2,009 points in two years (28.3 ppg.) and finished as the Spanish League’s top scorer both seasons. He fired in 11 of 19 three-pointers in one game against Murcia.
Speaking of three-pointers, Schmidt once made 22 of 25 shots from downtown in the three-point contest at the Italian League all-star game. In a public exhibition, Oscar once made 196 consecutive free throws and 86 straight three-pointers. Once he finished playing in Spain, Oscar went back to Brazil and played for Corinthians (1995-97), Banco Bandeirantes Brasil (1997-98), Gremio (1998-99) and Flamengo (1999 to 2003). He played his last game with Flamengo on May 26, 2003, as the club retired his jersey, number 14.
Oscar’s list of records is very long and some of them seem impossible to reach. He holds the all-time Olympic records for points, rebounds, minutes played, two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws made. Oscar had 55 points against Spain at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, an Olympic record. He played 35 World Cup games, scoring 916 points, another record. Oscar had 7,693 points total in 326 games with Brazil. He had several chances to go to the NBA but refused them. New Jersey called him three consecutive years, from 1984 to 1986, but Schmidt always rejected them because back in those days, going to the NBA meant not playing with his national team again – and this was the last thing Oscar would do. Oscar successfully survived brain surgery in 2001.
If it were up to me, I would name the top scoring award of any competition “The Oscar Trophy”. I would do that for Mano Santa, Oscar Schmidt and the double meaning of his nickname.