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. With Pippen, Barkley, Stockton, Malone, Olajuwon, Miller, O’Neal, Payton and Hardaway on Team USA); Divac, Paspalj, Danilovic, Djordjevic, Savic, Bodiroga, Rebraca and Tomasevic playing for Yugoslavia; Sabonis, Marciulionis, Karnisovas, Kurtinaitis and Stombergas representing Lithuania; Kukoc, Radja, Komazec and Perasovic with Croatia as well as Schmidt on Brazil, Gaze on Australia, Giannakis on Greece and Ortiz on Puerto Rico, it was easy to miss the talent of a kid in 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 played in the nineties – the All-Tournament team was formed by 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 Pittis, Rebraca and Marconato, plus Zeljko Obradovic on the bench. FC Barcelona had stars such as Djordjevic, Rafa Jofresa, Jimenez and Nicola; Olympiacos featured Rogers and Fassoulas; PSG had Risacher, Dacoury and Alfonso Reyes and the Bulls had names like Kukoc, Harper, Kerr and Longley.
The opening game was on October 16, 1997, between Benetton and Atenas and it proved to be the first upset, 78-87. For the Argentinian team, with veterans Hector Campana (33 years old), Marcelo Milanesio (32) and Diego Osella (28), a 22-year-old Oberto looked like a young kid. But his 22 points and 11 rebounds against Benetton started his road to glory. In an 86-89 defeat to Olympiacos, he 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 Argentinian player. Oberto’s game, on 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 used his back well so he hardly missed when close to the rim. 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 one more season, the team for which he had started playing when he was 1.98 meters tall. 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 of Athens, where he joined Olympiacos in Greece. Before making his debut he played for Argentina at the World Championships Athens. I would say that the Great Argentina, 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), Disego Osella (29), Marcelo Nicola (27), Hugo Sconochini (27), Carlos Simoni (27), Alejandro Montecchia (26) and Ruben Wolkowisky (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 future great duo to be at Tau Ceramica and Valencia – would play against each other.
Argentina, like in Atlanta, finished ninth. Oberto finished the tournament with 8.3 points and 3.6 rebounds, enough to expect a good season in 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 was 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 Fortiudo 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 connoisseurs of South American basketball, e-mail me last week with 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 and the Saporta Cup, 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 eighthfinals. He 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 and reached the finals of the first edition of the modern Euroleague, where it lost 3-2 to Kinder Bologna. He 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 shared season, they first won the Spanish 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, Scola, Nocioni, Bennett, Foirest, Corchiani, 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 moved together to Pamesa Valencia. However, before the start of the season, the two friends had a new commitment, the Indianapolis World Championships. 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 ULEB Cup, in the first edition of the competition, which was the second competition organized by Euroleague Basketball. On April 15, 2003, Pamesa defeated KRKA in Novo Mesto 90-78 behind 14 points plus 7 boards 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 ULEB Cup champ, Pamesa earned the right to play in the Euroleague the following season and made its debut in the top European competition. The team had a good season and reached the Top 16, but missed a Final Four appearance. Pamesa was tied with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the group with a 4-2 record, but carried a heavy burden: a 20-0 loss to Maccabi because the Spanish team refused to travel to Tel Aviv to play its Top 16 game there due to the political crisis at the moment in Israel.
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 (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,” Serbian federation vice president Dejan Tomasevic told me last week. “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. I saw Fabricio for the last time in the summer of 2008 when I toured the USA with Panathinaikos. We played in San Antonio and we went out to have dinner together. I hope he is fine and that I can see him again sooner than later.”
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 11.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists. At 31 years of age, he became the San Antonio Spurs’ oldest rookie ever, but head coach Greg Popovich trusted Oberto. His role was helping out on the second term and he delivered in spades. 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, between 4 and 5 points. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing he won his second medal, a bronze one, after beating Lithuania 87-75. After four years in San Antonio, where he played alongside his friend Ginobili, he played one season in Washington and another in Portland. He played 336 regular season games (3.2 points and 3.5 boards) and 46 playoff games (4.2 points and 3.9 rebounds).
Oberto then suffered some heart problems and had to stop playing. In November of 2011, he announced his retirement. However, when he recovered, he played again 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 discovered the detail that Oberto travelled to the 1993 World Championships in Toronto as the 13th player, not to play, but to gain valuable experience. I remember Mirko Novosel did the same thing with Mirza Delibasic in the World Championships in Puerto Rico 20 years earlier. Perez told me that Oberto said several times that his success in sports was due 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 amount of hours I spent in the gyms,” said Oberto.
Now, retired for good, he lives in Cordoba and works as a music journalist with his own radio show, something he had done for fun in Valencia. Oberto also features on a TV show where he conducts exclusive interviews with well-known people from Manu Ginobili to Eva Longoria. He also owns a winery with a friend and produces some 400,000 bottles a year. He plays guitar, enjoys rock and roll and spending time with his 8-year old daughter. He also prefers that “Wikipedia says about me that I was a better person than player.”
Why not both? The great player he was and the great person he is.
( February 17, 2014)