RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — That’s him, the man who changed international basketball. He’s the one who single-handedly beat the United States on its own soil nearly 30 years ago, stoking the embers that led to the Dream Team.
The greatest scorer in the history of the game, by a bunch, he’s perhaps the best player to never to slip on an NBA jersey.
Except for his size, Oscar Schmidt could walk down a city street in the U.S. unnoticed.
Not in Brazil.
As Schmidt ambles through the corridors of Carioca Arena, his weakened knees preventing him from moving with the grace he once showed on the floor, his countrymen treat him with respect and reverence. Police officers ask if they can have their picture taken with him, young volunteers squeeze in close for selfies and everyone he encounters shows him love. They all want to touch the man dubbed “Mao Santo” in Portuguese, The Holy Hand.
Schmidt accepts it all and happily obliges every request with a smile, and often with a hearty laugh.
These Olympics are personal to the Brazilian basketball icon. These games are on his court.
“I have had a great life,” he said before doing TV commentary for Brazil’s double-overtime loss to Argentina on Saturday.
He was a mystery, something of an urban legend until 1987, when during an unforgettable game in Indiana, the heartland of American hoops, Schmidt scored 46 points in the final of the Pan American Games to stun the Americans. It ended a 34-game winning streak for the U.S., its first loss in international competition at home.
Schmidt, a cocky shooter’s shooter with remarkable range and little interest in playing defense, scored 35 points in the second half as Brazil overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to stun the U.S. team, which included college stars David Robinson, Danny Manning and coached by Denny Crum.
When the game ended, Schmidt stood under one basket and wept with joy as his teammates celebrated. They had done the unimaginable.
“That game was the best part of my life because we proved to the whole world that it was possible to beat them,” the 58-year-old Schmidt said. “And we were afraid to lose by 50.”
At that time, there had been discussion inside the U.S. basketball program about possibly using professionals in upcoming Olympics. And when the Americans were beaten by the Soviet Union the following year at the Seoul Games and finished with a bronze, the U.S. decided it was time to bring in the big boys.
Four years later, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and their All-Star teammates pummeled the competition in Barcelona while inspiring the rest of the world to shoot higher.
Schmidt, who scored 24 against that squad, takes personal satisfaction for his role in basketball’s global growth.
“Yeah, of course I do,” he said, his voice rising with pride. “When we beat them, everybody saw it and said, if they can win, we can win. So they put the Dream Team together.”
The Americans exacted revenge on Schmidt in Spain, pounding Brazil 127-83 and winning by an average of 43.8 points per game on their way to a gold medal.
“That was the best team I’ve ever seen play,” said Schmidt, one of the Olympic flag bearers in the opening ceremony. “They were something. The only players I think could make that team are Kobe, Shaquille and LeBron.”
And maybe Schmidt, who rejected overtures by NBA teams to play in Europe and on five Olympic teams for Brazil from 1980-1996. He was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 1984, but played in Italy, where he routinely scored 50 in a game.
“When he got into a zone, with his size at 6-8 and his mentality, once he got going, he was one of the toughest guys you would ever want to go up against,” said former Australian Olympian Andrew Gaze, who relishes the chance to catch up with his good friend. “I think if he came through in a later generation, he would have been very successful in the NBA. But back when he was at his best, there were very few international players. The NBA wasn’t really considering international players the way they are now.”
Schmidt helped open the door for non-U.S. players, and there were 100 on NBA rosters to start last season. And the American stars can thank the Hall of Famer, too, for getting them inside the five Olympic rings.
Unofficially credited with scoring over 49,000 career points — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had 38,387 — Schmidt is the Olympic leader with 1,093, nearly 800 more than Carmelo Anthony, who became Team USA’s career leader during these games.
Schmidt chuckled when reminded of the disparity before turning serious.
“But he’s going to win three times gold medals. I would change everything, every point — not that Pan American Games — but the rest for a medal in the Olympics,” said Schmidt, who finished fifth three times. “We had two good chances, not to get a medal, but a chance to win the Olympics. We came very close, but life is like that. You can’t have everything.”