RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Like some ghost from the past, the memory of a stinging loss in the Olympic gold-medal volleyball game more than three decades ago returned just in time to save Brazil’s night. Without it, chances are good that both Alison Cerruti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt would have wound up on a hardwood floor instead of a sand court.
Their three-set semifinal win Tuesday over the Dutch pair of Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen advanced the Brazilians into yet another gold medal final and helped soothe their countrymen’s nerves after Brazil’s top-seeded women’s pair was upset in an earlier semifinal by Germany.
Alison’s nickname is “Mammoth” and it’s easy to see why. He stands 6-foot-8 and takes up enough space to play power forward in the NBA. Schimdt’s uncle, Oscar, is the greatest basketball player in Brazil’s history and one of the most decorated international stars of all time. He could shoot without conscience, and even if he thought defense was the interval between his last shot and the next one, he could carry a team and the hopes of an entire nation on his back, including those of his nephew.
“Oscar is my idol,” Bruno said.
The long and winding road that brought both Alison and Bruno Schmidt to the beach begins with a volleyball game that was played at the 1984 Los Angeles Games before either of them was born.
“In the 1980s, basketball and volleyball were like this,” five-time Olympic Brazilian volleyball great Emanuel Rego explained, holding both hands palms down at his chest. “Maybe basketball was a little bigger because of Oscar. …
“Then came the game. It was much talked about. It changed the balance,” Emanuel said, turning his right palm up, “like that.”
That game was played at the 1984 Summer Games, pitting traditional indoor volleyball powers Brazil and the United States for gold. The two had traded trophies in international competitions with only the occasional interloper sneaking in between them. After two tight sets, the Americans cruised to a 15-2 win in the third.
Soon after, beach volleyball became all the rage. Having begun in Southern California in the 1920s, it took off, according to legend, when it was played at a nudist colony outside Paris a decade later. In the years that Alison and Schmidt grew up, volleyball in the sand was just hitting its stride on both continents. Once again, the United States and Brazil locked horns.
Alison, who was born in 1985, wanted to play futbol, which Brazilians like to say is more a religion than sport. When the last spot in a league he wanted to join was taken, he wound up in one of the volleyball programs launched across the country to return Brazil to what the sporting public here viewed as its rightful place at the top.
“I have to thank my mother,” Alison said through an interpreter. “That made me a great player.”
Schmidt was a promising basketball talent until he was 12. “But he got tired of always being Oscar Schmidt’s nephew, always being compared,” said Luis Felipe Schmidt, Bruno’s father, Oscar’s younger brother, and a member of Brazil’s military teams for years.
“I was in the Navy and in 2004, we moved to Vittoria, where there was a big center for beach volleyball,” he continued. “It was fun, and not so much pressure. … You get a ball and go to the beach, there was always a game. I used to be Bruno’s teammate until he became too good.”
Asked how uncle Oscar responded to news that his nephew was choosing volleyball, Luis shook his head.
“We never had a real discussion,” he said. “We are a basketball family, after all. But we are also a sporting family. It also helped that his uncle Tadeu (Luis’ youngest brother) was a good player and supporter of Bruno’s volleyball playing.”
Beach volleyball became a medal sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Since then, Brazil’s men’s and women’s team have won gold twice and 11 medals overall. The numbers for the United States are six and 9, respectively. The German men won gold in 2012, representative of a push by European teams like the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, as well as emerging Asian power China, to shoehorn themselves between Brazil and the United States.
The Brazilians won’t give ground easily, if at all. At the end of their tough three-set win over the Dutch pair, Alison fell flat on his face and lay spread-eagle in the sand for nearly a minute before rising to shake hands and hug Bruno and then their opponents.
Outside the arena, Luis Schmidt accepted congratulations from several generations of Brazilian greats — first from Emanuel, then from Bernardo Rajzman and finally a handful of officials from the national volleyball federation. He recalled the days when young Bruno left his basketball at home and sauntered down to the beach in bare feet with a volleyball stuck under his arm.
“Unbelievable,” Luis said finally. “Totally unbelievable to see him reach the position he is in today.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org and Twitter.com/JimLitke.