Friday, February 16, 2007
The Holy Hand
I like Brazil a lot. I've never been there (I'd love to go) but from an outsider's perspective, I can deduce a number of positive things:
1. Brazilians are the best soccer players in the world;
2. Brazilians are [maybe] the best race car drivers in the world;
3. Brazilian people are hot, hot, hot;
4. Brazilian athletes are the beneficiaries of some really, really great nicknames;
5. Brazil is home to the greatest player never to play in the NBA.
Number one is tough; this isn't a soccer blog (my career ended in first grade with an unfortunate, unfair, and unfounded hand ball call). Two is as well (I currently drive a Toyota Corolla with 136,000 on the clock); Three might be kind of interesting, but I will forgo that pleasure.
Numbers four and five are two things I can tackle, though. The reason? The Holy Hand.
The player who earned this nickname was none other than Mr. Oscar Schmidt, and he was a phenomenon unlike any other the world has ever seen. He was 6'8", couldn't really jump, and didn't play a lot of defense, but he was an unstoppable, incomparable scoring machine. He is a legend in his home country, as well as in Europe, and it is a shame that we never got to see him play in America. He shot with reckless abandon as the offense flowed through him, dominating the way few basketball players do. Like Pistol Pete in college, he was the focal point, everyone knew it, and instead of wearing him down, it pushed his game to transcendent levels. In his basketball career, he scored an incredible 49,703 points, more than anyone else, anywhere, ever. (His career spanned 25 years. Estimating 82 games a year [which is not completely accurate], that works out to 24.3 points per game. Think about how hard it is to do that for five or even ten years, and realize that he did it for twenty-five. It's just incredible to enumerate the extent of his dominance.)
Oscar was born on this day in 1958 in Natal, Brazil, home of the world's most wonderful beaches, beef, and cashews. The country would never be the same.
Oscar grew up in a country where basketball was considered a women's sport. Because of this, many youths shunned basketball, but Oscar persevered. Now, basketball is Brazil's third most- popular sport (behind soccer and volleyball [they are the best volley ballers in the world]).
He was very large for a guard, but he possessed a proportionality and balance that few men his size have. His otherworldly jump shot was mechanical yet natural, and he was too big and too lithe for people to stop his running jumpers, his drives, or any other part of his game. He was born to score.
He immediately became a star in Brazil, pushing their Olympic team into contention singlehandedly. (He is one of only two people to play in five Olympics.) His international career culminated in a upset in the 1987 Pan-American games when he brought Brazil back from a 68-54 halftime deficit to beat the best players American colleges had to offer 120-115.
Team USA was coached by Denny Crum, a hall-of-famer. Crum's players included David Robinson (a hall-of-famer), Keith Smart (a Final Four MVP at Indiana), Danny Manning (A Naismith Award winner), Pervis Ellison (also a Final Four MVP at Louisville), Willie Anderson (18 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.9 spg his first year in the NBA), and the great Rex Chapman, one of the more underrated shooting guards of the early nineties [and king of the buzzer-beater].
It is hard to believe anybody could beat this team. That it happened at the Pan American games [as opposed to the Olympics] is even more unreal. The US team was dominant; they had beaten Panama 91-63, Argentina 85-58, Mexico 105-73, Venezuela 109-74, and Puerto Rico 80-75. Yes, Puerto Rico kept it close, but it's clear that the US was mopping the floor with Pan American players, as was the tradition at that time.
The final game was at Indiana's Market Square Arena, site of Elvis Presley's final performance and the ring in which The Hulk picked up Andre the Giant and slammed him to the ground, changing the lives of countless young boys. This game was just as exciting, and perhaps more important.
All 16,408 seats were spoken for, and the United States looked like it would prove it deserved its reputation as the king of the Pan Am games (historical record: 65-2). After the first half, the Yanks were up 68-54. David Robinson was sitting in his locker at halftime, reading a bible, when he remarked "I think it's safe to say that countries such as Brazil produce inadequate, and even embarrassing basketball players. They could only hope to achieve our level of economic, social, political and athletic dominance." Pervis Ellison replied "Yeah, thems some shits."
In the Brazilian locker room, Oscar Schmidt was probably smiling. He had just finished a rough first half, scoring only eleven points, and he probably looked at his hands and knew that he could do better. He knew he was the sole owner of something David Robinson and his bible could never compete with. He had the Holy Hand.
The second half started and the United States went into "we're kicking your ass" mode, but they didn't realize that Oscar Schmidt was about to raise his game. He started gunning, and all of a sudden no one could cover him, and he couldn't miss. He scored point after point, and when he was double teamed, passed to the other veteran on his team, Marcel Souza. Between the two of them, they scored 55 of Brazil's 66 second half points, 35 compliments of the Holy Hand.
"This is worse than the time I realized that submarines are only six and a half feet tall," said David Robinson.
"After this embarrassment, I will probably end up having a pro career that culminates with me being the bust in one of the worst trades in NBA history," said Danny Manning.
"I'm gonna go smoke some shit," said Pervis Ellison.
Some video of the game is available here. I go through a lot of crappy YouTube videos, and I have to say, this one was really done with care. It starts with the United States dominating the first half, and they look great. Behind-the-back passes, massive swats, three pointers, putback dunks, it's all there. The coach for Brazil, a bald and unpleasant-looking man, slaps his head in agony, wondering how things can be so bad. The flamboyant Oscar throws his head in his towel.
At about the :58 mark, the first half ends (thankfully for the Brazilians). Then the fun begins. The Brazilian defense and passing is well developed, and their big shooting guard is completely unafraid to put it up with guards in his face or with big men on both sides of him. He is locked-in, always ready to shoot, and as the Brazilian flag wavers start to scream, he even dunks on one of the Yanks.
The US begins to go in to panic mode and can't hit anything, and fall right into the trap the Holy Hand has set. He has roped the dope. He brings Brazil within two with eleven minutes left, and the Americans already know they fucked with the wrong Brazilian bad boy.
Thankfully, the Americans have pride, and keep the game close. They can't keep up with Oscar, though, as the one-man scoring machine dominates and refuses to stop until the final horn blows.
It was the biggest basketball victory ever for Brazil, and the pride shows in the celebration as the nets are cut down. It's hard not to smile as all the teammates sing the national anthem without a hint of gloating, experiencing a genuine pride that not many people can ever get out of the game. They beat Goliath, because, not unlike David, they had the Holy Hand.
Some may say that he couldn't handle NBA-level competition, but I would counter with this, a video of him, at 40, at the European three point shooting contest. It is truly incredible. I don't know if there is a player in the NBA that could do this.
Why didn't he go to the NBA? Well, in 1984, he was drafted in the sixth round by the Nets. (He was the second European player ever drafted after Georgi Glouchkov had a rough season with the Suns, gaining a ton of weight by "overindulging in American fast food." Glouchkov spoke no English and had a translator who was hard of hearing. It did not go well.)
Glouchkov had played in Europe with Oscar, and told him the NBA stunk. More than that, though, Oscar had an uncanny saavy about the league and strong humility about his play. "I know my limitations, my defects...I could never play 10 minutes a game. NBA is great if you are a star. But if not, you get moved around. My friend Georgi Glouchkov played a year in Phoenix. He tells me bad stories about NBA. The guards did not like him, they don't pass him the ball. I would not like that. I could not stand that."
So it was that Oscar stayed in South American and European leagues, earning top-dollar and giving a country with almost no basketball history a new sport to focus its talents on. Today, the NBA has Brazilians Rafael Araujo, Leandro Barbosa, Nene, Anderson Varejao, and soon Tiago Splitter. I am sure that if you asked anyone of them why they picked up a basketball, they would tell you it was thanks to on man, Oscar Schmidt, The Holy Hand.
As always, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
PS: Dallas, playing well and in the midst of a 9-game winning streak barely, by the slimmest of margins, beat my pick for the chip, Houston last night. Jason Terry had yet another terrible game against Rafer, though he did hit a big shot. I don't think they can beat this team with Yao, I just don't.
Posted by Jimmy at 9:03 AM