BARCELONA, Spain -- Americans do not understand a man such as Oscar Schmidt.
He is not cut-throat enough for American tastes. The game is important to him, yes, but it is not life itself. He plays to win, but he is not tormented by losses.
"How could you find it within yourself to stand on the court and sign autographs for little kids immediately after such a tough loss?" he was asked during the Tournament of the Americas. The inquisitor was a woman who knew that Brazil, in losing to Venezuela, had just blown its chance to play the United States in the championship game.
"This is not war," Oscar said with a shrug. "The children are not at fault."
A man such as this really does not belong in the NBA. He is what he is, a sensitive, good-hearted Brazilian. Basketball is his art, not his act of vengeance. It provides him with a good living, but it is not combat. It is not war. It is a game.
I am worried for Oscar, because tonight he will fulfill a true dream by playing against the United States and his Idol of Idols, Larry Bird. I am worried because I fear Team USA is out to humiliate him and I know they have the capability to do it. If Chuck Daly puts Scottie Pippen and/or Michael Jordan on him and instructs either of these Chicago defensive masters to shut out Oscar, they might do it. Oscar's dignity would be stripped, and he is far too decent a man for that to happen.
Oscar is 34 now, and not what he was. "I no longer have the explosion," he says. He is slow and not particularly athletic. The American marauders could smother him.
Oscar Schmidt could have come to America a number of years TC ago. The New Jersey Nets offered him a contract, but Oscar rejected it. "They offered me $100,000," he explains. "The minimum was $65,000. It was only for one year. It did not show the proper respect."
Oscar was not sure what kind of reception he would have received. "The important thing is for the coach to have confidence in you," Oscar explains. "At that time, people in America were not sure about European players. The coach must give you the confidence. It does not matter which sport you play."
There was another reason he did not come to the NBA at that time. "I could not have played for the Brazilian national team if I did that," he says. "It is very important for me to play on the national team. It is my country, my blood."
Americans first learned about Oscar Schmidt in 1987 when he scored 46 points as Brazil won the gold medal in the Pan American Games. Europeans had long known about this 6-foot-8 marksman. He had been on the Brazilian national team since age 18. He had been a star in Italy since 1982.
In every league Schmidt has played in, he has led that circuit in scoring. It is necessary to report that for Oscar, scoring is basketball. He rebounds occasionally and he can pass a little, but he has no interest in defense. It is, as Charles Barkley might say, a Brazilian thing. A nice Brazilian score is 120-112, and as long as Brazil has the 120, they are happy and let the party begin.
Guess who leads the 1992 Olympics in scoring? Oscar dropped 44 on Spain the other night. (This represented a slight comedown from the 55 he hit them with in Seoul.) His team was down by 18, but Oscar got rolling, scoring 29 in the second half to get Brazil into a four-point lead late in the game. But given a chance to be a hero by sinking a three-pointer as time expired, Oscar watched his open pull-up jumper bang off the back rim. Afterward, he was consoling the consolers, as was his good friend and longtime teammate, Marcel de Souza.
"It is all right," said Marcel, in classic Brazilian fashion. "Sometimes we beat these teams; sometimes these teams beat us."
Oscar has lost a step, it is true, but he has not lost any brain cells. "I know I cannot do all the things I could do before, but I am smarter,"he contends. "I guess you call that experience."
He still has a very quick release, and he has absolutely no conscience whatsoever. He would rather take a three-pointer than take it to the hoop, even if an open lane beckons invitingly. He has clever up-fakes and he knows how to work the refs. Don't foul him; he was 13-for-13 against Spain from the stripe. He knows how to get open, and his team definitely knows how to find him.
Brazil is what America would regard as a "soft" team, and they are a candidate to surrender 150 points tonight, particularly if the Americans try to turn the defensive screws. Team USA mistakeningly believes Brazil insulted them in Portland, when all de Souza said was that he wanted to play the Americans and have them try to win by 100, so "we can find out how good we really are." The Americans don't know from de Souza, but they do know Oscar, and he is likely to be the focus of their artificial anger.
I'm not sure Oscar realizes what's in store, but I do know that he is too completely innocent and guileless to deserve any public humiliation. The USA should win by its 50 and let Oscar have his unobtrusive 15 or 20. There would be no point to subjecting Oscar to public torture.
And I also guarantee this: win or lose, 15-10-45 or 0-0-0, Oscar will sign his autographs for the children. It is, after all, not war.