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The Holy Hand of Brazil

The life and career of basketball hall of famer Oscar Schmidt, the self-proclaimed best scorer to never play in the NBA.

The greatest player to have never played in the NBA? It’s a peculiar distinction. He’s a mystery, this man. Willingly, he kept his talent away from us. Those who saw him play happily share their stories in awed tones. Those who merely caught flashes treasure the brilliance all the more. And those who never saw him at all doubt and dismiss. The greatest player to have never played in the NBA. How good could he have been?

This is no streetball legend, raw and ascendant until he wasn’t. This is no college phenom, wilted by injury or destroyed by addiction. There is no tragedy here: This is a man who did prodigious work. Over 26 years and across four continents, he scored 49,737 points: more than Kareem, more than Jordan, more than anyone. Ever.

He could barely be bothered to play defense, even less so as he kept going at 43, 44, 45 years old. But that was never the point. They compare him to Bird and Dirk, and that’s not it either. He only did one thing. He only wanted to do one thing. He was extreme, burning bright: an uncompromising, all-encompassing gunner.

“Some people, they move the piano,” he explained once. “Some people, they play the piano.”

He was an unholy chucker, but they called him Mão Santa. The Holy Hand.

“That’s nothing holy,” Oscar Schmidt scoffs, inside his outlandishly appointed home. Outside is the serene, gated community of Alphaville, on the outskirts of São Paulo and so far from the never-ending skyscrapers. Inside is a giant neon fish tank and a white piano and ceramic statuettes of samurai warriors brandishing swords. “It’s practice. I’m Practiced Hand!” He looks back at the World Cup action on his massive flat-screen, where Lionel Messi is about to break Iran’s heart. “I practice too much.”

Last year, all that practice led to induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Introduced by his friend Larry Bird, Schmidt took the lectern, looking dapper in a rich navy suit and a nifty newsboy cap. And for 18 minutes, in his accented English, he rambled beautifully through his life and career. The bighearted coaches who molded him; the international competitions where he stumbled and triumphed; his beloved wife, Cristina. He called her, with gratitude, his “rebounding machine” — for years, she’d chase down his misses in the practice gym. He called her “the greatest person I ever met.” “We are together 38 years,” he said, speaking to her directly. “And I hope to be with you until I die.”

He never removed his cap that day. But sitting here, in white shorts, white sandals and — of all things — a home white New York Jets Tim Tebow jersey, he’s bareheaded. And you can see, running along the curvature of his head, underneath his thinned but still spiky hair, the unmistakable groove of a deep scar. It’s a permanent reminder of the run of health problems Schmidt has suffered in the last few years. The nonmalignant brain tumor in 2011. The malignant brain tumor in 2013. And then this year, the arrhythmia, the one thing he feared really would kill him.

He has survived it all. And as he explains, it hasn’t become some late-stage life-altering event. It didn’t change everything he believed in. It’s not a testament to his unflagging willpower. It’s just something that happened, something he’ll have to deal with until he dies. You live long enough, and terrible things start to happen. But you live long enough, and great things start to happen too.

He started when he was 13, a gangly boy in Brasília who was too tall for soccer. The local coach’s name was Laurindo Miura. Miura was from Japan, and he held idiosyncratic practices. In one, Oscar had to dribble the ball with one hand while picking stones off the floor with the other; in another, he had to climb a series of chairs and ropes. That was enough: He was in love with the game.

At 16, he was handpicked by the São Paulo club Palmeiras and tossed in a team house with seven other boys. At 17, he reached his full height — 6 feet, 8 inches. But the coaches at Palmeiras, bless their vision, didn’t leave him at center, another big man withering in the paint. They taught him to shoot with the ball not in front of his face, as he had been doing, but far above his head. It was the template for those tens of thousands of points to come: a release so quick and so high and so accurate that it could not be touched.

He bore it into himself with numbing repetition. The team practiced three times a week, but Schmidt was there before and after school. “Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year!” One thousand shots a day, from everywhere on the court. “Inside, outside, even up to the back of the basket, shooting over the board. I practiced that! Many times!” When he wasn’t shooting, he was running the Palmeiras stadium steps.

While still in his teens, Schmidt got the only call he’d ever wanted: The Brazilian national team wanted a look. He didn’t watch the NBA growing up. It was basically impossible to find on Brazilian TV. But his patriotism was always a point of pride. His father served in the navy; his grandfather had left Germany for Brazil, where he’d found a welcome home. The national team was Oscar’s only dream. And so it didn’t matter that he was still a kid. When they cut him, it was crushing. “A tragic day for me,” he says now.

At 19, there was more inauspiciousness. He suffered an ankle injury so severe that one doctor said Schmidt might never play again. Another put Schmidt in a full, immobilizing leg cast. For three months, he sat in front of his house, his leg elevated, unable to even dribble a basketball. He was out of his mind with boredom.

Then a new family moved into the neighborhood. They had a young daughter. Oscar and the girl took the same bus to school. “And I was with my books, and two big [crutches] to walk,” he recalls. “It was very hard to go to school! But she came and she helped me with the books. And then we became friends.” He holds a beat before the punch line, and his big staccato laugh — an actual ha ha ha. “And friends between man and woman doesn’t exist! So we start to date. And that was 38 years ago.”

Later, his rebounding machine comes home from a jog. While the Schmidts’ cook stirs a big pot of feijoada — the national dish of Brazilian Saturdays — Cristina plays the gracious host, offering espresso and chocolate. Schmidt finally pulls his eyes away from the screen, to watch her closely as she passes through the living room. “Beautiful,” he says.

A year after his ankle injury, he was back on the court. Not long after, he met his destiny: the starting five of the Brazilian national team. “And then,” he says, “I start to be known.”

FILE PHOTO OF BRAZILIAN BASKETBALL STAR OSCAR SCHMIDT IN ACTION AGAINST USARon Kuntz/Reuters/Newscom

It wasn’t until 1992 that FIBA rules changed, allowing NBA players to take part in international competition. Until then, to maintain his amateur status for the national team, Schmidt could play professionally only in Europe. He started at Caserta, in the south of Italy, where discipline came naturally to him.

“Never alcohol, never coffee,” he says. “No smoking, no drugs.” No alcohol at all? “I tried it, but I don’t like it. In Italy, you can have wine at the table, but no Coca-Cola. Come on! Are you crazy? Get me my Coca-Cola, please!” But when it came to food: “I eat everything. Need to eat. Gasoline. I was [at the] top of my practice. I was at the top of my knowledge. That’s why [I got] these points.”

The numbers were gaudy. In Serie A, then the best in Europe, Schmidt was the scoring champion seven times over. In 1982, his first year in Europe, he averaged just a shade under 30 a game. By the 1990 season, he was going off for 44 a night.

Consider the childhood memories of young Kobe Bryant, then living in Italy with his dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. Schmidt remembers lil’ Kobe, dribbling around at halftime, messing around under the scorer’s table. And Kobe certainly remembers Oscar. “When I was growing up over there,” Bryant says, “he was a living legend.”

Every four years, the non-Neapolitan set got a taste, too. The Olympics, and international competition in general, were Oscar Schmidt’s playthings. In the 1988 games in Seoul, he went for 41.9 points a game. In ’92 in Barcelona, it was 24.8. In ’96 in Atlanta, 27.4. He is Olympic men’s basketball’s all-time leading scorer. When I ask him about ’88, I mistakenly quote his scoring average as 40.9, and he dives in: “41! Don’t cut me nothing!”

As head coach for the Canadian national team, Steve Konchalski faced off with Schmidt repeatedly (including in ’95, when Steve Nash, then still a senior at Santa Clara, was on the squad). “Oscar wasn’t a great athlete,” Konchalski remembers. “His strength was OK. But he had supreme confidence in his game, to a degree of arrogance. And he could just shoot the heck out of the ball.”

In 1987, at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, Schmidt and Marcel de Souza, his longtime partner in crime, pulled the Brazil squad to the gold-medal game against the heavily favored Americans. That USA team was carrying a pre-Association David Robinson, Rex Chapman, and Danny Manning — and a 34-game win streak.

At halftime, Brazil was down 68-54. So in the third quarter, Schmidt came out firing. Meanwhile, de Souza was leading the mind games. “I told [the Americans], ‘Hey, I’m an old man, I can’t guard you,’” he explained at the time. Adds Schmidt now, “We said [to the Americans], ‘Shoot now! Everybody looking at you. Shoot now!’” On the other end, Schmidt took his own advice: He splashed his way to 35 second-half points, 46 overall, and Brazil came back to win 120-115. It was the first time U.S. men’s basketball had ever been beaten at home. There were plenty of opportunities for Schmidt’s trademark double-fist-pump exultation. But the image that lingers is him on the floor, overcome, weeping with joy.

In the postgame press conference, the New York Times reported, then–U.S. men’s head coach Denny Crum “forgot … the name of Brazil’s best player. Finally, one of his players flipped through a roster and called out the name” — Oscar Schmidt.

Looking back now, Crum says, “I wasn’t that into international basketball, and I don’t even think our players knew too much about him. And then they start setting picks for him out there, I mean, at 30 feet from the basket. And he just kept throwing it in.”

Whom did Crum have guarding Oscar? “It didn’t matter! We tried three or four guys. It didn’t matter. The things that he did …” Crum is still stunned by what he saw that day. “He may be the best in the world to have never played in the NBA.”

This was the beginning of the end for U.S. basketball’s amateur status. The program would come up short at the ’88 Olympics, the ’90 Goodwill Games, ’90 World Championship, and the ’91 Pan American Games. And so the college kids were sidelined in favor of that iconic ’92 roster.

Schmidt played against the Dream Team in Barcelona. And while he put up nearly 25 points a game, he was still awed by the legends up close. “I wanted to bring my camera to the bench!” he joked in his Hall of Fame speech. It closed the loop that first opened in the second half of a basketball game in Indianapolis in 1987. “That’s the biggest fight of my career,” he says. “To provoke a Dream Team? Can you believe this?”

FILE PHOTO OF BRAZILIAN BASKETBALL STAR OSCAR SCHMIDT IN ACTION AGAINST USARay Stubblebine/Reuters/Newscom

The NBA had called. And was summarily rebuffed. The classic 1984 draft class could have been even more legendary: The New Jersey Nets had selected Schmidt in the sixth round, but he wasn’t interested. “Sixth round? [131st] choice?” he says now, still chuckling at the perceived slight. “No, no, no. Come on.” He went to training camp. They offered him a no-cut contract. “I said, ‘No thank you.’”

He’d made some noise over the years about not wanting to take a limited role in the league. His friend Georgi Glouchkov, a Bulgarian forward and the first Eastern Bloc player in the NBA, complained to Schmidt that he couldn’t get touches. And this is Oscar Schmidt we’re talking about: If you’re not gunning, why are you even alive? Greg Dole, a former Brazilian basketball scout, recalls training with Nene before the 2002 draft. “Nene said, ‘If I get drafted in the first round, I’m gonna buy a team in Brazil and sign Oscar,’” Dole says. “‘And order him to pass the ball!’”

By the time the international rules changed, Schmidt was 35. “Too old to be a hookie,” he says, swapping his r’s for h’s in the Brazilian style.

“No question, he would have been one of the greatest.”
—Kobe Bryant

How good would he have been in the NBA? Ask Schmidt, and he’ll tell you with all the bravado of a world-class athlete. “Basket, the same. Ball, the same. Basketball, the same. In every part of the world, I didn’t see a guy that could guard me! I just need confidence. Put me in the game and don’t catch me out.” So? How good? “Top 10. For sure. Not top 10 one year. Top 10 ever! Ha ha ha.

I put the question to Konchalski, the Canadian national team coach, and we run through the usual comparisons, mostly slow-footed white guys with killer J’s, like Bird and Nowitzki. Konchalski makes a bold claim: “Those guys could do more than Oscar. They had more all-around games. But I don’t believe neither Bird or Dirk could shoot with Oscar. They couldn’t shoot with Oscar.”

If he played now, the advanced stats community would likely pick the gunning Schmidt’s game to pieces. “You know what he is going to do,” Scottie Pippen once said. “He shoots the ball as soon as he touches it.” A modern-day J.R. Smith? Maybe. But in the late ’80s, in Schmidt’s prime, the NBA was often a one-on-one league. A world of the ’Nique-Bird shootout. Was that not a world crafted for Schmidt’s particular set of skills? You’d have to give him the ball, and you’d have to not catch him out. And then you’d watch him cook.

Konchalski’s claim is bold. But this is the kind of fanboy reverence that Mão Santa commanded. All in all, Konchalski watched him play fewer than a dozen games. That was enough. That it’s impossible to know his NBA ceiling is the point of this legend. Because now, unperturbed by pesky facts, we can just imagine the fireworks. Oscar Schmidt was the band you loved fiercely and could never convince anyone else was the greatest thing on earth. Oscar Schmidt was indie rock.

Kobe’s call? “No question,” he says, “he would have been one of the greatest.”

In ’95, after a short, unsatisfying stint in Spain, Schmidt finally came home. He spent his last few years at Flamengo, an all-sports club and a dynasty — the Yankees of Brazil. There, in his forties, he made the best money of his career. How did he manage at such an advanced age? “I don’t waste my energy,” he says. “I start to have more precision.” He smiles. “And I start to defend only in the second half.”

Originally, he planned to retire at age 44. But in what was supposed to be his last game, things got out of hand, and a couple of Schmidt’s teammates were ejected — an action Schmidt sarcastically applauded the refs for, until he was tossed too. And he couldn’t well go out like that. So he came back for another season, finally calling it quits at 45. “I think I would play until I die,” he says. “But it’s too much. Every year was harder to get in shape.”

Jay Triano, now an assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers, remembers running into Schmidt at the 2002 World Championship, back in Indiana. In front of the assembled young guns, many who’d never heard the name “Oscar Schmidt,” Triano challenged Mão Santa to show off the goods. “I said to him, ‘Can you still shoot?’” Triano remembers. “He said, ‘Of course!’ And he stood at the top of the key, in his suit and shirt and dress shoes. No warm-up. I gave him the ball and he made 10 in a row, and he walked out of the gym. The players stood there with their mouths open.”

Though Schmidt may have been the best basketball player in Brazilian history, he was not singularly beloved. Two major factors work against him. In the definitive soccer nation, he played the wrong sport. And in a country where roughly 50 percent of the population identifies as at least partially of African descent, he was the wrong lineage. As Dole says, “You will find that there is a significant segment for whom the conquering white hero does not resonate.” The degree of difficulty was significant. And still, Schmidt became an icon.

In 1998, he ran for senator — while still playing in the Brazilian Basketball League. “I want[ed] to be president of Brazil,” he says. “And I had a big chance. A senator to president” — he snaps his fingers — “easy.” For a while, he even ran ahead in the polls against Eduardo Suplicy, until Suplicy’s Workers Party began to coalesce around him and take Schmidt seriously as a threat.

“They don’t say I was robbing or nothing,” Schmidt recalls. “They only say good things: ‘Oscar, you’re a basketball player. Go to the court, Oscar!’ Even Lula” — beloved ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — “make a campaign against me.” (“He is like a soap,” Lula said. “It is a product of marketing. If he is elected as a soap, [he] will act as a soap.”) Schmidt lost by fewer than seven points. Suplicy is still in power.

Schmidt says he’s happy he never found his way to office. These days, he makes money giving speeches, motivational sessions for schools and corporations, which he says has clued him into some shady dealings during his campaign days. “I talk to the presidents of the companies, and many of them ask me if I got the money [during the campaign],” he says. “What money? I didn’t ask for nothing!”

“Politics,” he says, “is not a place for anybody who can lose something. Much better, living like this.” Last year a Brazilian speaking-circuit publication voted him the nation’s best. He’s got his heart set on a back-to back title. “I wanna be two-time champion, three-time champion, 10 times champion! Ha ha ha. The best! In the world!”

Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement CeremonyNathaniel S. Butler/Getty

The scares happened in Orlando. It’s one of Schmidt’s favorite places on the planet: His son played high school basketball at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, and the Schmidts have been coming to Disney World annually for years. “Three times,” he laughs, ticking off the incidents. “Better I don’t go again?”

The first tumor was diagnosed in 2011; Schmidt was tipped off by severe migraines. It was a big one: eight centimeters. But it was benign. There were concerns about convulsions, which never happened. There were also worries that the tumor might come back malignant, and that did happen. After an operation in 2013, Schmidt returned to his vacation haven in Central Florida this year. “And one day I start vomiting,” he says. “And I thought I would die.”

His daughter rushed him to the hospital, where he stayed a week and was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart arrhythmia. He was moved home, where he was hospitalized for another three weeks. He underwent a five-hour ablation procedure, in which electrodes are placed inside the heart to destroy the irregular heartbeat.

He’s cycled through treatments in recent years, both experimental — perillyl alcohol inhalation, which Schmidt fears may have contributed to his heart problems — and spiritual. There was a holy man in Campinas whom Schmidt would see. “He gets all the spirits; he passes them out of you,” he says. “I’m Catholic, but, uh” — he shrugs — “it was nice.” For now, he’s taking prescribed heart medication and chemotherapy capsules, on a monthly schedule. Most likely, he’ll have to keep up the chemo for the rest of his life. “But, OK. I’m alive, no?”

It was during that last, dramatic Orlando trip that he got the call from FIBA: He was going to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was driving, and, processing the news, he had to pull over. In Alphaville, I commend him on his heartfelt speech. I tell him it was inspiring. “I didn’t know it would be like that,” he says, lost in thought, clearly pleased. “First laugh a lot, then cry, yeah? Me too.”