Photo by: Eliaria Andrade/Agencia O Globo
Photo by: Eliaria Andrade/Agencia O Globo
Photo by: Eliaria Andrade/Agencia O Globo

An idol in the eyes of many, Kobe Bryant was once just a fan. As a kid growing up in the 80′s, a shortlist of players to whom he looked up to as an enthusiastic of the game would include Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, among others. But one name on that list would probably surprise the majority of the NBA followers: Oscar Schmidt.

As the son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a former NBA player, Kobe not only was granted the opportunity to breath professional basketball since his very first day on Earth, but also had the chance to live abroad and experience a different culture from an early age. That happened in Italy, where Joe Bryant decided to continue his career after finishing his NBA stint, from 1984 to 1991.

Therefore, a young Kobe, between his 6th and 13th birthdays, accompanied his dad on Italian soil. Naturally, his eyes, always driven for basketball, would not only be focused on what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but would also pay attention to the league taking place at where he lived.

Scouring for gifted scorers who could emulate the dominance of aforementioned NBA legends and fulfill his ever-growing fire for basketball greatness, Kobe’s attention had to, some way or another, rest over the man who used to put up big numbers night and night out in Europe.

The man who scored 13,957 points in 12 seasons in the Italian league, from 1982 to 1993, which was good for an whopping average of 34.6 points per game and seven scoring titles. The man who enjoyed a 28-year career of basketball, from 1974 to 2002, recording 46,727 total points. The man whose surname is not Robertson but, by sharing the same first name, could very well be considered a second coming of the “Big O”. The man called Oscar Schmidt.

That’s why Kobe had to make sure to pay his idol a visit during his trip to Brazil from 20th to 23rd of June. He also felt the need to express once again his admiration for one of the most influential individuals in his childhood dream of playing professional basketball. To the crowd gathered around one of the courts in the Ibirapuera Park, in São Paulo, to take a closer look at the Black Mamba during a sponsor’s event, he stated the following, pointing to Oscar, as reported by ESPN Brasil:

“The number one player to me, my greatest idol, is that guy right there, Oscar.”

Earlier that day, Kobe also remembered his days in Italy.

“I grew up watching him play against my dad”, said Bryant, “I used to call him “La Bomba”. He has always been a legend that I respected and I look forward to meeting him.”

Oscar is widely considered the best player ever to come out of his native country of Brazil. The 6’8 shooting guard and small forward started his career in the cosmopolitan city of São Paulo, where he enjoyed eight years of basketball before signing with the Italian club Caserta, in 1982. His natural knack for scoring earned him the nickname “Mão Santa”, which translates to “Holy Hand”.

In Oscar’s curriculum, his five Olympic participations, being the leading scorer in three of them, including a record of 42.3 points per game in Seoul (1988), stand out as a testament to his longevity and productiveness inside the world of top level international basketball. Therefore, Schmidt was rewarded with the induction to the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2010 and will be part of the 2013 class of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on September, joining former NBA greats such as Jordan, Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, in a place where Kobe Bryant will also have, at some point in the future, the privilege to call it home.

Oscar’s amazing accomplishments in the Italian League soon caught the attention of the NBA scouts. In 1984, he was drafted in the sixth round by the New Jersey Nets, but refused to play in the United States so he could maintain his amateur status. As an enthusiast of his own country, that decision came along pretty simply to the man born in the north part of Brazil, in the city of Natal. Schmidt recently stated the following in a interview to the Sao Paulo newspaper “Estadao”

“Back in the day, either you played for the national team or you played professionally. I preferred to continue with the Brazilian national team and I don’t regret my decision at all. Three years later, we won the Pan-American Games, inside the United States. It was the most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life. We beat the best team in the World inside their own house.”

Oscar celebrates the 1987 gold medal (Photo Courtesy of UOL)
Oscar celebrates the 1987 gold medal (Photo Courtesy of UOL)

Oscar refers to the final basketball contest in the 1987 Pan American Games, which took place in Indianapolis, Indiana. The American team was already widely considered the best in the world by a huge margin, even though back then they only utilized college players, counting with future NBA talent such as David Robinson, Rex Chapman, Dan Majerle and Danny Manning. And the numbers corrobated that status.

When the Brazilian squad, led by Oscar, beat Team USA on that day, they snapped a 34 win streak by the Americans who had never been beaten before at home. Schmidt, who was limited to 11 points at the end of the first half, exploded with 35 second half points, leading the contest with 46 and boosting his teammates to the gold medal. It is still considered the most significant accomplishment in Brazilian basketball history. By taking place at the 23rd day of August, it also shares the anniversary with Kobe Bryant’s birthday.

After finishing his time in Italy in 1993, Oscar then headed to Spain where he played for three more years until 1995, when he returned to his native Brazil. There he remained for the rest of his career, retiring on 2003. As a 43-year-old, the age of his retirement, he still led the Brazilian national league in scoring, a feat he accomplished every season since 1996.

Kobe and Oscar share the experience of growing up in countries dominated by soccer in Italy and Brazil. Both had to persist in the path less taken when deciding that a ball should be shot at a rim, not towards a goalpost. However, influenced by childhood friends who dreamed about someday representing the Azzurra, Bryant first picture of him as an athlete came as a soccer player, as he revealed to ESPN Brasil when asked if he used to think about playing such sport:

“Absolutely, absolutely!”, said Kobe, “But then I wound up being 6’3 and, you know, I had more talent playing basketball than I did playing soccer. When I first started playing soccer, they just stuck me in the goal because I had these really long arms and long legs, and said ‘Ok kid, just stop whatever ball comes your way”. And that’s what I did, then I started getting better and better, but I was never close to being as good in soccer as I was in basketball”.

When asked who he wanted to be when he started to play basketball, Kobe immediately answered:

“Oscar Schmidt, he was the guy when I grew up [in Italy]. He was [scoring] 35, 40 points every night. The guy was just automatic. I remember just watching him play and saying: “Man, if I could shoot like that with his height, and be able to handle the ball at his size… Him and my father were very similar because they were both very tall and could shoot the ball. I was a really really big fan of Oscar.”

Schmidt, in responde to those words, made sure to express that the feeling is mutual.

“I’m his biggest fan”, Oscar told Globoesporte, “A wonderful athlete who plays for my favorite team since I was a boy. He’s always going to be a little kid to me. He was seven when he used to see me play. He would hit the court during the All-Star Games and it was tough to get him out of there (laughs).” As stated to ESPN Brasil, “It’s a huge honor that the best basketball player has myself as his idol. I’m very happy for that.”

Photo by: Kobe Bryant/Instagram
Photo by: Kobe Bryant/Instagram

2013 marks an year of extremely important surgeries for Oscar and Kobe. While Bryant was forced to go through a procedure to reconstruct his torn achilles tendon, in what was once considered a career-threatening injury, Schmidt has to face something much more terrifying. In 2011, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and suffered a first surgery to remove a second degree tumor, in a scale of one to four. However, another tumor developed in the former athlete’s brain, this time a third-degree one, which required another surgery on April of this year.

The disease is incurable and the only thing a doctor can assure such patient is some sort of life quality while fighting it out through huge quantities of medicine and almost daily sessions of chemotherapy. Still, Oscar endures the process with the same high level of energy that he used to hit the court during his playing days. Even though an enourmous scar, cutting the top of his head from one side to another, reminds him every day that his life hangs by a thread, Schmidt refuses to give up his high-spirited personality. As he told Globoesporte.com:

The majority of people is not able to beat this kind of cancer, but I will. Even if I don’t make it, I’m gonna try to do it in any possible way. This tumor definitely chose the wrong guy. I’m ready for everything. If I have to open up my head 20 times, I will. This is an unbelievable year. The worst and the best news. I’ll be inducted to the Naismith Hall of Fame. That’s going to be the biggest victory in my life.

Now able to walk normally as he continues his progress post Achilles surgery, Kobe wasted no time to ask how is Oscar doing in his own recovery. “The first thing he asked me was about how I was doing”, Oscar continued to tell Globoesporte, “I showed him my scar. He was very concerned about my disease. But I’m happy with this meeting. I came here because of him.”

After that brief but joyful encounter, Kobe and Oscar will now continue their own paths. Bryant will focus on getting into playing shape once again, as he seeks his sixth ring with the same intensity and desire that fueled his first championship. Schmidt will continue his successful career as a lecturer whilst fighting his brain cancer. But both know that their roads will always be connected.

In every basket by Kobe, a reminiscence of his childhood times when he learned how to play the game that he loved while watching Oscar perform.

In every basket by Kobe, a spark of energy to further strengthen Oscar’s will to live.