By Tim Casey
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Growing up in Italy in the 1980s, Kobe Bryant adored Oscar Schmidt, a high-scoring, flamboyant, 6-foot-8 forward in the country's professional league. Schmidt, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday, never met a shot he didn't like and never lacked any confidence.
Today, the admiration is mutual. In June, they caught up in Schmidt's home country of Brazil, a moment Bryant shared on his Twitter account with a photo of the men sitting next to each other, smiling and laughing. The Tweet read: Me and Oscar. One of my childhood idols #brazil #legend.
Schmidt enjoys their interactions, too.
"Kobe?," Schmidt said. "[He's] my big friend."
And, as buddies tend to do, Schmidt isn't afraid to be honest with Bryant. That candor extends to Kobe's Dad, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, a former opponent.
"I kicked his father's butt for 10 years in Italy," Schmidt said.
As for Kobe? Schmidt considers him among the sport's all-time greats along with LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Other than that quintet, Schmidt wasn't about to concede anyone else would have been better than him if he had played in the NBA. He's so convinced of his presumed dominance, in fact, that he thinks he would have averaged at least a point a minute.
"I would be one of the best 10 ever," he said.
As it stands, Schmidt's legacy in basketball is nearly unmatched, particularly outside of the United States. Like American fans talk about Kobe, LeBron, Magic, Michael and Larry, millions of Europeans and Brazilians simply refer to Schmidt using his first name.
"Anytime you only have one name you're pretty famous," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, who played against Schmidt in the Italian league. "If you just say Oscar, everybody knew who that was."
Schmidt is, unofficially, the top scorer in history with a total of more than 49,000 points in professional and international competitions. He is, officially, the all-time leader with 1,093 points in five Olympics.
Schmidt claims he doesn't regret spurning the Nets after the team drafted him in the sixth round of the 1984 NBA draft during a period when international players were rarely picked. The Nets, though, were ahead of the curve when it came to scouting overseas. Al Menendez, the director of player personnel, had developed strong relationships with coaches in Europe. They all told him Schmidt was the best player on the continent.
"It was unanimous," Menendez said. "There wasn't a single European coach I talked to [who thought otherwise]. We'd talk about other players. And then I'd say, How about Oscar? They'd go, 'Oh, Oscar. He's in a class by himself.'"
A few days after the 1984 Olympics ended in Los Angeles, Schmidt headed across the country to Princeton, N.J., where he competed for the Nets in a summer league featuring rookies and free agents from four NBA teams. Menendez thought Schmidt was the top player there, even better than rookie Charles Barkley, who was out of shape.
Still, Schmidt had his flaws. He would have challenged Bird as the NBA's top shooting forward, according to Menendez, but Schmidt showed little interest in playing defense or sharing the ball. In fact, in 38 Olympics games, Schmidt had 35 assists.
"Oscar probably would not have started for us, but he would have gotten a lot of playing time," Menendez said. "He was like a specialist. You put him in the game with the other team's second unit, it would have been a show. He would have been able to score at will."
With the introduction of the salary cap in 1984, Menendez said the Nets were concerned with their finances and only offered Schmidt a one-year deal for $75,000, around three times less than Schmidt made in Italy. Menendez said Schmidt wanted more money. Schmidt, however, insists there was no amount the Nets could have offered to sign him.
Back then, the NBA forbid players from competing for their countries in international tournaments, a rule that made Schmidt's decision easy. There was no way he was not playing for Brazil.
"The national team doesn't have a price," Schmidt said. "It's proud. It's what you live for."
Schmidt never had a more satisfying moment than during the finals of the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis against a United States team featuring Danny Manning, David Robinson, Pervis Ellison and other top collegians.
Before the game, Schmidt was worried Brazil that would lose by 50. Trailing by 14 at the half, the Brazilians came back and pulled off a huge upset, winning 120-115 and snapping the United States's 34-game winning streak in the tournament dating to 1971.
No one could handle Schmidt. He finished with seven three-pointers and 46 points, a performance Manning still marvels at 26 years later.
"We threw a whole bunch of people at him, absolutely," said Manning, now the Tulsa coach. "We couldn't figure it out. He always had a counter for everything that we threw at him. He scored at will."
Performances like those were familiar to anyone following Schmidt's career in Italy, which spanned from 1982 to 1993. He spent the next two years in Spain and the final eight years of his career in Brazil. He retired at age 45 after leading the league in scoring for the eighth consecutive season.
In Italy, Schmidt captured seven scoring titles and helped his team (Caserta) to the finals in 1986 and 1987. Both years, Caserta lost to Olimpia Milano and D'Antoni, its star point guard.
"Arguably he was one of the best shooters ever," D'Antoni said. "He had unlimited range. That's what he did. That's what he was known for. It wouldn't be anything to put up 40 or 50 points a game. He could really, really shoot. You could say that about a lot of guys, but we're talking about one of the best ever."
Told about D'Antoni's compliments, Schmidt asked for a favor.
"Tell him he robbed me of two championships," Schmidt said, laughing.
During his induction ceremony on Sunday, Schmidt displayed his big personality, showmanship and sense of humor. Rick Pitino, a fellow inductee, called it the funniest Hall of Fame speech he had ever heard.
As he stood at the lectern to begin talking, Schmidt first closed his eyes, looked at the ceiling and took a deep breath.
"I always dreamed to do that," Schmidt said.
The crowd at Symphony Hall laughed. And they continued to chuckle as Schmidt spoke for 17 minutes, sometimes looking at notes he had written on a piece of paper but mostly speaking off the cuff. He looked over at Bird standing beside him on stage and called him his idol and the best player ever.
The only time the two men faced each other occurred during group play in the 1992 Olympics. By then, NBA players were allowed to compete in international tournaments, but Schmidt was 34 and too old for the league. The United States won 127-83, although Schmidt outscored Bird 24-5. Schmidt was so awestruck by the Dream Team, he thought of capturing the scene.
"I almost bring my camera to the bench," he said.
Schmidt called the 1987 Pan American Games victory the highlight of his career.
"Sorry," he told the audience.
Later, he said his Brazilian national team coach was the best in the world. He then pointed at Pat Riley sitting in the crowd.
"Sorry," Schmidt told Riley.
And on and on it went, with Schmidt cracking one-liners and winning over everyone in attendance. Near the end, he thanked his son, daughter and wife of 38 years.
Schmidt recalled that at 17, he sustained a severe injury and couldn't play in games. He practiced alone, a monotonous situation he deemed "terrible." So, he asked his future wife to pass him the ball during the sessions. After the first day, her arm hurt, but she continued to help Schmidt.
"[After] one month passing me the ball every day, I said, 'I'm going to marry you,'" Schmidt said.
The crowd again applauded.
"And she was my rebounding machine my whole life," Schmidt said.
Schmidt then turned serious. He choked up.
"You are my greatest person I ever met," said Schmidt, staring at his wife. "And if you were not with me, I wouldn't be here. I'm sure about it."
During the speech, Schmidt never referred to his recent health issues. In the spring, he had his second brain tumor surgery in two years. He is now on chemotherapy five days a month and also undergoing two other treatments. Doctors have told the family the cancer is in remission.
"He's very positive," said Felipe Schmidt, Oscar's son.
The travails haven't dampened Schmidt's sense of adventure. Eight months a year, he works as a motivational speaker in Brazil, where he still lives outside of Sao Paulo. The other four months, he travels the world.
"I'm spending all the money I got," Schmidt said. "And I got a lot of money."
It was during one of those trips to Orlando earlier this year when a FIBA official called Schmidt and told him he had been elected into the Hall of Fame. Schmidt stopped his car.
"Can you repeat that?," Schmidt said he asked the man.
Schmidt was confused. In 2010, Schmidt had been inducted into FIBA's Hall of Fame, which had only started inducting players three years earlier and didn't have the cachet of the Naismith Hall of Fame that dates to 1959.
No, the man answered. He was serious. Schmidt would be inducted into the Naismith Hall in September. And so, he spent the past three days grateful, humbled and honored.
Late Sunday afternoon following the ceremony, Schmidt mingled with his family and the crowd. He carried a Hall of Fame trophy, wore a Hall of Fame blazer and sported a huge Hall of Fame ring on his left pinky finger.
"The best weekend in my life is this one," Schmidt said. "Being recognized in the Hall of Fame in Springfield never playing in the NBA? That's unbelievable."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.