Olympic Oscar: Why a Brazilian Could Have Been the Greatest Scorer of All Time
When it comes to sport, a peculiar and quite unusual phenomenon exists in Brazil. Perhaps it’s the sheer size of the country and area (France would fit into Brazil nearly 9 times over), or maybe it’s the vibrant and carefree attitude that also fuels some of the most flamboyant parties in the world. Perhaps it’s the incredible population, where more than two-hundred million Brazucas, as they call themselves, live in its lush Amazonian jungles or along its magnificent coastlines or within its lively favelas.
Whatever the reason, in the sports Brazil adores the mostーfootball, motor sports, martial arts, volleyball, basketballーthe South American nation somehow produces some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. Famous footballer Pelé, traditionally regarded as the best of all time, is the cherry on top of a legendary Brazilian hegemony. Ayrton Senna was on the path to becoming the undisputed best Formula One driver ever were it not for his tragic death in 1994.
But there is one man who excelled at basketball abroad so much that he could have a case as one of the best scorers in the history of the sport. He was known as the "Holy Hand" of Brazil, but is a mystery to basketball fans in North America.
“No question,” Kobe Bryant once remarked, “he would have been one of the greatest.”
The details of Oscar Schmidt’s early life make a fascinating story on their own. He began his athletic career, like most of his peers, as a footballer, but the Natal native turned out to be too tall to continue.
Then an eccentric basketball coach of Japanese heritage took the boy under his wing. Despite the coach’s unusual practicesーSchmidt would dribble a ball with one hand and pick up stones with the otherーthe teenager was in love with the sport. He later moved on to Palmeiras, where he learned to shoot quickly and above his head, the foundation for his incredible jumpshot. The national team came calling soon after and a fiercely patriotic Schmidt answered the call.
He would exercise for hours a day in his local gym, honing his jumpshot. Once, he suffered a minor injury and could barely walk, so a classmate offered to fetch rebound after rebound for him.
“One week, passing me the ball every day,” he recalled about his eventual wife in his Class of 2013 Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, “One month passing me the ball every day. I say, I’m gonna marry her!”
More than forty years later, Oscar Schmidt remains the world’s unofficial top scorer, with an astonishing 49,737 career points over a 29 year career. That’s about 1700 points a season, or a good scoring season in the NBA. Except Schmidt’s leagues typically played about half as many games a year as the NBA had and he scored that much for nearly three decades.
It is true that Schmidt was an average defender at best. His playmaking arsenal was also fairly limited. But basketball is a game first and foremost about scoring, where great offense trumps great defense and few if anybody could score as well as he did.
That was what the Holy Hand loved doing more than anything else short of winning. In Schmidt's words, “Some people, they move the piano. Some people, they play the piano.”
He was the epitome of run-and-gun, a nimble marksman in a muscular 6’8 frame who would regularly shootーand scoreーfrom 30 feet out. He earned free throws often and shot them impeccably. He developed a great post game based on turnaround and fadeaway jumpers too high to block. He mastered scoring offball on timely cuts and catch-and-shoot jumpers. Above all, he was fueled by a supreme level of self-confidence, the kind of “killer instinct” typically seen in only the most elite of athletes.
Shown above: Oscar Schmidt’s 54 point performance, including 10-of-14 from three, in the Italian League in 1988. This game showcased the Brazilian’s ability to score from unbelievable ranges.
Although largely forgotten now, the 1987 title game of the Pan-Am games hosted in Indianapolis gave the world their dramatic, first taste of Oscar Schmidt. The hosts reached the finals with the usual ease. College stars and future NBA players David Robinson, Rex Chapman and Danny Manning buoyed a strong American team that had thus far beat every opponent by an average of 25 points. Their opponent was a resolute Brazilian squad led by nifty guard Marcel Souza and their enigmatic talisman, Oscar Schmidt. The Americans were riding a 34-game winning streak, but that would all soon change.
Despite being down by double digits at the half, Brazil surged back behind 46 points from Schmidt, 35 of which came after the break. He carved the American defense from all over the court, regardless of defender, including shooting 7-of-15 from beyond the arc.
“It’s hard to be prepared for something like that," David Robinson recalled in an interview, “when a guy is four feet past the three-point line and he just pulls up and shoots it.”
He was scoring from anywhere on the court, at any time, even being fouled several times from three by the suffocating American defense. At the buzzer, Schmidt collapsed to the floor in tears knowing they had just accomplished the impossible. His country had won the game 120-115.
Some, like the Los Angeles Times in the wake of the defeat, might explain it by the amateur composition of the USA team. At the time, NBA players were not allowed on the international scene, but a string of embarrassing finishes in international competitions following those Pan-Am Games forced the NBA to convince FIBA to drop that rule in 1989. Then, in 1992, USA Basketball opted to send professionals for the first time to redeem the nation.
“That’s the biggest fight of my career,” Oscar said proudly in a Grantland interview, “to provoke a Dream Team? Can you believe it?”
The professional prohibition is the reason the deeply patriotic Brazilian gives for never entering the league. Schmidt certainly had the choice: the Nets offered him an unprecedented no-cut contract after he had impressed during summer workouts and scrimmages. Would he have even moved if that wasn’t the case? His European colleagues were seldom given significant roles at the time, so a proficient volume scorer like Oscar might not have fared well in the absence of the coaching staff’s trust. Indeed, the prevailing assumption in the United States was that foreign players simply could not compete.
For Schmidt, however, if you weren’t scoring there was no point in playing at all.“You know what he is going to do,” renowned defensive stopper Scottie Pippen claimed ahead of their 1996 Olympic matchup, “he shoots the ball as soon as he touches it.”
Yet Schmidt, playing in his final Olympics at 38 years of age and being primarily guarded by Pippen and Grant Hill, still managed to score 26 of his teams 75. It echoed a similar performance from the 1992 Olympics, where Oscar kept a severely outmatched Brazil team tied with the Dream Team until halftime despite being checked by Pippen, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year that season. Across over three matchups against US Olympic teams, Oscar scored 81 points.
But Oscar Schmidt’s scoring legend extends way beyond these American encounters. He remains the all-time Olympic scoring leader, averaging 28.8 points in 38 games. He has the record for the most points scored in an Olympic game, with 55 against Spain in 1988, as well as six other 40 point games. At the 1988 Games in Seoul in particular he averaged an astounding 42.2 points in eight matches, including against contemporary powerhouses like the US and the USSR.
To put Oscar’s Olympic scoring into perspective, Carmelo Anthony became the career US Olympic-record scorer with the last of his 336 points over four Olympic campaigns in 2016. Schmidt scored 338 at those 1988 Games alone.
Other detailed statistics from his career abroad are hard to find, but it is frightening to imagine what the nine-time scoring champion accomplished abroad in his prime, especially if he still managed a 33.2 points scoring average in Spain, home to probably the best league in Europe, at the old age of 36.
“Basket, the same. Ball, the same. Basketball, the same,’ he explained once, “In every part of the world, I didn’t see a guy that could guard me! I just need confidence.”
Great basketball minds adore him. Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Italy as his father played against Schmidt, often heaped praise, likening him to Larry Bird. Bird himself, a close friend of Oscar, marvelled at his shooting prowess. Klay Thompson rushed out of a gym once to get a photo with him. Ironically, he was similar to a larger and stronger Thompson, but whose defensive talent was swapped for a ruthless offensive package and an even greater ability to catch fire. When he was in the zone, which he was often, it just did not matter whether the defender was an average Joe from Spain or a Defensive Player of the Year from the NBA.
The question might forever exist purely in the realm of speculation, but it is too tempting to consider Schmidt in the NBA. Schmidt certainly did not have the same excellent all-around games as the Dirk Nowitzki and Bird level players, but he would likely have been the best shooter, and perhaps even scorer, of his era.
For one, Pelé moulded his legendary reputation without ever setting foot in one of the great European leagues. Unfortunately, Schmidt never managed to drag his minnow Brazilian teams to an Olympic medal, let alone any international trophy besides that incredible 1987 Pan-Am gold medal. If his final jumper against the eventual gold medallists USSR in 1988 had gone in and tied the game, he might have had a good chance. Schmidt certainly thinks so, once claiming that he would trade his scoring records for Carmelo Anthony’s gold medal in a heartbeat.
Yet Oscar Schmidt has surely lived a satisfying career regardless. Future fans of the sport will be astonished to see not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (or perhaps LeBron James in a few years) but a mysterious but ferocious Brazilian whose scoring totals will likely never be matched again in the history of the sport. His legend, at least in North America, will eventually fade to nothing more than the subject of a particularly tricky basketball trivia question, a fate shared by other great, international “what-ifs” like Drazen Petrovic and Aryvdas Sabonis.
At home, however, his celebrity status might last forever. While playing in Brazil he ran for senator in 1998 and nearly won, despite attacks playfully telling him to, effectively, shut up and dribble. When he walks in the street he is still smothered by fans begging for autographs. He inspired and continues to inspire generations of Brazilian basketball players. Now, he simply lives as a man of incredible joy in the face of increasingly troubling illnesses.
Oscar Schmidt's infamous swagger and confidence has since turned into a great sense of fulfillment. Although, why wouldn’t he be satisfied? Over the course of his career Oscar Schmidt unquestionably made a compelling case for being one of the greatestーif not the greatestーscorers of all time.
Dima Sochnyev is a columnist at the Bench. He supports his hometown Toronto Raptors.