Pan Am Hero Schmidt Shuns NBA, Stays in Italy

Associated Press

Oscar Schmidt, who led Brazil to a stunning upset of the United States in the Pan American Games men's basketball final, says he is impressed by the NBA but prefers to play in Italy.

"Even though everybody plays basketball well nowadays, the North Americans are still the best players in the world," says Schmidt, a forward who has been the leading scorer in the Italian league for the past four seasons.

Schmidt turned down a chance to play this season for the National Basketball Association's New Jersey Nets. Staying in Italy, where he first played in 1982, he has helped turn Snaidero of Caserta from an also-ran into a title contnder, currently leading the league.

"When I got here it was a medium level team. Now we are at the top, thanks to the team's winning mentality," he said in fluent Italian.

His goal now, he said, is a team title.

"I won't have a good night's sleep until I win something in Italy," Schmidt said. "I don't care about personal success if the team doesn't win."

Schmidt, 29, began playing at the age of 14 in his home town of Natal, Brazil, and a year later he was recruited by the Brazilian national under-18 squad. In 1976, he joined the senior team that won the South American championship.

Last summer, he led Brazil to the Pam Am Games' gold medal, scoring 46 points against the favored Americans in the final.

"That was the greatest satisfaction of my career," he said in a recent interview.

Schmidt averaged just under 40 points in the first eight games of this season. In the league all-star game Nov. 21, a showcase of the best foreign players in Italy, he delivered his team to victory by scoring 35 points and was voted the game's best player by Italian sports writers.

Schmidt, who is 6-foot-7, towers above the crowds of Italian fans that gather around him at the end of each game.

"I like being in Italy very much, because I am surrounded by friends," he said.

This helps to explain a lack of nostalgia for his native Brazil.

"I feel strongly about my team, I wouldn't leave it," he said. "I turned down an offer from the New Jersey Nets, I'd rather go on playing with my friends."

Still, he's often asked about the NBA.

"That of the NBA is an argument which I always face with humility," he said. "They are the strongest in the world. Also, their style of play is different from the European one.

"The Americans are faster, they charge to the attack, like the Brazilians. The Europeans are more inclined to a defensive game except, perhaps, the Yugoslavians."

Schmidt, who first played in Europe for a Yugoslav team, ranks the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers as "the strongest team in the world."

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