RIO DE JANEIRO — The Wizards were the butt of a joke that drew laughter and applause, and caused Miami Heat President Pat Riley to bury his head and blush, last month at the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. During his induction speech, Brazilian basketball legend Oscar Schmidt took a moment to thank his former coach on the national team, Claudio Mortari.
“This guy’s tough. This guy win wherever he goes. If he came to the Wizards, they win,” Schmidt said. “Yes. I don’t know what championship he would win, but he’ll win.”
Last week in Rio de Janeiro, the Wizards played the Chicago Bulls in the first NBA game in Brazil, forcing Schmidt to come face-to-face with the target of the team that he playfully derided. Schmidt participated in an Adidas promotional event with Wizards point guard John Wall at the Christ the Redeemer statue, which overlooks the city, and met several members of the team.
“Was nice. Everybody was happy up there,” said Schmidt, who was stunned when he learned that Wall had known about his great scoring prowess.
Schmidt, the man responsible for leading a memorable upset of the United States in the gold medal game at the 1987 Pan American Games, remains one of the most beloved basketball figures in Brazil as evidenced by the overwhelming show of admiration that he received on Saturday at HSBC Arena. But when asked during the game about his joke against the Wizards, Schmidt said he didn’t mean any harm.
“It was just funny,” Schmidt said during the Wizards’ 83-81 loss to the Bulls. “Mortari was a great coach. He wins every time. Wherever he goes, he wins. So I just choose one from” 30 teams in the NBA.
The Wizards just happen to be one of three NBA teams that have failed to reach the playoffs in the past five years, which gave the joke some traction. Schmidt may not have intended to offend the franchise, but he remains direct and frank when it comes to his criticism of one member of the Wizards – fellow Brazilian native Nene.
Back home to play his first game in Brazil in 11 years, Nene got booed repeatedly from fans who were upset that he has rarely played for the national team since becoming the first Brazilian to reach the NBA. Schmidt has been one of Nene’s loudest and harshest critics and continued to lash out at him while watching the exhibition game.
“Nene, I don’t know if he likes Brazil. Maybe he don’t,” Schmidt said. “Because for me, national team was the first thing in my life. I refuse to play NBA because of national team. And there are guys who refuse to play national team to play in the NBA. Why is that?”
For one, the NBA has become a much-more global game since Schmidt starred in Brazil. When Schmidt was coming up, playing in the world’s top league was not considered a legitimate possibility for most international players and financial rewards were not nearly as lucrative as they are today.
And, in the case of Nene, his decision not to play for the national team every year has been rooted in several factors, including a string of injuries (to his feet, elbow and knee) and illnesses (testicular cancer) and disputes with the Brazilian Basketball Federation over insurance. Nene has played for Brazil in a qualifying tournament 2007 and the 2012 London Olympics, where he aggravated a left foot injury.
Schmidt doesn’t want to hear excuses of explanations, especially after Brazil had a poor showing at the FIBA Americas tournament, losing all four games in Venezuela.
Nene chose to sit out this summer to rest a foot and knee that caused him to miss 21 games last season. His close friend, Leandro Barbosa, is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in February and was cleared for five-on-five contact drills last week. Barbosa hasn’t always played for the national team and attended the game to support Nene but also received a negative reaction from the fans.
Schmidt said it was their own doing, while mentioning other players from Brazil and other countries that play for their national team.
Cleveland Cavaliers center Anderson “Varejao, most of the time comes. [San Antonio Spurs forward] Tiago Splitter – fantastic. But Leandro and Nene. They have problems. They have big problems and I hate to say. I hate to say,” Schmidt said. Nene “just come to the Olympics? Who doesn’t want to play in the Olympics? Everyone! Everyone! [Manu] Ginobili goes every time [and Luis] Scola goes every time [for Argentina]. Tony Parker goes every time [for France]. Dirk Nowitzki goes every time [for Germany]. All the Dream Team in America. And why not ours? So…okay?”