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10-08-2005, 01:32 AM
Oh, Oh, Oberto!

By Emmett Shaw
Oct 8, 2005, 00:36

ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands – The San Antonio Spurs may have struck yet again. I know it’s absurdly early, but on the night of the Spurs’ first pre-season scrimmage – in what local politicians called the biggest sporting event in Virgin Islands history – Fabricio Oberto not only looked at home playing at an NBA pace, he was one of the very best players on the court. Oberto came off the bench for a Black team that nearly upset the higher-powered Silver squad led by superstars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

Oberto was signed away from the Spanish League by the Spurs early in the free agency window last mid-July. It’s very early, but Spurs execs think they might have hit big with Fabricio. Three times Oberto brought the Black team from behind and into the lead in a game finally won by the Silver 85-84. Estimates are that Oberto produced a plus / minus figure of at least 10 points last night. Listed at 6-10, Oberto demonstrated a gifted feel for the game. Yes, his decisions are good. But a lot of players on this team make good decisions.

Oberto appears different. Different in a Duncan - Ginobili - Horry kind of way. He has a knack for always making something happen. He doesn’t just give up the ball to you, he gives it up and races the ball to you to set a stationary screen. It’s not unlike a Mark Madsen level of activity, except smarter and more under control than Mad Dog and with an ability to finish plays with baskets or the savvy extra pass.

A team official said after the game it’s difficult to gauge how European ballplayers will translate to the NBA and vice-versa, not just from a pace-of-decision-making standpoint, but the two circuits are a stylistically very different game. If it’s tough to gauge for the Spurs, it must confound the rest of the league, because San Antonio found NBA stars Ginobili and Tony Parker over there.

To start the night, the anthems of the U.S. and the V.I. were played, and many in the sellout crowd of perhaps a thousand sang along with the island refrains. It was a night for them to be proud, and the fans brought the house down when Tim was introduced. Neither team made inroads into the lead until Oberto came on for Robert Horry and within a minute tried to bounce a quick pass blind between his own legs to Brent Barry. The play was foiled, but the message was sent: “Spurs fans, my name is Fabio.”

By the half Oberto had keyed the Black to a 44-35 lead despite some great plays by Duncan, who finished his night with about three dunks and numerous assists, some of them tossed 50-feet up the court ala Magic Johnson. And Ginobili was not goofing around either, usually guarded by Brent Barry. Bruce Bowen was shutting out Michael Finley for the Black in the first half. The Silver’s Nick Van Exel and counterpart Tony Parker were a wash (NVE is one snappy passer with his big left hand – he can whip the rock left or right with it, and without telegraphing a thing).

In the second half, Black coach Mike Budenholzer tried to put a major coaching touch on the game by assigning Bowen to guard Ginobili, which was a battle neither could truly win. But they laughed openly about it, and when Manu went one-on-one and tossed to Tim for a lob dunk to cut the deficit to 46-40, Ginobili was taunting Bruce all up in his face like a street baller. Then Bowen fell down, looking to draw the tech from the Puerto Rican League refs. No dice. The Silver soon took the lead 53-51 on a Duncan bank over Nazr Mohammed from Finley. The Silver’s lead would never top two possession though . Tony Parker began breaking down Beno Udrih to push the Black into several three point leads, the last at 70-67.

In this comeback, again Oberto was all over the place on both ends. Fabio doesn’t jump very high, but he reads situations very well and produces deflections, even blindly as Spurs fans of old have seen Steve Kerr sometimes do. Almost every play by the Black was run through Oberto. Finley and Udrih buried the two most vital shots for the Silver, a pair of 3s that left the Silver ahead 83-80. On one possession with a minute to play Oberto and Barry played catch for six or seven snap passes, then Barry found teammate Kyle Bailey for the last points of the night for either team.

The rest of the way featured Beno firing a no-look across the court to the wide open Johnny Ludden writing for the SA paper in the front row. Rasho Nesterovic then stuffed Barry on a 3-try up top, followed by a Nesterovic Scud off the edge of the glass with 5.1 seconds. To close the night, Budenholzer gathered the Black for one last play, Stephen Graham splitting off Fabio for handoff, but Graham ran straight into Oberto and a winning shot was never even released.

A bad last minute offensively, but the first 47 minutes were praised by Gregg Popovich after the game. The coach loved the ball movement, spacing, and unselfishness by both squads. As soon as the game ended, a giant Carribean party began to break out that overspread the island. A couple hundred residents of St. Croix were on hand in the stands as well and they got a special hello from MC Tim Duncan, thanking everyone for hosting the Spurs for the entire training camp.

10-08-2005, 01:35 AM
La vida loca for Spurs' Oberto

Web Posted: 10/08/2005 12:00 AM CDT
Johnny Ludden
Express-News Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands — Fabricio Oberto has seen a variety of defenses in his basketball career. None, however, quite prepared him for the zone thrown at him Friday afternoon.

After reading a book to a class of 23 third-graders during the Spurs' visit to the island's Lockhart Elementary School, Oberto and Manu Ginobili found themselves swarmed by the students. Spinning slowly in a circle, the two players leaned over to autograph stickers and bookmarks for the pint-sized children.

One young boy ran over and wrapped his arms around Oberto's right leg in a big embrace.

"Every day," Oberto said, smiling, "brings a new experience."

The Spurs' latest Argentine import has reason to feel a little dazed and confused these days. After establishing himself as one of the best big men in Europe, Oberto has received a crash course in NBA life this week.

"I think Manu's gotten sick of me asking him questions," Oberto said. "I need to learn what he was doing all these years in the league."

For now, Oberto is happy enough to have joined his longtime friend in the NBA. After turning 30 in March, he considered this summer "one of my last shots" to make the jump overseas.

While the Spurs had scouted Oberto for much of the past decade and considered signing him as far back as 1999, they entered this summer hoping to bring over another of Ginobili's Argentine teammates, forward Luis Scola. When it became evident Scola would not be able to resolve a buyout with his Spanish team — the team's owners wanted almost $15million to release him — the Spurs moved quickly to sign Oberto, who was nearing a deal with Memphis.

Ginobili and Oberto both described the turn of events as a little awkward. Both also felt disappointed for their friend. Scola, whose NBA rights are still held by the Spurs, didn't let his frustration stop him from calling Oberto to offer congratulations.

The Spurs already were the favorite NBA team of Argentina because of Ginobili. Now, the country's interest figures to only grow.

"I don't think we realize yet what this is all about," Oberto said. "A lot of people in Argentina will be watching everything we do."

So far, Oberto has kept his eye on Ginobili, asking him for advice on everything from the team's terminology to how to handle Friday's school visit.

"We're good friends, and we'll become better friends," Ginobili said. "He's been one of the best players (in Europe) for five years, but it's different (here). You've got to have someone that can help you out."

While Oberto occasionally found himself a bit lost in his first few practices, sometimes cutting to the opposite side of the court from where he was supposed to be, he has also shown flashes of the type of smart, unselfish play that has made Ginobili a success. During one halfcourt drill, Oberto rifled a perfect behind-the-back bounce pass to Beno Udrih, who cut through the lane for a layup.

After watching Oberto in the first half of Friday's scrimmage, former Dallas coach Don Nelson leaned over to Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and said, "You've found another one."

"He's an odd-looking player in the sense that he's awkward at times," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's kind of a stiff player. He doesn't look (like) a natural, but he gets so much done, it's incredible, whether it's a loose ball, a charge, an offensive rebound, a great pass. He really plays for his team."

Oberto, a starting forward for Argentina's national team, already has had some success playing against NBA talent. In the gold-medal game of the 2002 World Championships against Yugoslavia, he scored 28 points while holding Vlade Divac to three. He's also given Tim Duncan some trouble during their meetings.

At 6-foot-10, the Spurs don't expect Oberto to guard Shaquille O'Neal or Yao Ming regularly. But they are hoping he can match up with some of the league's better power forwards.

And while Oberto doesn't have much of a jump shot — he makes Duncan look like Steve Kerr at the free-throw line — his passing should make him a good fit for the team's motion-oriented offense.

Oberto already has won over the team's coaches and staffers with his friendly personality. A music lover, he and his wife, Lorena, who have a newborn daughter, recently went to Austin to watch Coldplay.

Oberto also has welcomed interview requests as an opportunity to improve his English. On Friday, he and Ginobili read to the children in Spanish about a little spider who wanted to learn to play basketball.

"He had to keep practicing, keep working hard," Oberto said. "It was a good lesson."

10-08-2005, 01:42 AM
Spurs newbies battle for position

By Marc Stein

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Five early observations from Spurs camp:

1. Point of contention: It's not difficult to imagine Nick Van Exel playing ahead of Tony Parker in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game, especially if you remember Speedy Claxton playing ahead of Parker in the big moments of 2003's title series. The hard part, not yet a week into the season, is getting a read on how that threat will impact Parker.

The Spurs still like Beno Udrih as a future contributor, but they targeted Van Exel to be the Robert Horry of their backcourt rotation after Detroit repeatedly rattled Udrih in the Finals with its full-court pressure. Even Parker says he "knew Pop wanted to get somebody who can play under pressure and give us a solid 10 to 15 minutes," but coach Gregg Popovich actually wanted more than that. In Van Exel, he has another dangerous lefty, who, like Manu Ginobili, fears no big shot and can run an offense efficiently when asked.

The Spurs' preferred scenario, of course, is that Van Exel's presence drives Parker to a new level of consistency.

Twice in the Finals and once in a famed second-round fade from 2-0 up against the hated Lakers, Parker has struggled mightily. Yet he's only 23 and certainly still has room for growth.

If he's playing ahead of a healthy Van Exel in crunch time of the big games next spring, that would represent a real step for the Frenchman.

"When you want to win a championship, you can't say no when Nick Van Exel wants to come play for your team," Parker said. "I think we're going to play the same way as always. I just think Michael [Finley] and Nick are going to bring us big baskets when we play tough games."

Said Ginobili: "I think Tony will not be threatened. He knows he's the owner of that position. They just brought Nick to help him out -- and me, too. I don't think its going to be a problem."

2. The other battle: Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen nearly brawled late in the 2003-04 season. The fight ultimately didn't go farther than forearm shoves, but Finley later called the Spurs' stopper a coward, putting himself up there with Seattle's Ray Allen in the Anti-Bowen League.

Now Finley and Bowen are competing for minutes on the same team, but both sides insist that they've quickly buried the animosity. Bowen, in fact, was the first Spur to invite Finley to lunch after the longtime Maverick chose San Antonio over Phoenix and Miami, and Finley said they "put it all on the table."

"It's something that unfortunately happened, but it was on the court," Bowen said. "It wasn't off the court. It had nothing to do with off the court or what I felt about his game.

"When he got here, I said, 'Hey, man, we're going to receive a lot of flak from what has transpired in the past,'" Bowen continued. "I think, in life, you've got to be able to make situations right or address it to where no one is feeling funny. We've done that."

Finley echoed the sentiment, describing the welcome he has received from his new teammates as warmer than he could have ever imagined.

"I really respect him for that," Finley said of Bowen's lunch invite. "All these guys have been so great to me, it just makes me even happier with my decision."

3. A new coach, too: You've heard it from Popovich many times. He has never liked the idea of hiring a free-throw guru to address the Spurs' notorious weak spot. Until now.

Maybe Popovich was merely waiting for the right guru. Chip Engelland, a shooting coach so highly regarded that Steve Kerr used to seek his counsel, has been hired away from the Denver Nuggets to help the Spurs at the line and on the perimeter.

Management is realistic, though. The Spurs will be thrilled if Engelland has a profound impact on Parker, whose poor shooting mechanics have contributed to those struggles on the big stage. Yet they know that Tim Duncan prefers to deal with his free-throw woes alone and thus won't force instruction on him.

4. What kind of camp is it? Loose. Serious, but not stifling.

Popovich is certainly coaching like a man who expects the usual long grind all the way to late June, limiting the Spurs to one crisp session on all but one day of their Virgin Islands stay, at a time when two-a-days are standard NBA practice.

Following Friday night's open scrimmage -- which drew interest from some 50,000 local fans for fewer than 2,500 available seats -- Pop also scheduled an off-day for Saturday, thus providing a chance for his players to enjoy their exotic locale before a team dinner in the evening.

"It feels great," Van Exel said of his first Spurs camp. "It feels really light, and that's a good thing."

Van Exel has also referred to it as the smoothest camp he has ever seen, although not without a surprise. Ex-Mavericks coach Don Nelson, still a handsomely paid member of the Dallas front office at $5 million this season, was invited by Popovich to fly with the Spurs to St. Thomas as an observer.

Mavericks coach Avery Johnson asked Nelson not to attend the Mavs' camp, prompting Nelson to ask owner Mark Cuban for permission to see some of San Antonio's and Denver's. You can imagine the double-takes from Van Exel and Finley when they saw Nelson on the Spurs' plane.

"Coming to the Virgin Islands, letting Nellie come in here like that ... I'm getting soft," Popovich joked.

5. What kind of place is it? Persistent rain throughout the week denied the Spurs or anyone else visiting from the NBA much chance for in-depth exploring of the islands that produced one of the game's greatest players.

But you saw enough in the hilly terrain -- with its rundown one-lane roads, stormy weather and (very) meager sports facilities beyond those on the University of Virgin Islands campus where the Spurs convened -- to know that Duncan's journey from St. Croix to three-time NBA Finals MVP is more amazing than you ever thought.

It might not be as long and winding as the path Yao Ming traveled from communist China to No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft . . . but trust us. it's up there.