As a kid in Vitoria, Brazil, Bruno Oscar Schmidt had little choice but to play basketball. After all, his uncle and namesake, Oscar Schmidt, is Brazil’s greatest basketball star.
But Bruno couldn’t stay away from the beach, where he spent hours surfing and playing beach volleyball. He preferred sand to hardwood. Despite his skill as a point guard, he decided to utilize his vertical leap in volleyball rather than basketball.
It turned out to be the right choice. Schmidt has already won something his uncle never won: A world championship. He’s on track for another accomplishment his uncle can only dream of: An Olympic gold medal — and in his home country, no less, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games.
For now, though, Schmidt is focused on the SWATCH FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour Finals in Fort Lauderdale, which offers the richest first-place prize ($100,000) in the international history of the sport. Schmidt and partner Alison Cerutti continue pool play Friday with noon and 4 p.m. matches at the oceanside stadium, aiming for Sunday’s final. The pair won the world title in July and have won six events on the world tour in two seasons together.
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“It’s been an important year for us to qualify for the Olympics and we felt a lot of pressure early,” Schmidt said. “Now that we have qualified there’s a little relief, but already people in Brazil are saying they want a gold medal.”
The 12,000-seat Olympic venue at Copacabana beach is sold out. Brazil’s top men’s and women’s pairs are considered favorites.
Schmidt has made his own name in a sport that is growing in popularity. But he’s asked constantly about his famous uncle — especially in the U.S. “because Americans care much more about basketball than Brazilians.
“In Brazil we only care about soccer or heroes like Pele or Ayrton Senna.”
The elder Schmidt, 57, known affectionately as Oscar or Mao Santa, the Holy Hand, has been battling brain cancer for two years. A member of both the Naismith and international halls of fame, he’s considered the best player never to play in the NBA and the unofficial all-time leading scorer with 49,737 points. He was drafted in the sixth round in 1984 by the New Jersey Nets, but chose to devote himself to Brazil’s national team, and over the course of a 29-year career played for clubs in Brazil, Italy and Spain.
The 6-9 Schmidt scored 46 points and led Brazil to the 1987 Pan Am Games gold with a 120-115 victory over a U.S. team of college stars, including David Robinson, Danny Manning, Keith Smart and Dan Majerle. Schmidt played in five Olympics, and at the 1988 Seoul Games averaged 41.9 points.
“It’s pretty beautiful what he did for his country,” Bruno Schmidt said. “I’ve taken a big lesson from the passion and love he put into his game.”
The younger Schmidt, 28, is known as the best defender in the world.
“He’s fast, he reads the ball well, digs well, transitions well,” said U.S. player Nick Lucena, who paired with Phil Dalhausser to upset Schmidt and Cerutti in a three-game match on Wednesday.
Said Dalhausser: “Bruno has great hang time. He stays up in the air and makes the right decisions. They have a team we’re trying to imitate.”
Schmidt and Cerutti’s chemistry has propelled them to the top of the sport. Schmidt, 6-1 and nicknamed Boss because of his initials, and Cerutti, nicknamed the Mammoth because of a tattoo on his torso and his size (6-8, 235 pounds), beat opponents with their blocking and ball control. Like former Olympic champ Misty May Treanor, Schmidt takes most of the serves and is a side-out machine.
“I think we won because our plan was to tire out the big guy [Cerutti],” Dalhausser said. “That’s a lot of weight to carry around in this extreme heat in the sand.”
Barbara Seixas, who teamed with Agatha Bednarczuk to win the women’s world title and give Brazil a sweep in July, said Schmidt and Cerutti complement each other in personality, too.
“Bruno is a really peaceful guy, consistent, happy, never loses his temper,” she said. “Alison is more expressive and open and loves music.”
Next August, the Brazilians are hoping for multiple medals in Rio.
“I’ll do what my uncle always tells me,” Schmidt said. “I’ll do my best.”