Playing for Argentina rejuvenates Oberto

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — The Spurs were in a 3-1 hole in their first-round playoff series against the Grizzlies, but the veterans were happy to see an old friend in the hallway outside their locker room before Game 5.

Fabricio Oberto, starting center on the 2007 title team, was there to lend support to his Argentine friend, Manu Ginobili, and to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Matt Bonner.

Oberto had other reasons to be in San Antonio. Just five games into the 2010-11 season, a recurrence of heart palpitations, which had beset him on several occasions during his four seasons in silver and black, had forced his retirement from the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland was Oberto’s second NBA team since the 2009 trade that sent him to Detroit as part of the deal that brought Richard Jefferson to San Antonio.

“I am here to visit with the doctors and see what they say about playing again,” Oberto said then. “I must try to play again for my country.”

Oberto was done with the rigors of the NBA, but he had not given up on basketball. Not with an important FIBA tournament scheduled for late summer in his native land; not with one more opportunity to play with the five Argentine national team members with whom he had shared so many memories and medals for more than a decade.

Oberto, Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni and Pepe Sanchez played on the Argentine team that was the first to defeat a U.S. team that included NBA players. Their victory over Team USA at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis shocked the basketball world. Argentina went on to earn the silver medal at that tournament.

All six then were on the 2004 Argentine team that again defeated Team USA, this time in the semifinals of the Olympics in Athens. They won the gold medal, forever earning the nickname with which their basketball loving countrymen refer to them today: the golden generation.

So, if there were a way, Oberto vowed that April day that he would not let down his friends, teammates and countrymen.

That attitude is what Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich once famously characterized as “the heart of a champion.”

This is why in Argentina, where nearly every player has a nickname, Oberto’s alter ego is “El Guerrero” — the warrior.

The tests Oberto underwent in San Antonio produced good results. He headed home to Cordoba, Argentina, determined to get himself in condition for the tournament and wait for additional heart tests before the national team’s training camp was to begin in mid-July.

Argentina’s Fabricio Oberto shoots over Canada’s Kelly Olynyk during Monday’s game in Mar del Plata, Argentina. (Martin Mejia/Associated Press)

Doctors in Argentina gave the go-ahead in late June, and Oberto celebrated the good news with his longtime teammates.

“Nobody will work harder than Fabri to get into the best physical condition,” Ginobili said then. “We all know how hard he will work, and I am thrilled to play with him again and pumped to again play together — a month-and-a-half to be with him and all my other friends on the team.”

Training camp and exhibition games went well for Team Argentina and for Oberto, who was used sparingly as he worked his way back into condition.

Then, just a week ahead of the tournament, Oberto suffered another medical setback. A ruptured muscle in his left hand threatened his participation in the tournament.

Argentine coach Julio Lamas assured Oberto the injury would not cost him his spot on the team. If he had to miss the first round of the competition, the team would wait for him, Lamas said.

Oberto’s response was thrice-daily sessions with the team’s physiotherapist to speed his return to playing status.

One of the most popular players in Argentine basketball history, Oberto suited up for the first game of the tournament. During pregame introductions, the ovation he received equaled those for both Ginobili and Scola, the team’s biggest stars.

“It was amazing,” he said. “My legs were shaking when they cheered my name. I’m really thankful for how they treated me, and I will try to give all that love back inside the court.”

Finally, before Game 2 of the tournament, against Uruguay, Oberto got the news he had hoped to hear: Team doctors and athletic trainers again had cleared him for action.

“I think I will play only five minutes,” he said before that game, “but I will be happy just to be on the court.”

Instead, Oberto played 16 minutes against Uruguay, and in typical fashion: making slick interior passes to his teammates; playing smart, tough defense; and going hard after every rebound and loose ball.

“I returned to life,” he told Argentine reporters after that game.

“I passed through tough days, but I had the perseverance to go on working with the team doctor and kinesiologist, and I made it.”

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