An NBA and Olympic champion, Fabricio Oberto was a household name in Argentina, Europe and then the NBA for a bunch of years. The hard-working center retired from the league in 2010 due to a life-threatening heart condition, but hoops remains a big part of his life as a TV analyst. In his chat with HoopsHype, Oberto talked about his career, the Spurs, his friend and former teammate Manu Ginobili and more.
For everyone who has not been familiar with your whereabouts since you retired from the NBA, what are you doing now?
Fabricio Oberto: I’m currently working as an analyst for ESPN. I’ve had a couple of experiences in Olympic Games, in FIBA World Cups, I’ve been moving forward and improving to be able to find an approach that could be easy to understand. While trying to get better as an analyst, you can find your own style. I try to talk about what you can see in the game. Often you have to have the information but not using analytics too much, because otherwise you don’t analyze what’s going on. That’s something I liked to do when I was playing – to notice what the team needed, how can I help. So now it’s about trying to put it into words, not making it too colorful, but making it simple: this is like this, if he turns, if he passes, if he doesn’t. There’s a lot of variables that I’m learning.
What is the difference between competing in the game from the inside and watching them from the outside?
FO: It took me a while to adapt. I am quite restless, so in the first year I started from a wine cellar to a technological project. I had a stream for 10 years that we’re going to relaunch again: De Todo Menos Básquet (Everything But Basketball). I did some rock music radio, since I’m quite a music fan. So I’m using all that to learn, to communicate or be a better speaker. In February I was climbing the Aconcagua. All this helps with the physical part and for a common good, which is to educate yourself, to be able to speak and to have more experiences. It’s very difficult that you tell me ‘Let’s do this thing’ and I say no. The truth is that this is something I enjoy doing for ESPN, with Ernesto Jerez, Alvaro Martín, the coach (Carlos Morales), Sebastian (M. Christensen), Claudia Trejos, all of them. This is really learning because they made their careers in this business, and I’m copying is not stealing (laughs). I enjoy it very much.
What do you think about how the NBA has changed, especially from the point of view of a center?
FO: I would have had to shoot threes (laughs). They wanted to copy what the Chicago Bulls did, but you have to have Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Kukoc, Harper, the players who played that way. We all said that we have to play like the San Antonio Spurs, but you have to have Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) and Tim Duncan. And I think those are styles, systems that are still being used. But about the team that often wins, in this case the Golden State Warriors, we can talk about the offense, but you need those three personalities who can control the game… And it is a team that has changed the way we see the game. There are many teams who want to imitate it, but then it is difficult because you do not have it. At some point, there will be a team that has a tall point guard, like the Lakers with Magic Johnson, who can post and that will be the new trend. And then we have those phenoms of nature that we see like the Greek Freak, Ben Simmons, LeBron, Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal back in his time. They are really dominant players, they will continue coming so the game will evolve. So I think as a player you have to find how to help your team. Sometimes you can’t shoot threes, but you can be like (Draymond) Green. He has improved his three-point shooting, and he has those three beasts next to him who are so good that can leave you open. He’s like the glue of his team, like (Andre) Iguodala, like (Shaun) Livingston. I have the chance to play with Livingston after his injury, in Washington, and he’s such a player… First, the athletic part, how fast he can carry the ball, and then how smart he is getting to that spot where he’s very good. So I think these are the abilities that every young player should be watching as they come up. I have no doubt that if I had to play in this era I would adapt to any role where I could help. Maybe I didn’t have it then. I was more of an interior player but I always wanted to try to give my best. They gave me some space so I could go faster to set screens so the player who really could shoot, in this case Manu, Tony or Tim, had a chance to do it.
You spent four years in San Antonio, even winning a championship. Did you somehow perceive this evolution of the game during your time with Gregg Popovich?
FO: Matt Bonner was already there, he already was a four who could shoot from three. I think that’s the change that we saw. And today it catches your attention that the Pelicans have Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. You think they the two are interior players, but then when you see them play, they play more outside, how they can play facing the basket. In San Antonio, Tim Duncan could play that way almost as well as when he was posting. He had so many resources. So I think that’s the evolution that other teams that can’t have Tim Duncan did, playing at a faster pace. At that time we played a couple of times against the Warriors, and they already had a game style where they were switching all the time, when Don Nelson was there. It was running, everybody switching, so you had to be always ready and focused.
San Antonio is also a special team with how star players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili were able to change their role, as they did it when they got older. What is the secret of this change of mentality?
FO: I think every player has to be ready to do what the team needs. Sometimes it’s your turn to be the one who appears in the picture, sometimes it’s not what you do. That’s also why their careers were so long. They are still useful, and despite not having the carry that weight on offense anymore they are still examples, and they can continue coaching younger players who have to understand that role. The players who usually come to San Antonio know their role and then they go to another team where they have a different role. But without learning that, it wouldn’t be possible.
What are your thoughts when you see Manu Ginobili playing at 40 like he did last season?
FO: Always, since we played together on the same team, it was incredible to see how he reinvents himself every year. He reinvents himself. When the season arrives, he always has this passion for the game. How he has to work, how he takes care of himself. This is not a job where you go on vacation when the season ends. At this level, you have to keep improving to be better the next season. You have to take care of yourself. And he’s the best one to do that. You can see how he gets acknowledged. He’s really one of the heavyweights of this league.
Do you see him coming back next season?
FO: What I want to see, having a friendship and relationship with him, is for him to be happy. I think at this point he has nothing left to prove, but he is so competitive you see he can still help the team. I would say I always want to see him play, let him play for 100 more years, but I think there are priorities, life changes. We have to wait and see what he’s going to do. It’s a decision so personal that having an opinion about it, even when you have the knowledge and the trust to talk about things, it’s not relevant.
If you have to make a bet…
FO: It would be very difficult because of everything that happened this year, everything he had to play and at that level. Last year it looked less… It’s hard. I recently talked to him and he never said yes o no. He has to make the decision.
The Spurs have experienced something new this year… Some internal drama with the Kawhi Leonard situation, the injury he had and all the time he’s been away from the team. Knowing the people involved in the franchise, were you surprised?
FO: Without knowing the subject, considering all the things that we’ve heard about the injury, if he was hurt or not, I think it is a new experience for San Antonio. They have to adapt. It came out the other day that Popovich and Kawhi were going to meet. They are two super intelligent people. I do not know what it’s going on behind the scenes of what has been said. But I think San Antonio has a history with players and taking care of things. You have to see how this soap opera ends. I do not think anyone wants it to be. San Antonio wants to play to be always to try to reach the Finals and win titles.
Before playing in the NBA you also spent some years in Spain, where you got started to get a name for yourself…
FO: I’m very grateful to the ACB League. It was tremendous. The clubs, the people.. As a player, the experience I had to live there was incredible.
Have you seen Luka Doncic play?
FO: Yes, I’ve seen him play, and he is one of these players at that age that looks like he’s been playing European finals for 20 years, in clutch moments during the playoffs… He’s one of those chosen ones. The distance has reduced a bit, but a player in FIBA competition has less space than in the NBA because of the rules. Without a doubt, he is a player with plenty of NBA potential, and where does he go from there will depend on how he works. I think he’s a player who works a lot. You have to see how far he goes or what he will become in the NBA, but there’s no doubt his place is here. There’s no doubt that the team that gets him will have a player who will give a lot to talk about.
Some comparisons have been made between Doncic and Ginobili… as a player who is not a point guard, but has that special IQ to see the game and to control it. Do you see that, as someone who played for so many years with Manu?
FO:Yes. In Europe, there are dominating players who can win a game for your team and make sure they’re involved in those key plays, that’s why they are the cream of the crop in Europe. Of course, they have to come here and make their way. It’s not easy what Manu has done here in the NBA.
You made your way here. What are the challenges for a player going from Europe to the NBA?
FO: I think the first year is about trying to adapt to the number of games. Because it is the same time in which you play in FIBA, but it is another kind of vertigo. The second year is when you have to start adding things to your game because the league adapts to you, almost all players get to know you. At the beginning they can go, ‘What will he do? What is he going to do?’ Once you have played, when you already showed what you can do in the first two years, it’s in the third one when you have to improve to be really unpredictable. This is a league that knows you so well that if you do not defend, they will attack you all night. That was one of the main things for me. I liked defending all my life, besides the fact that on some teams I scored more, had a bigger role, I was the first option or the last option. But the defense always had to be there, so I think that helps you a bit. When they see that you can not sell, the league itself will take you out, because they will attack you all night. So in the third year that path would not improve.
The NBA and the rest of the world saw Argentina’s Golden Generation, which won an Olympic gold. Some players of that National Team ended up playing in the NBA – Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni, yourself… After that generation, players like Nico Brussino or Patricio Garino made it to the league, but didn’t last long. Why has that happened?
FO: I think that at that moment, around 2001 or 2002, the idea was to take advantage of this generation without working in the structure. The players who came out were cases where a coach worked with them in a certain way. There are good coaches, there are good clubs, but the structure has to be good to generate talent. There was talk that Argentina was going to be the new Yugoslavia. And I think you shouldn’t let your work go to your head. That’s why we had the result we had in 2004, in 2006 where we lost against Spain in the (World Cup) semi finals, in 2008 winning the Olympic bronze. And I think all those years were due to work. Many times as a team we made decisions and we did the work that was not visible. When you play in Europe, for important teams, you are in touch all year. In 2001 we did not have it. We knew him a lot but we could not say ‘I play against (Dejan) Bodiroga every day.’ Then you learn more about the things that make him good, and the Argentinian player is good at absorbing a lot of things. From there to make it work we have a long way of self-criticism, and do things so players like (Facundo) Campazzo, like Pato (Garino), Brussino, all the young guys that are there can keep growing. There is a project that Pepe Sánchez is developing in his club (Weber Bahía) with prospects not only from Argentina but from South America, and it’s growing more and more. I think you can see the thoughtfulness of that work.
We recently saw some beautiful stories in the Finals. Channing Frye before and now Jeff Green played with the Cavaliers after undergoing heart operations, missing entire seasons. You went through this, having retired from the NBA due to coronary problems, and then you played again in Argentina. When you see them playing again, how do you feel?
FO: It is tremendous, because it’s tough to overcome the psychological part when one has that passion. The disease of the elite athlete is that you feel you are Superman. You can climb a mountain, you can go all the way, you feel everything is possible. And when something like that happens to you, it’s not like an ankle or a knee injury, it’s a heart issue. For me it was a change of philosophy, of how to see things, being aware. If not, I limit myself. I just climbed the Aconcagua in February, but before I did all the checks so I wouldn’t take risks. You have to understand what your limit is. And for that there are some doctors who see me or those players who have that problem. They are sure of what they say, that’s why they prepare so much. If it had happened before, I would have seen it differently. It happened to me at 35, when they reset my heart three times and then they performed a cardiac ablation on me. Today I’m happy. The doctor told me it could have happened to me at 70, but if it happens now it has its risks. You have to be aware that you have a cardiac issue that you have to control, and that’s it.