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Another gold medalist from Argentina joins the Spurs

Argentina's Manu Ginobili, right, celebrates with Fabricio Oberto following a 69-64 win over Greece
Argentina's Manu Ginobili, right, celebrates with Fabricio Oberto following a 69-64 win over Greece
Michael Conroy, Associated Press

PALISADES, N.Y. — Fabricio Oberto wore a sad smile while speaking longingly of the luxury Porsche SUV he had to dispose of in Spain earlier this summer. His new ride is a four-door Dodge station wagon more functional than flamboyant.

His villa in the lively city of Valencia is empty now, too, his wife and baby daughter having already abandoned the Mediterranean coast to relocate deep in the heart of Texas.

The celebrity status that the 6-foot-10 Oberto enjoyed in Argentina and Spain is gone, too, replaced by virtual anonymity in the country he now calls home. On the few occasions he is recognized in San Antonio, he is pleasantly surprised by the preponderance of Spanish-speaking Spurs fans.

"It's like a new life," Oberto said. "New country, and in the family we have a new member. I keep telling people I feel like I'm 22 again."

Oberto, 30, sat at a picnic table outside a conference center where the NBA was conducting its rookie orientation program and cheerfully looked ahead to joining the defending champion Spurs.

Not many in America have heard of Oberto, who schooled Vlade Divac in the 2002 World Championship gold medal game and stood his own against Tim Duncan in the Olympic semifinals in Athens.

With NBA training camps set to open Oct. 4, the Spurs might have improved more than any other team. But while most of the focus has centered on the signings of free agents Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel, the move that might end up helping most was adding the big man from Argentina whose soft hands, accurate touch and superior basketball IQ will add another low-post weapon to a roster that already includes the most fundamentally sound big man in the world.

"I don't know if I am a mystery. I don't have any secret weapons or anything," Oberto said. "I just work hard every day. That is the philosophy of my life."

Oberto first tried to make it to the NBA with the Knicks during the summer of 1999, spending much of his 10 days in New York on the receiving end of rants from then-coach Jeff Van Gundy. Oberto was stunned when the Knicks told him they wouldn't be bringing him to Boston with their summer-league team, and he looks back on it as the worst days of his professional career.

"I realized then, I think I was set up," said Oberto, whose Knicks tryout kept him from playing on Argentina's national team in the 1999 Olympic qualifier. "They didn't tell me until the last day, and I felt really bad about that. They didn't tell me I needed to play a couple more years. If they had said that, I could have accepted their point."

Dejected, he signed with Tau Ceramica in Spain.

The Spurs tried to sign him late in the summer of 1999, general manager R.C. Buford recalled, but missed the deadline for Oberto's buyout.

Oberto spent two seasons with Tau and three with Pamesa Valencia in Spain, rejoining his national team in the summers and winning a silver medal at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis and a gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"Playing in Europe so many years, you see more strategy, not so much freestyle game. You learn how to make plays for your teammates. For me, that is one of my powers," Oberto said.

An affordable buyout clause allowed Oberto to become a free agent at the start of this summer, and the Spurs grabbed him at the last second after he was set to sign with Memphis.

Indiana also expressed interest but instead decided to sign Lithuanian guard Sarunas Jasikevicius — another seasoned European pro making the jump to the NBA at a relatively advanced age.

"I think in the end he decided he wanted to play with Manu (Ginobili)," agent Herb Rudoy said. "He was a hair's breadth away from going to (Memphis).

The Spurs were ecstatic to land Oberto, especially after coach Gregg Popovich — as assistant on the U.S. national team in 2002, 2003 and 2004 — had watched him carve up the competition in international tournaments.

At the World Championship gold medal game in Indianapolis, Oberto outscored Divac 28-3, his defense frustrating the Serbian center into one of the poorest performances of his career — 1-for-10 shooting from the field, 1-for-6 from the line. A disputed non-call at the end of regulation forced overtime, and Argentina went on to lose to Yugoslavia.

"I still haven't seen a tape of that game, only when they've showed highlights in Argentina, and almost everyone starts crying. But it taught us a lot of things for the Olympic games," Oberto said.

Oberto had to sit out the Olympic gold medal game against Italy after breaking his hand in a semifinal victory over the United States. When Valencia's season ended, he decided to take another crack at the league where countrymen Ginobili and Andres Nocioni have begun to flourish.

"As soon as we finished this year in Pamesa, I called my agent and said I need to try to get there, and I was going to wait until something happens. If a team had come with an offer that was not enough, I'd stay in Europe. But I wanted to see the offer. I haven't in all my career seen an offer from the NBA, so I waited," Oberto said.

After defeating Detroit for the NBA title, San Antonio originally set its sights on signing a different Argentine player, forward Luis Scola. But the Spurs had to shift gears after realizing they wouldn't be able to secure a buyout of Scola's Spanish League contract.

Oberto and Scola spoke regularly at the time, and Oberto said he still feels strange about having landed a job that originally was supposed to go to one of his best friends. Oberto arrived in San Antonio in early September and spent two weeks working out with Duncan at the Spurs' practice facility.

Buford said Oberto will compete with Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic for playing time at center while also serving as the backup to Duncan at power forward.

Oberto has no preconceived notions about how much he'll play. But he doesn't want to rock the boat now that his NBA opportunity finally has arrived.

"You've got an engine rolling," Oberto said. "You've got to go there and not bother anything, don't break nothing, because this is a champion team."