Venezuelans Bring Some Of Their Own Magic To The Fray Well, Actually, "El Mago" Is From North Carolina. But He Can Dribble The Basketball. So He's Their Hero.

Posted: July 03, 1992

PORTLAND, Ore. — In Venezuela, Sam Shepard is nicknamed "El Mago." The magician. He is 39 years old and his hair is tipped with silver, as though only the top of his head had been caught under a salt shaker.

Shepard is a 6-foot, 187-pound point guard for the Venezuelan national team. If you don't think 'Shepard' sounds Venezuelan, you're correct. He grew up in North Carolina, went to school at Delaware State and, in the Venezuelan off-season, lives in Clemmenton, N.J., so he and his wife, Janis, can manage the apartments they own on 52d Street in Philadelphia. His daughter Gwendolyn

plans to attend Temple this fall.

"El Mago" for six months. Mister Landlord for three months.

Wednesday night here, or early yesterday morning in Philadelphia, Shepard blocked a three-point attempt by Mexican guard Oscar Castellanos with two seconds remaining in the game to preserve an 88-85 victory for Venezuela at the Tournament of the Americas.

The win, Venezuela's first-ever over Mexico in international competition, according to Shepard, put Venezuela into last night's quarterfinals against Canada. The winner would earn a trip to the Olympics.

This has been a strange journey for Shepard. In 1975, when he was graduated

from Delaware State, he was part of a league all-star team that made a tour of Venezuela. Before that, Shepard said, he'd never heard of Venezuela. "It was a mystery to me," Shepard said.

Someone was impressed. Many people, actually. Shepard returned to the States and tried out for some NBA teams. Some CBA teams. Some ABA teams. Nothing ever quite worked out, and the Venezuelans kept calling. Shepard would go south, play for awhile, come home, try out, miss out, go south.

What Shepard found out was that it was easy to be a star. He was a guard and, Shepard said, "in Venezuela I don't think there was one person back then that could bring the ball across halfcourt."

Not only could Shepard bring the ball up the court, he could dribble with either hand and make a pass behind his back. Dribble all the way to the basket. He was "El Mago."

"Yeah," Shepard said, "I am sort of a hero there."

He would go no further. He wanted no part of being compared to Magic Johnson. "Let's just leave it at the magician," he said.

As Shepard became established in the Venezuelan pro leagues, he was constantly being asked to play for the national team. To do that, though, Shepard had to become a Venezuelan citizen. To do that, Shepard had to give up his U.S. citizenship. Six years ago, Shepard took that step. He is a citizen of Venezuela. He speaks Spanish like a native but he speaks English like a Philadelphian, fast and furious.

Shepard has the same, sharp facial features as Hersey Hawkins, but his face is more lined and more expressive. His body is in perfect shape. Rock hard. Muscled. Not an ounce of fat.

While scouting Wednesday's game, the Canadian coaches marveled about Shepard's intensity, his endurance, his quick step to the basket, his strength.

Shepard didn't want to say how much he is paid to be a professional basketball player in Venezuela. He gets an apartment and a car from his team in Maracaibo.

His coach, Arturo Guerrero, said Shepard "is the reason basketball is the No. 1 sport in Venezuela now. The only reason."

Guerrero said that little boys grow up in Venezuela "wanting to be like Sam."

Has a ring to it, that statement. You know, "Be like Mike."

Shepard only laughs when he talks about his resemblance to Hawkins, or the similarity of his nickname to Magic.

"I just wish I made the money those guys make," he said.

Still, Shepard would love to play the U.S. Olympic basketball team here. That will happen only if Venezuela beats Canada and then Brazil tonight. Then he could play against the U.S. in the championship game Sunday.

"El Mago" against Magic.

PUERTO RICO 92, ARGENTINA 85. Mario Morales made six free throws in the final 57 seconds to secure a spot in the Olympics for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico opened a 53-31 lead late in the first half. But Argentina, which hasn't been to the Olympics since 1952, scored eight points in the final 53 seconds of the first half to stay within striking distance.

Argentina cut the lead to 80-77 with 3 minutes, 19 seconds remaining. James Carter hit a jumper for Puerto Rico with 2:59 left, but Argentina appeared to get it back to three when Hector Campana scored down low with 1:41 left. The basket was waved off when traveling was called and Campana was assessed a technical foul when he grabbed the official who made the call. Carter made both free throws.

Morales kept the South Americans at bay, converting all the shots in three 1-and-1 situations. His last two came with 13 seconds left.

Ramon Rivas, who played at Temple and for the Boston Celtics, had 15 points and 17 rebounds for Puerto Rico.

NOTES. The United States team got a welcomed day off yesterday. No practice. No game. No interviews. These guys, these NBA pros, aren't used to playing four games in a row as they had done, completing the marathon with a 128-87 rout of Argentina Wednesday night that clinched the Olympic berth.

When asked his feelings about the formal earning of that Olympic spot, Charles Barkley looked astounded. "Well," he said, "we already had the airplane tickets and the hotel rooms booked. I guess we were sort of expecting to make it."

Larry Bird, who played only in the United States' first game Sunday, said through a USA Basketball spokesman that he would stay in Portland through the championship game Sunday. Bird missed Wednesday's game with a sore back again but decided to wait until the tournament was over to have the back checked. His status is listed as "day to day."

In tonight's semifinal, which will begin at 10 p.m. Eastern time, the U.S. team will play Puerto Rico. Tomorrow will be an off day, and the consolation and finals will be Sunday.

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