From Pace/Webster era, he's playing in Barcelona

Ken Rosenthal

August 03, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- Sam Shepherd is so old, he played college ball against Coppin State's Joe Pace and Morgan State's Marvin Webster. He's so old, he tried out for the Baltimore Claws.

The man is 39, but that was him yesterday, No. 10 for Venezuela, exploding for seven points in two minutes against China. Eight hours later, Michael Jordan appeared on the same court. Who knew the difference?

Alas, Shepherd won't play again this tournament, for Venezuela (1-4) failed to reach the medal round. But his story bears repeating: No other player can trace his Olympic roots to the day he was named to a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference All-Star team.

It's a ridiculous proposition, but it's exactly what happened to Shepherd. In 1974, he toured Venezuela with an MEAC All-Star team coached by former Morgan State coach Nat Frazier. He liked it so much, he returned to play professionally after leaving Delaware State.

Yes, he was the last player cut by the Claws, the ABA franchise that folded after two exhibitions. Yes, he also tried out for the Washington Bullets. Such facts are now incidental. Shepherd, a 6-foot-1 point guard, became the all-time leading scorer in Venezuela.

Nearly two decades after his arrival, the country still lacks quality point guards, which is why Shepherd starts for the national team. Despite being the oldest player in the Olympics, he averaged 11.6 points and 4.2 assists.

"At my age, you don't get too excited, but it's been great," Shepherd said yesterday after scoring 11 points to help Venezuela complete its first Olympic tournament with a 96-88 victory over China.

"I've been in the Pan Am Games, I won South American championships over Brazil. The Olympics tops it all. I can say I've done practically everything now. I don't feel bad."

Heck, where's Joe Pace now? Where, for that matter, is Marvin Webster? Shepherd outlasted all his old MEAC rivals, and in 1981, at the height of his Venezuelan career, he signed a five-year contract with an average salary of $80,000.

Of course, no one ever confused the Venezuelan league with the NBA. Shepherd recalled one time when his club was winning unexpectedly on the road. Suddenly the two teams got into a brawl, and that was only the start of the fun.

Before anyone knew it, a woman wandered into the melee with a 15-foot boa constrictor wrapped around her neck. She dropped the snake on the court and achieved the desired result: Shepherd's team immediately forfeited.

"Everyone scattered," he said. "All the American guys decided, 'That's enough.' They didn't want to play any more. They packed it in for the night. And I agreed with them 100 percent."

Things have improved since then, but Shepherd is still trying to help raise the level of play in Venezuela. True, the national team upset Brazil to reach the finals of the Tournament of the Americas, but he still doesn't see major progress.

Consider his assessment of Venezuela's performance in the Olympics: "The team plays no defense. The players are very selfish. They say, 'I'm in the Olympics, I want to score 100 points.' It's killed us."

Well, now that Venezuela is eliminated, Shepherd can spend the rest of the Olympics rooting for Americans. He was born in LaGrange, N.C., and spends the off-season in Clementon, N.J. He and his American wife are apartment landlords in Philadelphia.

Shepherd said he was disappointed when Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell didn't finish 1-2 in the men's 100. He told tennis player Michael Chang, "You'd better get the gold." And he claimed he wanted the Dream Team to "beat everyone by 40 or 50."

Venezuela lost to the Dream Team, 127-80, in the Tournament of the Americas final, but Shepherd said, "It was fun. Scottie [Pippen] talked a lot the whole time. He was saying, 'Fellas listen, it's over, slow up.' I was running quite a bit, even though we were down 35-40 points. I didn't pay him no mind."

Shepherd was running again yesterday, even though the game was meaningless, even though he was bothered by a twisted ankle. He said, "I don't know if you can say I'm feeling 39, but I'm beat up." Still, he's signed to play another year in Venezuela.

Last season, one of his teammates was former Dunbar and Maryland star Ernie Graham. Shepherd said Graham played well for approximately 10 games, then left the team because of differences with the coaching staff.

That makes two generations of Baltimore basketball players who couldn't keep pace with Sam Shepherd. The Michael Lloyds and Donta Brights of the world better watch it, or pretty soon they'll also be chasing the old man.

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