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This Oscar Is Worthy Oscar Torres, the NBA's first native Venezuelan, is a Rocket on the rise

Two winters ago the intercontinental odyssey of Rockets rookie
swingman Oscar Torres hit a roadblock. While on an overnight
road trip north of the border with the Billings (Mont.)
RimRockers of the now defunct International Basketball
Association, Torres, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, was
denied passage into Canada because he lacked a work visa. While
his teammates motored north, Torres stayed behind at a gas
station, where he sat on a wooden bench from five in the morning
until five that afternoon, finally catching another bus to
Fargo, N.Dak., to rejoin the RimRockers for their next game
Stateside. "The team got me a hotel in the U.S. on our next trip
to Canada, but then it started to snow," says Torres, 25,
laughing as he holds his hand waist high.

In Houston's more temperate climes the 6'6", 210-pound Torres is
a border-breaking sensation--the first native Venezuelan in NBA
history. Seven years after beginning his pro career, he's a
regular in the Rockets' rotation, using a Brylcreem-slick
spot-up J to score 7.7 points per game through Sunday. During
the 14 games point guard Steve Francis spent on the injured list
with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, Torres averaged 13.4
points on 45.8% shooting. "He's very mature for a rookie," says
Houston guard Cuttino Mobley, one of Torres's closest friends on
the team. "We feel confident in him."

Introduced to basketball at 14 by a high school coach impressed
by his indoor soccer skills, Torres took to the game
immediately, joining a traveling amateur team at 17, then
signing with Venezuela's top pro league a year later. After
riding the bench for three seasons he blossomed in 1998, winning
Rookie of the Year honors. (He hadn't played enough minutes in
previous seasons to lose his rookie status.) Stints with the
national team, as well as his three-month tour in the IBA,
caught the attention of the Rockets, who invited him to join
their summer-league team after he went undrafted in 2001. Torres
so impressed Houston's brass that he earned a one-year contract
for the rookie minimum of $332,000--a substantial raise over his
$100-a-month salary as a first-year pro in Venezuela.

"When we gave him a look, we didn't know what to expect," says
coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He showed us a great body, tremendous
shooting range, the ability to post up and a willingness to play
defense. To get that whole package usually takes a high pick."

Torres still looks shaky as an on-the-ball defender, though
pregame tape sessions with assistant coach Jim Boylen (and
Spanish-language radio broadcaster Adrian Chavarria, who often
serves as his translator) are speeding his progress. He may also
be adapting faster because he's benefiting for the first time
from on-the-scene family support. In 1999 he flew out of
Venezuela for the IBA only seven hours after his wife,
Elizabeth, gave birth to their daughter, Maria. Now the trio
shares a two-bedroom apartment in suburban Sugar Land, Texas.

"I always told myself that to get to the next level, to get
better, I would have to sacrifice a lot," Torres says. "This is
the fruit of that work."