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 Brylcreemslick 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."