By Cindy Garcia-Bennett, PA International
Oscar Torres has travelled far and wide since growing up in the depressed Caracas district of Los Sin Techo (Those Without Roofs).
The youngest of seven children in a working class family, Torres is now one of the best players in European basketball with BC Khimki.
Torres will be a crucial figure when Khimki take on Dynamo St Petersburg in an all-Russian semi-final at the Final Four in Istanbul later this month.
He has been so good in European competition this season, averaging 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds, that this week the 1.98m guard was added to the Rest of the World roster for the FIBA Europe League All-Star Day.
||You have to grab the opportunities that come your way
Once coversation with Torres and one learns very quickly this his life is an amazing story, one that shows how sport can truly make a difference because had Torres not been introduced to organised hoops in Venezuela as a young teen, it's difficult to know what the future would have held for him.
The prospects are grim for the overwhelming majority of those who eke out an existence in an area referred to locally as "El Cementerio" (The Cemetery).
"My brothers had to leave school in order help the family financially with my father being the only breadwinner," said Torres in a recent interview with PA International.
"I left school early because I thought it was a waste of time so I played basketball on the streets with my friends."
It was the sport that would ultimately earn his ticket out of the ghetto. He had a hugely lucky break when coach Mario Chaparro spotted him playing a pickup game and offered the 14-year-old a chance to play in Venezuela's second division.
A decade later, Torres would make his NBA debut with the Houston Rockets, becoming the second Venezuelan player, after Carl Herrera, to make it into in the world's elite league.
The sport had given him an opportunity, and he grabbed it with both hands.
"I thank God for what basketball has given me," he says. "There have been good and bad moments, but this sport has given me what I have now."
Torres, now 28, competes far away from his country's second division where he developed his skills. His memories of the Venezuelan game are strong, though, and for good reason.
He would eventually move on to Venezuela's Super League in 1996 to play for Marinos de Oriente.
In his third year with the club, Torres was officially one of the South American country's top players after leading Marinos to a league championship.
"The second division allows non-professionals to play and it has seen many good players emerge and move on to the top division," he says. "I had a fantastic season that allowed me to move to the top competition, where I won almost everything."
In that wonderful 1998 campaign, Torres played so well that he earned a place in the national team and made his debut in the Central American and Caribbean Games.
Where he truly established himself as a star on his continent was in the South American Club Championships while playing for Trotamundos de Carabobo in August 2000.
Torres was voted most valuable player in the tournament and caught the eye of the Houston Rockets, who invited him to their summer league in 2001 and offered him a one-year contract.
He played 25 games that season and hoped to win an extension but it was not forthcoming.
After playing five games for his country at the World Championships in Indianapolis, in October 2002 he signed a contract with Golden State but was waived in December after 17 games and in February 2003 joined Pompea Napoli, the club he played for last season.
Torres, after averaging 14 points a game in Italy, returned to the States to play in the Orlando Summer League in 2003 and came close to getting an offer from the Miami Heat.
"My agents weren't contacted by the Miami Heat, so I had to take a decision and in the end, I chose to remain in Italy," he said.
Had he signed for Miami, Torres might not have been able to play for his country. His tryouts had kept him from playing for Venezuela in their warm-up games for the Tournament of the Americas, but his decision to play in Italy again finally allowed him to join up with his national team and wear the vinotinto colours at the FIBA Tournament of the Americas.
Torres and Venezuela didn't qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games, with the United States, Argentina and Puerto Rico going through.
Canada were fourth and missed out, just as Venezuela who were fifth.
Torres was satisfied with his team's performance in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan.
"We did a good job considering that the team has gone through a renewal process, we had seven new players in the squad," he said.
It hadn't helped that Venezuela's preparations under experienced coach Nestor Salazar were limited.
"We were unable to practice against other international teams in order to test our level as we only competed with the Venezuelan youth teams prior to the tournament," Torres recalled.
He says the future is bright for the game in the country.
"Basketball has grown in Venezuela in recent years thanks to the players playing abroad in more challenging competitions," Torres said.
"There are now many young Venezuelans playing at university level in the USA as well as those who are playing in the European leagues."
Venezuela did not make it the Olympics, with those spots instead going to the United States, Argentina and Puerto Rico. But the national team players are determined to play on the biggest stage of all in Japan.
"Our aim is to qualify for the 2006 World Championships, to continue to work along the same lines as we have done," he said.
Torres decided to trade in the Italian life to join Russian Superleague, which is rapidly becoming one of the best in Europe.
His team is firmly in contention for honours in Russia. They are fourth in the league and could end up facing a team like CSKA Moscow, one of the top sides in the world.
Torres has maintained throughout his career that the most important thing is for him to do his best, and to make the most of his chances.
"The career of a basketball player is short and you have to grab the opportunities that come your way," he said.