Argentina is goldenThe Argentine crowd danced and sang as the players rejoiced on the court, soaking in another moment in the sun, and in all probability the last golden moment for its Golden Generation.
Sunday night’s FIBA Americas Championship Final between Brazil and Argentina was not a final look at Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, and Fabricio Oberto together under their national colors, but it was a final hero’s sendoff. A moment to bask in the home crowd before the team makes what will be one last run in next year’s London Olympics.
With the United States not fielding a team (already qualified for the Olympics) the tournament was a proper showcase for Argentina. Though Puerto Rico and a depleted Brazilian team proved to be entertaining foils, the individual games were less about the largely predetermined outcome (an 80-75 victory over Brazil in the Gold Medal game) and more about a career appreciation for one of history’s finest teams. A team that should one day grace the basketball Hall of Fame.
Argentina emerged on the scene in the 2002 FIBA World Championships, stunning the basketball world by handing the United States its first loss since it began fielding teams comprised of NBA players. But more revolutionary than its victory was the style in which it procured it.
The innate movement, cutting, and passing were a revelation contrasted against the United States’ iso-centric sets. It was a moment that, for me, pushed patriotism in sports aside in favor of pure basketball.
While it had been speculated for some time that the rest of the world would eventually catch up to American basketball, the general assumption was it would be from Russia, or one of the several developing European basketball countries.
Yet it was Argentina, a country raised in soccer and unheard of in basketball that made the final breakthrough. If the Dream Team gave birth to the rise of international basketball, the Argentina team was its immediate heir.
A poster of Michael Jordan on a bedroom wall kept a young Manu Ginobili off a soccer field and inside a basketball gym in Bahia Blanca, pushing the limits of an Argentinean basketball program with a core group of like-minded youngsters. It was a perfect confluence of talent, fit, coaching, and fortune that produced a team of elite-to-solid NBA players from a country that had previously produced none — and may not produce again.
It was Manu Ginobili who broke the international stereotype. The team that toppled the NBA-led Americans was not steered by a giant sharp shooting big man surrounded by a barrage of 3-point shooters. Instead, it was Ginobili, perhaps the first international player outside of Arvydas Sabonis (while Dirk Nowitzki eventually proved to be a better player than Manu, Ginobili arrived as this level first) capable of standing toe-to-toe with the NBA’s elite as an equal. He did so with a slashing style and a level of charisma previously unfathomed from an international player.
The Golden Generation was, at last, a team with a collective basketball IQ approaching that of the original Dream Team and enough talent to channel that into something tangible.
And as for its Hall of Fame credentials, this is perhaps the most successful group of players in international history outside of the recently enshrined Dream Team. There have been more talented, dominant teams mind you, but those teams were generally one and done iterations from a United States that always had great roster turnover as it dismissed international play as a showcase event for its All-Stars.
If the Argentinean team can be traced directly to the original Dream Team, our national programs rebirth can be traced directly to its losses to Argentina and the subsequent adoption of a steady national team roster.
Almost a decade after they first arrived, Argentina can still make a case for chemistry winning the day. The aging bodies are no longer able to completely sustain the will and creativity that once flowed freely. Injuries and age have ebbed some of the athleticism and it would appear there are no reinforcements beyond the Golden Generation on the horizon in the immediate future. But this is a team still capable of making some noise.
The team is no longer completely steered by Ginobili, but by Luis Scola, a crafty power forward capable of going into “video game God mode” in international play. And while Manu might not be the same player he was several years ago, there still remains moments when his game falls completely into place and he is as good as any player in the world — as was the case when he hit one step-back 3 after another against Puerto Rico.
Entering their mid-to-late 30s, with an assortment of ailments from knees and ankles to heart conditions, London offers no promises for Argentina. But for a summer, at least, their Golden Generation shines once again.