The most interesting teams aren’t necessarily champions. They’re teams that changed the way we thought about basketball and the ones that reminded us why we love the game in the first place even if they failed brilliantly as they did so. This feature that will run throughout the rest of the lockout will showcase those teams in two parts. The first part will be a general look at that team. The second part will look at their greatest game(s). Remember, sports isn’t always about winning as long as you’ve got style.
Basketball has always been different from other international sports. While football and cricket reek of nationalism and feuds steeped in years of religious and ethnic context, basketball evolved into a bunch of harmless children being monitored by US-paternalism. Team USA could be beaten, but only if it didn’t take things seriously. If it did, then everyone could expect a thorough whooping. As with any abusive parental relationship, there’s always the chance that one of the kids is going to grow up and smack dad in the face. In 2004, Argentina delivered the most beautiful punch this side of ‘80s Mike Tyson.
Manu Ginobili is internationally famous. But the other members of Team Argentina may not be very well known with the exception of Luis Scola. Pepe Sanchez was born in the same year in the same Buenos Aires province as Manu Ginobili, Bahía Blanca. They played together on the club team Estudiantes de Bahía Blanca when they were 15. Joining them would be Manu’s future Spurs teammate, Fabricio Oberto and his rubber band. Oberto led a crop of versatile big men that drove Argentina’s success: Scola, Leo Gutierrez and Rubén Wolkowyski. Herrmann, Alejandro Montecchia, Carlos Delfino and Andres Nocioni rounded out the group. Without accounting for Manu, Argentina has found middling success in the NBA. Scola, Nocioni and Delfino have all been starters, but they’ve seen their share of struggles. Sanchez, Herrmann and Oberto played bit parts on their respective teams. But it’d be reductive to think of Argentina as Manu and Co. as Sports Illustrated dubbed them in their very US-centric coverage of Argentina’s victory over the US in 2004.
However, don’t doubt that Manu wasn’t Argentina’s star. He was from the very beginning when he captured MVP honors in the 2001 FIBA Americas championship; a tournament that Argentina won by an average of 20.1 points per game. Manu’s stardom was never more evident than when former US President George Bush tried to find common ground with
Argentine (correction: Venezuala) President Hugo Chavez
From Free Darko:
…Bush clearly sought to stress common ground. He mentioned Manu Ginobili of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, a star guard who has helped the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association win two titles in the past three years.
“He’s made a vital contribution to a basketball team from the state in which I live,” Bush said. “But he’s also a good ambassador for your country.”
It wasn’t just Ginobili that was a good ambassador, it was Argentina’s entire golden generation. Bush’s use of Ginobili to create common ground does as much to push Ginobili to the forefront as it does to show-off the efforts of the whole Argentine team. Without the team’s effort and success that came even when Ginobili didn’t play, basketball would never have had enough respect in a football-mad country to be discussed seriously by their leaders. Yes, Manu redefined footwork, but at the same time Pepe Sanchez was zipping no-looks to a streaking Scola. Herrmann was everything Adam Morrison was projected to be. The entire team was a writhing mass of off-ball movement, passing and using the unfair advantage of teleportation technology to get shooters to the weakside.
In 2002, Argentina came in second at the FIBA World Championship. They lost in the title game to FR Yugoslavia (later to be called Serbia and Montenegro) in overtime. Overtime came because of a controversial no-call. Argentina would avenge that loss in its first game of the 2004 Athens Olympics with a buzzer-beater by Manu in an 83-82 victory.
Argentina’s 2004 Olympic run ended with gold and was highlighted by a thorough beating of Team USA (their game will be covered more extensively later this week). This would be the high watermark of the Golden Generation. Future efforts would be hampered by Manu’s reluctance to play because of injury or his NBA career, heart conditions that would affect Oberto and Gutierrez or just plain old age. They finished fourth at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, grabbed the bronze at the 2008 Olympics and fifth at the 2010 FIBA worlds. This generation of Argentine basketball players is on its last legs, but if their title victory in the 2011 FIBA Americas is any indication, then their last gasp should be an entertaining one at the 2012 Olympics. But who knows the future, their efforts to make basketball a popular sport in Argentina may get them downgraded to silver in a few years. That would be their greatest achievement.