Serenaded jubilantly by their countrymen after a 80-75 gold medal victory over Brazil, Argentina’s national basketball team added another chapter in a story I haven’t the skill or depth of words to write.
But Argentina’s fascinating rise to basketball prominence is a story that should be told. One that would be best narrated in their own words, documented and enshrined in Springfield at their Hall of Fame induction speech.
Anything less for one of history’s greatest basketball teams would be unbecoming.
The 2011 FIBA Tournament of the Americas (forum), minus the United States, was as much a tribute to Argentina’s “Golden Generation” as it was an Olympic qualifying tournament. The core of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, and head coach Ruben Magnano—now with Brazil—burst on the international scene at the 2002 World Championships seemingly from nowhere, shocking the United States and finishing with a silver medal.
Sunday night’s championship marked another medal in a decade-long run of excellence, but it also signaled the beginning of its end.
In victory, against a watered down field that featured no United States, a depleted Brazil, and a streaky Puerto Rico team, victory was almost assured. But it hardly came easy. There were times, playing consecutive nights on aging legs, that Argentina looked old.
For the Golden Generation, athleticism was never what carried the day. But with an assortment of ailments, from ankles to hearts, their bodies struggle to handle the fearless grit and heart that once flowed so freely. It now comes in waves, ignited by sparks of brilliance from Manu Ginobili, nailing one step back three-pointer after another to put Puerto Rico Away. Or in Luis Scola’s mastery of fakes and midrange jumpers in a fourth quarter comeback against Brazil.
For one more tournament, at least, it was enough.
But even as a year from now is hardly promised to a team well into its 30’s, watching the Golden Generation celebrate in front of their home crowd hardly seemed like a farewell. The songs were not a goodbye, but a hero’s sendoff for what will be one final run next year at the London Olympics.
Whatever the outcome there, and regardless of where Argentine basketball goes from here, this is a team that deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame as one of the all-time greats—perhaps as the most important international team ever.
The Hall of Fame is not restricted to the NBA, it’s first and foremost a narrative of basketball in all its glory. And if the original 1992 Dream Team (inducted in 2010) gave rise to international basketball, then Argentina’s Golden Generation is their immediate legacy as the most impactful FIBA team since Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird joined forces.
There is the success that can be measured in the record books, medaling in every tournament from their arrival in 2002 until the World Championships in Turkey, highlighted by gold in Athens in 2004. And there are the factors harder to quantify.
It was assumed for some time that the rest of the world would eventually catch up to the United States in basketball. Teams improved exponentially every year since those 1992 Olympics inspired a young generation of foreign athletes. But no one could have pegged soccer rich Argentina as the country to finally break through.
It is inconceivable how a country with such little basketball foundations suddenly gave rise to a group of elite-to-solid players in the same age group that fit so cohesively. It is a formula that even Argentina itself is struggling to reproduce, having little depth outside of its 30-something year old stars. It would be akin to a group of friends, living in a small town without so much as a quality high school basketball team or basketball history, emerging as NBA All-Stars.
Yet there Argentina was in 2002, in a blur of movement and passing out of Magnano’s brilliant flex sets, implemented with individual moments of brilliant creativity from Ginobili and Scola, taking basketball back to its purest form. A team with a basketball IQ approaching that of the Dream Team with enough talent to turn it into something tangible.
And if the original Dream Team brought Argentine’s basketball to prominence, then it was Argentina that helped get the United States back on the right track. The current United States national program, comprised of a steady roster of America’s greatest talents, in a stable offensive and defensive system, can be traced back directly to the Americans’ losses to Argentina.
With a number of other great national teams having emerged around the world, and no depth behind their aging stars, London might not be so kind to Argentina. But for a group of friends that have accomplished so much, Argentina’s Golden Generation will never lose its shine.