SAO PAULO (AP) Brazil's fierce rivalry with South American neighbor Argentina is being put aside when it comes to basketball. In London, it will be an Argentine coach leading the Brazilian men's team in its return to the Olympics after 16 years.
Desperately needing to revamp its basketball program, Brazil didn't think twice when it went after Ruben Magnano, the Argentine who helped his nation win the gold medal in the 2004 Athens Games after a stunning victory over the United States in the semifinals.
The Brazilian basketball confederation received an onslaught of criticism at first, but Magnano quickly gained widespread support, especially after qualifying Brazil for the Olympics for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The rivalry is not even an issue anymore, unless the subject is football, of course, something Magnano learned firsthand last year.
The day after Argentina's home loss to Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the Copa America, the South American football championship, the Brazilian players decided to give Magnano a hard time on the basketball court. While breaking the huddle following a practice, instead of yelling "Brazil" as usual, the players in unison shouted "Uruguay," loud and clear for Magnano to hear.
It was enough to get a laugh from the usually tough and serious Argentine coach.
"They are always joking with me and I'm always joking with them," Magnano told The Associated Press after a practice in Sao Paulo. "This is natural in sports. It's all about how you take it. When you don't cross the line, it's something really positive. We all have a lot of respect for each other here."
It was Magnano who got to brag earlier this month when Argentina defeated Brazil 4-3 in a football friendly in the United States, which was played the day the coach arrived for his team's Olympic preparations. Watching a television in the lobby of Brazil's hotel, he got to celebrate each the three goals scored by world player of the year Lionel Messi.
"I definitely remember that day," Magnano said.
The coach admits that it's not always easy to be coaching a national team other than his own. He said one of the hardest things in his career was to have to face Argentina while coaching Brazil, which happened twice in last year's qualifying Olympic tournament played in his country.
"I can't say that I didn't feel something different, it's even hard to explain," the 57-year-old Magnano said. "But you have to separate things when you are on the bench. Emotionally there is nothing you can do, because you can't just simply forget what's in your heart, nobody can, but I always know when it's time to get to work, which means I'm all about defending the colors of Brazil."
The trip to Argentina last year also helped ease his concerns about how fans back home would react to his decision to take the Brazil job.
"The reception I got from the fans was incredible. It was one of the greatest moments for me as a coach," Magnano said. "It was the greatest prize I could've ever won. I would say it meant even more than winning the gold medal. It was priceless."
Magnano caught the world's attention when he led Argentina to an 89-81 victory over a United States team which had Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Amare Stoudemire and Allen Iverson. The Americans were coming off three straight gold medals since the "Dream Team" made its debut in 1992 in Barcelona.
At the time, Argentina's only player in the NBA was Manu Ginobili, although it also had Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and Fabricio Oberto, who now are also playing in the United States.
This time Magnano will be able to count on four NBA players in Brazil's team going to London - Nene, Leandro Barbosa, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.
"It's going to be extremely important for this group to count on an Olympic champion like Magnano," Varejao said. "He has taken control of this national team and we are following his lead."
The Brazilian basketball confederation always had its eyes on Magnano as the man to help revamp basketball in Brazil after years of disappointing results internationally.
"Obviously we hired him for his gold medal in 2004, but also because of his experience working with the youth squads and because of his interest in preparing Brazilian basketball for the future," confederation president Carlos Nunes told the AP. "We knew that we would be heavily criticized for the choice, but we were certain that his great work would eventually make most of the critics go away."
Magnano has been with Brazil since the beginning of 2010, and earlier this year his contract was extended until the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Most of the criticism against his hiring came from within the basketball community, from people who thought the confederation should have picked a local coach instead of a foreigner.
"You need to have the courage to take on new challenges and face the adversities," Magnano said. "I'm a basketball professional. They offered me the job and I decided to take it. I thought Brazilian basketball was going through an important moment."
Brazil won Olympic bronze medals in 1948, 1960 and 1964, but after that its best results have been fifth-place finishes on three occasions, the last in 1992. The South Americans reached the quarterfinals in Atlanta.
Brazil will open in London against Australia and then will face host Britain. China and Spain, runner-up to the United States at the Beijing Games, are also in Group B, along with a qualifier to be determined in a pre-Olympic tournament in Venezuela in July.
Magnano, who also led Argentina to a runner-up finish at the 2002 World Championships, said there shouldn't be any doubts about his commitment to try to help Brazil fight for a medal in London, no matter where he is from.
"I don't forget who I work for," Magnano said. "I won't only be respecting the Brazilian flag and the national anthem. Through hard work, I'll be showing my respect to the Brazilian people."
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