RIO DE JANEIRO – Argentines were waving powder blue and white flags, chanting and bouncing so hard at Carioca Arena 1 that armed security guards gathered around the rambunctious fans to make sure the upper deck wouldn’t collapse. Carmelo Anthony wasn’t quite sure what they saying, but their buoyancy and endurance were so impressive that he paused from admiring Team USA’s long-overdue breakout performance on the court to acknowledge a dedicated group of admirers who wouldn’t let a blowout loss to the favored Americans diminish their national pride. Arms folded, Anthony looked back at the crowd, nodded and encouraged Kyrie Irving to do the same.
Outside of the host country, no concentration of fans brought more fervor to these games than supporters of South America’s second-largest country, a place that had no known basketball tradition until this century – when a golden generation secured the game’s most impactful victory 12 years ago in Athens. They had the arena rocking whether Argentina was up 20 or down 20.
The traditional chants of the Argentines were at times deafening, drowning out the usually loud arena music. A few were actually an exchange of sometimes crude insults about soccer with their rivals from Brazil, who were already gone from the tournament but relished in watching Argentina get eliminated in the quarterfinals. But the fans knew exactly when to pause and redirect their attention to the game. It came with one minute, 52 seconds remaining in the 105-78 defeat, when Manu Ginobili walked off the floor for the final time in an Argentina uniform.
Showered with applause for the duration of his emotional stroll, Ginobili raised his left hand to the stands and spent the close of his international career trying to hold back tears through a lengthy serenade. Ginobili’s teammates embraced him on the bench, whispered into his ear. He was presented the game ball afterward and his eyes began to water as he waved to the fans once again. USA coaches and players all approached him, one by one, to say farewell for what will go down as a sad day for international basketball. Not only did Ginobili and teammate Andres Nocioni confirm that they were done, but Tony Parker also played his final national team game for France in a loss to the Americans’ next opponent, Spain.
“It was emotional,” Ginobili said. “I didn’t want it to be. I was hoping just to sneak into the locker room and do what I wanted to do there but everybody conspired against it.”
Ginobili has never made the success of Argentina’s basketball program about him because he always saw himself as a part of that unique and unexpected brotherhood that won a gold medal in 2004. Though he had the most accomplished NBA career of his peers – winning four NBA championship rings with an unorthodox game that brought showmanship, grace, creativity, unpredictable zaniness and the untamed, Tasmanian Devil-level twirling – Ginobili was always aware that what made this group so special was how they fed off one another, how they made each other better.
Part of the reason he decided not to retire from the San Antonio Spurs was because he knew he wanted one last chance to play with Nocioni, Luis Scola, and Carlos Delfino. Argentina came up short in bringing back another Olympic medal to go along with the bronze it also won in 2008, but Ginobili and his brothers also know that their time has passed. They had already exceeded what they dreamed could be accomplished in basketball when they became the core of Argentina’s national team in 1999, so the results of the last run meant far less than the experience of sharing one more summer together.
This wasn’t the most memorable tournament, from a basketball perspective, for Ginobili. At 39, he’s not nearly as nimble, those hesitation dribbles don’t have the same dizzying effects, and he could summon only occasional flashes of past excellence. Finishing with 14 points in the loss to the U.S., Ginobili had one more awe-inspiring play in the tank as he drove baseline, pump faked and made a reverse layup that helped Argentina build an early 10-point lead. Before long, the Americans overwhelmed their opponents with their superior athleticism, speed and depth. Ginobili understood the limitations of his current team before they became a reality.
“As soon as we blinked, it was over,” Ginobili said. “We didn’t face them today in the same condition as 10 years ago, 12 years ago. We were a different team – deeper, younger, more athletic.”
Some of the other members of that squad – Pepe Sanchez, Walter Herrmann, Fabricio Oberto – have since moved on. Scola still wears his flowing, shoulder-length locks. Nocioni and Delfino still have their signature spiked hair looks. But Ginobili now rocks a shaved head, no longer able to grow that floppy mane that made his wild drives appear all the more animated.
“Everybody is talking about the end of the generation,” Scola said. “The truth is, this generation ended years ago. We’re only four guys from the Olympic [gold-medal] team. This generation was over years ago. I know people get really attached to names – Manu, Nocioni, Delfino – I know how important those names are. And it’s obvious we are close to the end and there will be one day the last of us is gone.”
The Americans owe Ginobili and the golden generation a debt of gratitude because Argentina forced USA Basketball to look inward and get better if it wanted to re-establish its dominance in the game invented on American soil. Twice, Argentina embarrassed the U.S. in international competition – first at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis and again two years later, with a defeat that left the program in shambles. Scola couldn’t deny the significance of that Olympic victory.
“It was an Olympic gold medal. And you’re talking about Argentina. You’re not talking about the U.S. or Serbia or Lithuania or Russia. It’s Argentina. We don’t have any basketball history. We never thought we were going to be able to say that,” Scola said. “Our goal in 1999, we get together in Puerto Rico, our whole goal for our whole career was to get to the Olympics and play there. Not winning. Not making it to the quarterfinals, not make it to the semifinals. Not making the medal. Just be there. That’s all we wanted. And that’s ’99. That was five years before we won the gold medal.”
Anthony was the last player to embrace Ginobili, the only one on the floor who felt the pain of the greatest summer of Argentina basketball. Argentina defeated the U.S. 89-81 in the semifinals to ensure the worst finish ever in Olympic competition for the game’s standard-bearer. Then, Argentina smashed Italy in the gold-medal game. Patricio Garino was an 11-year-old boy, staying up late to watch his country accomplish something no other nation except the U.S. has achieved since NBA players were allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1992.
“That was the first time I told myself, ‘I want to be like those guys.’ It was awesome,” said Garino, who had no inclination that he would one day call Ginobili a teammate on his national team and eventually the Spurs, whom he will join next season.
The U.S. returned stronger and better for its next two Olympic trips, winning gold medals and restoring some order within the world. The Americans moved on to face Spain in the semifinal with a chance to win a third straight gold medal and 15th overall in the history of these games.
Argentina leaves Brazil unsure what will come from the next generation of basketball players – led by Garino and Facundo Campazzo – uncertain if this was some anomaly that won’t be duplicated for decades, or ever. Those are concerns for another day, another year, and were not a priority when all that mattered was that the leader of an unlikely basketball power said farewell while the game – and his boisterous supporters – hugged him back one last time.
“Nobody did what he did. The way he competed for us for all of the years. It’s unique,” Scola said. “But as much as I love him, probably more than anybody else with the relationship we have, it’s just one player, and nobody is bigger than the whole team and the country. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got to find new players. The same way we did before.”
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