Ginobili-led Argentina team coveting another run at Olympic glory

By Mike Monroe

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — The photo is slightly out of focus but has been blown up to 6-by-8 feet.

That gives it a slightly hazy look, almost like it was shot through a thin film of gauze. It hangs over the entrance to Bahiense del Norte, the storied basketball club in Bahia Blanca, an industrial port city of 275,000 on the Atlantic coast, some 500 kilometers southwest of Mar del Plata, where today the finals of the FIBA Tournament of the Americas will take place.

Bahia Blancans know the faces, no matter how blurred, and they know the moment: Manu Ginobili, Pepe Sanchez and Alejandro Montecchia, teammates from the club and key members of Argentina’s 2004 Olympic basketball team. The photo depicts the three standing at center court in Athens, smiling, holding a large Argentine flag, gold medals hanging from their necks.

It is the proudest moment in the history of basketball in Argentina.

While most Argentines cling to the glory of their country’s World Cup soccer championships in 1978 and ’86 as the apex of national sports glory, in Bahia Blanca the greatest moment always will be on the Olympic basketball court in Athens.

There, the three friends and Bahiense del Norte teammates were part of a select group of basketball luminaries forever known in Argentina as the Generacion Dorada, the “Golden Generation.”

Today, six members of that 2004 national team — Ginobili, Sanchez, former Spurs center Fabricio Oberto, Houston Rockets forward Luis Scola, Philadelphia 76ers forward Andres Nocioni and Sacramento Kings guard Carlos Delfino — will play what likely will be their last game together on native soil.

Time waits for no man, not even a golden hero.

“It is highly likely that the (2012) Olympics in London is going to be my last championship tournament,” said Ginobili, the Spurs guard whose immense popularity in San Antonio pales compared to the reverence with which he is held in his home country.

“That’s why I really wanted to be here in Mar del Plata, and I really want to be in there next year. The game (Saturday) told us we are going. It’s very important to me. I really enjoyed my previous two Olympic Games, and I didn’t want to retire without making it again. I know I won’t make it to Rio (De Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games) when I am 39 years old, so this is a great opportunity.”

It was at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis that Americans first took notice of the audacious Argentines.

Scoring the first victory over a U.S. team made up entirely of NBA players, Argentina’s fast-breaking, slick-passing unit came within a clock tick of winning the gold medal. A tie-breaking basket in the finals against Serbia by Huge Sconoccini controversially was ruled to have been released after the final buzzer.

Serbia won in overtime. Argentines still believe their team had the title.

There was no controversial ending in Athens. In the semifinals, Argentina again defeated Team USA, a group that included Spurs captain Tim Duncan, with Gregg Popovich on the bench as an assistant coach.

Not even Bahia Blancans expected that outcome.

“I watched the game with one of my brothers at our home,” said 32-year-old Bahia Blanca native Federico Groppa, whose Liniers of Bahia Blanca basketball club was one of Bahiense del Norte’s rivals. “We came out to the streets celebrating, guys in cars blowing the horns, because nobody had expected this — maybe not even the guys on the national team.”

Ginobili believes the selfless play that has characterized the national team since the golden generation came together has been as meaningful as their success.

“I’m not going to disclose anything new by saying this group is very special,” he said. “We accomplished a lot of things on the court, but I probably think we accomplished more outside, in how we play as a team, how egos have never been an issue. On a team where you have five NBA players and people who on their own teams are big-time, and then they come to a national team, well, it may happen that there are problems. But we have never had them here.

“We have received many great compliments from people all over the world about our team and from other national teams that want to become like us. So it’s remarkable what we have accomplished.”

At 41, Leandro Ginobili is the oldest of the three basketball-playing Ginobili brothers. He knows his countrymen have seen egos at play on national soccer teams. This, he said, reinforces the character of the golden generation.

“It’s an example that the Argentine people must see,” Leandro Ginobili said. “A basketball team is a little society because, as a group, it must put together all the pieces and put the egos to the side and pursue a common objective. You can see Manu now plays like a playmaker. It doesn’t matter if he has six points, seven. If the team wins, all is nice. They all work together for the main objective.

“They are friends. They enjoy playing together, and the Argentine jersey fits them like a tattoo.”

Manu Ginobili doesn’t know what awaits at the golden generation’s last waltz in London. He understands it has a legacy to be cherished, no matter what.

“It’s the first team not being U.S., Yugoslavia or Russia to win the Olympic gold,” he said. “That is nothing to take lightly. Nobody probably in Argentina ever dreamed of winning gold in an Olympic Games.

“It’s hard to say now where we would be ranked — if there is a ranking — but I think we accomplished a lot of things. To make it to the semifinals in four consecutive tournaments is not an easy thing. We made it in Indianapolis, Athens, Japan (2007 World Championships) and Beijing.

“We are going to keep writing different chapters in the book in London; see if we can shoot for another medal. Then we’ll talk about it.”

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