Who smashed the stereotypes that throttled the sport for decades? How did Michael Jordan transcend the game? Who’s on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore? Rightly or wrongly, these are the questions we care about.
And yet, how about those teams that helped revolutionise the sport on both a domestic and international scale? Of course, when we think of landmark teams, we think of the 1992 Dream Team. They brought basketball to the world and allowed the game to grow in unexpected borders. Their legacy is fittingly enshrined in Springfield… and in many ways, lived by the Argentinian national team.
Argentina’s golden generation is made up of children of the NBA’s globalisation. Led by Manu Ginobili, Argentina stunningly sent the USA packing in the 2002 world championships and 2004 Olympics.
Make no mistake: the Argentinian national team has had a profound impact on a game that has truly ascended into a global sport.
In the post Dream Team pre-Jerry Colangelo era (1994-2004), international competition became a glorified exhibition, well, at least for the Americans. While most rival countries wore their national colours with intense pride, USA Basketball developed a culture of entitlement and relentless ego. Quite simply, FIBA competition wasn’t a priority for the home of basketball.
Meanwhile, the white and blue jerseys of Argentina had always been competitive on the world stage. Yet everything changed in 2002 when a 25-year-old Ginobili (or ‘El Contusione’ as San Antonio teammate Brent Barry nicknamed him) and his band of brothers – Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and Andres Nocioni in particular – inflicted the USA’s first defeat in the Dream Team Era and ultimately exposed their apathy towards international play.
Consequently, an entire nation’s ragged program was upended with a stroke of Argentinian grit. And importantly, international basketball’s first genuine modern rivalry was born in Indianapolis that year.
Of course, Argentina’s upset wasn’t an outlier. They went on to win 2004 Olympic gold in Athens.
USA Basketball responded to its humiliating sixth place finish at the 2002 World Championships and silver Olympic medal by hiring Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, and recruiting Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd. They swiftly learnt that building a national program required a similar philosophy to that of building an NBA team – establishing a stable program that fosters integrity, selflessness, continuity and a collective buy-in from a bunch of core players.
Sure, Yugoslavia basketball of the 1980s also had a sweeping effect on the way the USA approached world tournaments and marketed the NBA. Before the Dream Team, Yugoslavia boasted a ridiculous collection of talent that included Drazen Petrovic, Predrag Danilovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Vlade Divac. Those five read like an international all-star team from any era (all five averaged more than 12 points per game over the course of their NBA careers). They won the under-19 title in 1987 before claiming silver in the ‘88 Olympics in Seoul and the World Championship in 1990. Save for a Ginobili rampage, the 1988 Yugoslavian team would probably wear down Argentina in a best-of-seven series.
Yugoslavia’s success (and the Soviet Union’s collapse) contributed to the NBA opening its doors to foreign talent. Simply, the great Yugoslav team helped change the NBA forever. As Donnie Nelson revealed in Jordan Ritter Conn’s neat feature story on Grantland:
“We’re a trendy league,” Nelson says. “General managers and team presidents decided they wanted to go over there and look around. Everybody wanted at least one or two foreign players on their team.”
We’ve arguably witnessed finer teams on the international stage, like Yugoslavia (or any team from the Soviet bloc) and today’s Spain, but none have ever stirred a cultural revolution within America’s national program quite like Argentina.
If Jordan and the Dream Team transformed basketball’s global demographic then Argentina inspired USA Basketball’s transformation.
Memory is a perilous thing. Sure, we can replay Ginobili and Argentina’s accomplishments with astonishing precision now, but what about in 25 to 30 years time? The golden age of Argentina basketball deserves a Hall of Fame finish so that their deeds don’t become lost in the stream of time or drowned in the corruption of Argentina’s sporting bodies.
Widespread corruption has crawled across many of the nation’s government programs, including basketball. Team Captain Luis Scola threatened to boycott the upcoming FIBA World Cup in Spain in light of gross mismanagement, “The crisis is more important than the World Cup. If I don’t play, the horrendous management of the basketball association will be to blame.”
The Argentine Basketball Federation has reportedly fallen $20 million in debt and has sometimes forced national team members to train uninsured. With the San Antonio Spurs denying Ginobili permission to play in Spain due to the stress fracture in his leg, a fairytale last stand for the aging Argentine warriors seems as unlikely as Kobe Bryant inviting Smush Parker to his next birthday party. It’s a messy plight for a team that cultivated such a ruthless commitment to compromise, loyalty and mateship.
Corruption and instability is often the death of a golden generation. We’ve seen it on varying levels with Zimbabwe cricket in the late 1990s (an untold era of incredible talent) and Yugoslavian basketball in 1991 when the nation was heart-wrenchingly torn apart. Sure, Argentina isn’t quite facing these extremes, but with sparing young talent coming through, the rebuild will be arduous. The question is, will the Argentine Basketball Federation provide the necessary support and winning environment for the next generation to thrive?
South America’s most unique team and greatest son, Ginobili, (who holds Olympic records for scoring, steals and efficiency) deserve to have their accomplishments recognised in the Hall of Fame.
With the NBA’s temptation to turn the Olympics into an under-23 tournament, Argentina may be the last team to ever chase down the USA in the post Dream Team era of professionals wearing the red, white and blue.
Springfield ought to recognise their legacy even if Argentina’s own governing body shows little resolve to preserve it.