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Basketball in Argentina

For me growing up following Soccer and seeing Argentina year on year turn out some of the best players and teams in the world, it was only natural to me that I would see them dominate in the Basketball arena as well. Looking back though, the Golden Generations dominance at the turn of the century may have been more of an anomaly than a given.

Here is the story of how Basketball was introduced in Argentina. Basketball was introduced into Argentina in 1912, their governing body, ‘Confederación Argentina de Basketball’, was established in 1929 with a National League structure (Liga Nacional) in place by 1984. Despite some regional success it wasn’t until the start of the 21st century that Argentina gained global success. In 2002 they became the first country to defeat a USA team featuring professional players when they bested them in the group stages of the FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis, USA. This was followed two years later at the Athens Olympics as they again defeated a star-studded USA team, this time on their way to winning Gold. The “Golden Generation” had arrived.

Of course, the story of the Golden Generation doesn’t start in 2002 or end in 2004. What sparked this meteoric rise? What impact did their win have on global basketball? What success have they had since? What is the state of Basketball in Argentina now?

Where did the Golden Generation come from?

At the start of the 1990’s Soccer was king in Argentina. Basketball was seen as a sport people would play for a bit of variation, not a serious endeavour. Meanwhile the rest of the world was starting to get NBA fever, Magic and Bird had resurrected the popularity of the league in the states and Jordan was about to catapult it across the globe over the next 8 years. As Luis Scola recalled in a 2017 players Tribune Article. There was one big problem in Argentina, live cable broadcasts weren’t available. There was no way to watch live NBA games. Many young fans of the game got creative. Luis and his dad would hunt for old VCR tapes. Typically, they were tapes that someone had purchased in the United States and brought back to Argentina to sell on the

street. This kept the dream alive until 1992 when cable TV came to Argentina and changed things forever. This allowed young Luis and many other budding Basketball players to see the NBA, the highest level of the game, in its truest form. He recalls watching the NBA Finals on cable that year as the beginning of his generation’s relationship with basketball. More and more, Basketball served as an alternative to Soccer it was seen as visually beautiful in the same way soccer was. This started to change the perception of Basketball in Argentina.

In the same article Scola draws a brilliant parallel between how Soccer was seen versus Basketball in Argentina – even years after the cable explosion.

“There’s so much cultural pressure on the national soccer team — expectations are sky-high. For instance, when Argentina lost in the World Cup Final in 2014, people acted like it was the apocalypse. It was rough. They got second in the world, and it wasn’t good enough. For the basketball team, it is a completely different universe of expectation. One of the first major tournaments our young group played in was the qualifier for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We didn’t end up qualifying, but we got really close. Even though we didn’t make the Olympic field, back home people were like, “Holy cow! That’s incredible that you made it that far!” We were received very warmly. That was just the reality of people’s expectations when it came to basketball in Argentina.”

So, although this group of young Basketball fans who would go on, to put Argentine Basketball on the map in a way no one could possibly have foreseen, they were up against an apathy in the nation. If it wasn’t Soccer it wasn’t important. Perhaps this is what allowed them to become the battle-hardened champions they are today?

The key members of these early 2000’s squads are as follows:

PlayerYear BornGames in the NBA
Manu Ginobili 19771057
Luis Scola 1980743
Andres Nocioni 1979514
Carlos Deflino 1982507
Fabricio Oberto 1973336
Pepe Sanchez 197738
Alejandro Ariel Montecchia 19720
Walter Hermann 1979152
Gabriel Fernandez 19760
Hugo Ariel Sconochini 19710

This generation of Argentine basketball players lit up the global stage for more than a decade. Both on the international scene and in the NBA itself. Many of them had played together as young teenagers in Argentina, way before Gold medals and decade long NBA careers seemed like anything more than a childhood dream. They had a strong bond that kept them together and allowed them to win. No matter where they plied their basketball skills during the season, when they came together for international duty, they immediately became way more than the sum of their parts. A true team in the model of the greats.

Lead on and off the court by the flamboyant Manu Ginobili, they reflect his San Antonio Spurs teams a lot in not only their on-court style, but their togetherness both on and off the court. Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich get a lot of credit for this in the NBA. But Manu didn’t simply copy this, he did it in Argentina before he joined the Spurs. He was a big part of building that culture in San Antonio.

Why Now?

A few key factors played a part in allowing Basketball in Argentina to explode when it did. Firstly, was the talent, Manu Ginobili has been a key player on a San Antonio team that has dominated the NBA on and off for 2 decades. He has won 4 NBA Championships. He is the best Basketball player Argentina has ever produced. Without his ability to take on the scoring burden when required, the rest of the Argentine squad, talented, driven and organised as they were, would not have been able to win at the level they did.

Coupled with Manu was the wider explosion of Basketball in Argentina. The revival of the NBA in the late 80’s and 90’s the connectivity the world went through as first Cable TV and then the Internet allowed sports like Basketball to grow in popularity in places they otherwise couldn’t reach.

Finally, was the complacency of USA Basketball. For the decades long success Argentina have had in Basketball, the two wins against the USA professional players set them apart and are the tent poles of the legend. The loss in 2002 was a jolt to the system, that caused the USA to bring back an even stronger team for 2004 (enter Lebron). The second loss in 2004 caused a root and stem review of the entire set up of the USA men’s national team. Bringing in Mike Krzyzewski of Duke to coach the team, with a mandate to ensure dominance. He has delivered as USA have won 3 straight Olympic golds, starting with the “Redeem Team” in 2008.

What happened after Argentina Basketball won gold in 2004?

The rest of the world smelt blood in the water after USA went down in the 2004 Olympics. Nations top players that had previously favoured protecting their bodies for the upcoming and lucrative NBA seasons ahead, now suddenly put more into their national team. Showing up for camps and matches on a more regular basis. The level of competition started to grow.

The USA had responded to defeat in 2002. The below is the squad they fielded at those FIBA worlds, the first ever USA team featuring professional players to lose a competitive match. They had an average age of 29 and relied heavily on veterans. Many of the day’s superstars did not attend the tournament.

USA Men’s Team 2002 FIBA Worlds Age
Elton Brand25
Antonio Davis 36
Baron Davis25
Michael Finley31
Raef LaFrentz28
Shawn Marion26
Andre Miller28
Reggie Miller39
Jermaine O’Neal26
Paul Pierce27
Ben Wallace30
Jay Williams23
Average Age29

They would at least send young legs and big names in 2004. A clear attempt to regain dominance on the international stage. Also a complacent move that indicated they still believed star power alone would guarantee victory.

USA Men’s Team 2004 Olympics  Age 
Carmelo Anthony20
Carlos Boozer22
Tim Duncan28
Allen Iverson29
LeBron James19
Richard Jefferson24
Stephon Marbury27
Shawn Marion 26
Lamar Odon24
Emeka Okafor21
Amar’e Stoudemire21
Dwayne Wade Jr22
Average Age 24

Notably a teenage Lebron James would make his Olympic debut. Joined by superstars like Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, this was a clear sign that Team USA intended to start winning again. Their failure would ring out around the world. Sparking a dramatic change in how USA basketball is run. Complacency had set in, they thought they could win on star power alone. They had been caught out. The world had been watching and they hadn’t realised. 

Argentina’s Golden Generation had been exactly the right group of players, arriving on the world stage at exactly the right time. Their legend will live on forever. 

What came next for the Golden Generation?

In the following years the Golden Generation would continue to flourish both in the NBA and on the international stage. As detailed above the majority of the 2002 squad would make it into the NBA for at least a season. Following Ginobili’s entrance for the 2002/03 season. Scola, Nocioni and Delfino would each go on to play in more than 500 NBA games, significant careers. 

On the international stage this group of players would remain largely unchanged for the next decade. Winning multiple Gold and Silver medals in the South America Championship. They would compete well, but not medal again in the FIBA World Cup. With their Silver in 2002 remaining their best result since they won Gold in 1950. 

They continued their success in the Olympics. Winning bronze in 2008 after losing in the Semi Finals to the USA’s redeem team. In 2012 they would lose to Russia in the Bronze medal game, after again being eliminated by the now dominant USA. Which brings us up to more recent times, starting with the 2016 Olympics where they would again be eliminated by the USA. 

What is the state of Basketball in Argentina in 2019

12 Years after their Gold Medal win and by the time the squad would play in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 4 remaining members of the Golden Generation – Ginobili, Nocioni, Scola and Delfino still accounted for 632 of 1250 minutes played. That’s 50.6%, in a 12-man squad. The 4 Golden Generation players had an average age of 36. It is not surprising then that they scraped their way into the last qualifying position in their group, setting up a face off for the 4th Olympics in a row with the USA. The USA would again eliminate them on the way to Gold. Argentina ranked 8th. Their lowest finish since 1996 and the dawn of the Golden Generation. 

With the retirement of the remaining 4 members of the 2002 squad, in particular their talisman, Manu Ginobili Basketball in Argentina is in a difficult place. There are currently no players from Argentina playing Basketball in the NBA. The Golden Generation did not cause a knock-on effect that sustained Basketball in Argentina. The reasons for this are unclear. But now the remaining players from that generation are no longer pursuing Olympic Golds and NBA titles, maybe they will return to Argentina and light a new fire in the hearts and minds of athletes who would otherwise fall into Soccer. There will never be another “Golden Generation” in Argentina, but I wouldn’t count out another group of talented players rising up and perhaps even beating the USA again.