The Argentinian basketball team pulled off one of the greatest feats in their country’s sporting history by winning the gold medal at Athens 2004, having knocked out the USA in the semi-final. They were the “Golden Generation” who inspired basketball players throughout Argentina, including the teenagers who shone at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018. Luis Scola was a key part of that 2004 triumph, and has remained a crucial member of the team which reached the final of the 2019 FIBA World Cup and, in doing so, qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
In October 2018, the athletes at the Youth Olympic Village in Buenos Aires had the chance to admire a huge fresco painted in tribute to the “Golden Generation” of Argentinian basketball. At the Urban Park in Puerto Madero, where the YOG dunk and 3x3 tournaments were being held, the stands were filled with spectators wearing shirts bearing the names of this team’s legendary players, particularly Luis Scola and Manu Ginóbili. And, to the delight of the crowd, the athletes in blue and white delivered a sporting tour de force. Fausto Ruesga lit up the dunk competition with a gold-medal performance and helped team-mates Juan Hierrezuelo, Juan de la Fuente and Marco Giordano win the 3x3 tournament final 20-15 against Belgium. “It’s impossible for us young players to dream of achieving what the Golden Generation did,” said De la Fuente after the match. “I hope this win gives us a little push for the future.”
That future is the Tokyo 2020 Games, and Scola, now 39, is still playing and inspiring the young generation. He even finished the Pan-American Games in Lima (Peru) as the team’s top scorer, netting 28 points in the final on 5 August 2019 as Argentina defeated Puerto Rico 84-66 to reclaim a title they had not won since 1995. And in reaching the final of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, the Argentinians qualified for the Tokyo Games as one of the top two teams from the Americas at the tournament, along with the USA.
But that wasn’t all: a superb Scola orchestrated impressive victories against Serbia in the quarter-final (98-87) and France in the semi-final (80-66, with Scola finishing the game as top scorer with 28 points, the player with the most rebounds (13) and the player of the game, with a total score of 32 points). His performances helped Argentina reach the final, which they lost 95-75 to Spain in Beijing on 15 September 2019. “Two years ago, I said that this team reminded me of the Golden Generation from the early 2000s,” said Scola. “People looked at me like I was mad. But I’m not. We reached the World Cup final, just like in 2002.” Cue a trip down memory lane to nearly 20 years ago…
First major victory at the 2002 World Championships
Carlos Delfino, Gabriel Fernández, Manu Ginóbili, Leonardo Gutiérrez, Walter Herrmann, Alejandro Montecchia, Andrés “Chapu” Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, Juan Ignacio “Pepe” Sánchez, Luis Scola, Hugo Sconochini and Rubén Wolkowyski: the Golden Generation, Olympic champions in 2004, the team that beat the USA twice in major tournaments, laden with continental silverware, and Olympic medallists again – with bronze this time – at Beijing 2008. The fabled heroes of Argentinian basketball.
“One of the reasons that this team excelled for so many years was that we loved playing together,” said Ginóbili. “More than anything, the Golden Generation was about friendship,” said Sánchez. “Such a special group. A miracle, in my mind, that all these guys came together at that time,” said Gregg Popovich, the legendary NBA coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who served on the US team coaching staff at the 2004 Athens Games. "We invented this game, but these people… They’ve taken it to another level,” added Larry Brown, the US head coach at the time.
They were childhood friends who learnt their trade in the “capital” of Argentinian basketball, Bahiense del Norte; came through the youth ranks together; became fixtures in the national team; and, in the early 2000s, went to cut their teeth at club level in the European leagues. On 4 September 2002, they burst into the international consciousness in the second round of the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis after beating a star-studded American team, made up of big names from the NBA, 87-80 – Argentina’s first ever victory over the USA. “We were nobodies, and we became the Rolling Stones overnight,” recalls Oberto. Argentina navigated their way to the final, eventually losing 84-77 to Yugoslavia in overtime, with the teams tied at 75-75 after regulation time.
Decisive moment at the start of the 2004 Games
The decisive moment for the Golden Generation at the Athens Games arguably came on the first match day of the competition, on 15 August, against Serbia and Montenegro, the very team that had beaten them in the final of the 2002 World Championships (competing as Yugoslavia). Eager for revenge, Argentina were trailing 82-81 with just three seconds to go when Ginóbili ran through and, off-balance, scored at the death as the buzzer sounded, snatching Argentina an 83-82 victory. A shot, he said, which came to define his career. He fell to the ground and his euphoric team-mates rushed towards him to join an almighty pile-on.
Ginóbili, a future four-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs, and his team-mates were then defeated 87-76 by Spain. They subsequently beat China 82-57 and New Zealand 98-94, before losing once again – this time 75-76 against Italy – and limped into the quarter-finals having finished third in their preliminary round group.
On 26 August, they came up against host nation Greece, backed by 15,000 fans, for a place in the semi-final. Things were looking grim for Argentina, who were trailing by 13 points in the third quarter, until coach Rubén Magnano brought on Walter Herrmann. Herrmann put in a virtuoso performance to turn the game around; Argentina drew level before taking the lead and eventually winning 69-64. “The match ended, the crowd fell silent, and that was when we said: ‘We’ve made it to the last four – we can win a medal here’,” said Delfino.
Argentina on top of the world on 28 August 2004
Back in the changing room, “Chapu” Nocioni gave the rallying cry: “Tomorrow, we’re going to beat the USA!”, which was taken up by the rest of the team. Since the exploits of the legendary “Dream Team” at Barcelona 1992, the USA had won every single match at the Games, with an average margin of victory of 32.5 points per game. But on that day, 27 August 2004, it was the South Americans who wanted it more. They led throughout the match, winning the first quarter 24-20, the second 19-18 and the third 27-19, and started the fourth quarter with a 70-57 lead.
The USA were unable to claw their way back into the game, and the only negative for Argentina was when Oberto suffered a broken hand late on. The match ended with a final slam dunk from Scola, taking the score to 89-81. He immediately made a medal sign with his hands, and his team-mates followed suit; they had just guaranteed Argentina its first ever podium finish in basketball at the Olympic Games. “It wasn’t until that time that I understood what playing for your country really meant,” recalls Carmelo Anthony, the American player who would go on to become a triple Olympic champion.
In the final on 28 August, the last day of the Games, Argentina faced Italy, determined to put the disappointment of the 2002 World Championships behind them, and aware that this was a unique opportunity that might not be repeated any time soon. While Italy started well, Magnano’s men soon found their feet, and the Europeans saw the game run away from them in the final quarter. Scola (who scored 23 points in total) netted a slam dunk with 15 seconds to go to take the score to 84-69, and it was all over. The Argentinians were already celebrating their victory before the buzzer. “The aim was to win a medal, and to win gold like that was incredible; it was like a film,” said Delfino. The podium finish, the playing of the national anthem and the hoisting of the flag all made for an incredibly emotional occasion for the Argentinian players.
Four years later, in Beijing, the Golden Generation lost 101-81 to the USA in the semi-final and took the bronze medal after beating Lithuania 87-75. At London 2012, with Ginóbili, Delfino, Nocioni, Gutiérrez and Scola still in the team, Argentina again came unstuck in the semi-final against the USA (109-83), and finished fourth after losing the bronze-medal match to Russia (81-77). Then at Rio 2016, when Scola was the flagbearer for the national delegation, Argentina were knocked out by the USA in the quarter-final (105-78). The Americans have still not lost a match at the Olympic Games since that defeat in 2004!
The steadfast bonds that were forged between the Olympic champions are as strong as ever 15 years later. Some of those players have gone down in NBA folklore; many are now retired or have become coaches, while others, such as Scola, are still playing for club and country. And Argentina’s top scorer at the 2019 Pan-American Games and 2019 World Cup, who also made it into the latter’s All-Star 5, has his sights set on leading the young generation to new heights at Tokyo 2020, where he will become one of only a handful of players to have competed in five Olympic Games editions!