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The Golden Underdogs of the Olympics


I don't know if you have heard, but there is a little competition going on right now. It's called the Olympics, and apparently it's a big deal in some circles. Having promised to do my part to cover the homeboys in this wonderful site, I let work surround me and suffocate me as the days went by, and I sailed onwards through the Sea of Procrastination in my tiny Real Life canoe until the I reached the Deadline island and was skewered by the Holy-crap-tomorrow-is-the-first-game natives. As I sat down to write this post, I proceeded to waste my time on that contrived analogy. Hopeless.

In any case, join me after the jump so I can explain why you want to root for Argentina in this tournament. For your own sake.

National Teams and Why They Are Awesome

I like the National Team for many reasons - but having just gone through the Nash fiasco, I believe one of the most important ones is the complete lack of trades involved. There are never any waverying loyalties or strange bedfellows to contend with. Those guys, from the start to the end, are an elite group that had to learn to play together, accepting that they would only go as far as their countrymen would take them. Me and everyone else knew that they would all be ours forever, with all their strengths and weaknesses. Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola are my representatives for as long as they are able and willing, and no contract clause or stingy front office can be a lasting obstacle in that bond. It is priceless.

Sometimes I think that the best thing that could happen to the USAian basketball fan is that the losses to *Insert word that rhymes with "team"* Teams of the early 2000's just kept on coming throughout the following decade, slices of humble pie just piling on top of each other until LeBron and Durant contracted humble diabetes type II. Such an impossible scenario would have the considerable benefit of showing the local fans what a wonderful feeling it is to care for a team that represents your country in a way that matters, how different it is to see a team comprised of the best possible players that actually competes on both ends of the floor with all their heart, as opposed to just prance around and throw alley-oops as they do in the All Star.

Riding Into The Sunset

Basketball is, in a way, a cruel sport. Victory or defeat are sometimes defined by the tiniest or margins, especially in these direct-elimination do-or-die tournaments. A shot that clanks instead of swishing, a referee that descends from up high with his truth etched in stone tablets, the injury bug that bites with the worst possible timing. Football is just as soul-crushing, but goals are so rare and hard to come by that they rarely leave room for the endless what-ifs that haunt fans.

Argentina achieved their Olympic gold in 2004 and entered the 2006 World Cup seeking confirmation of their incredible moment, and not a little revenge. The final game they lost to Yugoslavia in the 2002 Indiana World Cup constituted the worst armed-robbery-turned-basketball I have ever seen, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to conquer the World Cup for the first time since 1950. Greece waited in the final, having somehow knocked the US out but ultimately an easy out for either Argentina or their rival, the always dangerous Spain. Argentina was tied in the last minute and Spain had the ball for the last shot, when the Argentinian coach decided to foul Calderón and hope for a miss from the free throw line. His first free throw clanked, but the second one went in. Manu got the ball dribbled the ball up court calmly, letting the seconds pass, and then penetrated. When the double team finally came, he stopped in a dimed and swung the ball to an open Nocioni in the corner. Nocioni, probably our best shooter that day, let it fly... What if Manu had taken the shot? The Kobe system makes for the worst what ifs.

Reading today's post about Les Bleus by Bob I almost cracked when I saw him mention just how simple it was for Argentina to qualify. It must certainly look like that nowadays, after 10 years of effortless relevance. Our history, unfortunately, is just a little different. After the brilliance of a few men led Argentina to a gold medal in the 1950 World Cup, political unrest and a corrupt CABB (national basketball association) buried the sport in 30 years of hopelessness. Lack of commitment from the players, coaches with limited technical knowledge and the absense of a national professional league just crippled the National Team. In fact, and this is borderline Kafkian, for a long time the CABB set rules that forced the coach to choose his team from a predetermined number of representatives from each province. Finally, in the early 80s, the creation of the national league started to change the nature of basketball in Argentina.

The hurdles that had to be overcome were many. Dominicana, Uruguay, Brasil, Puerto Rico, Canada, Venezuela - they were all powerhouses compared to lowly Argentina when we first re-entered the world arena. When the current generation retires, probably very soon, we will go back to battling it out with those teams, mud-wrestling if you win, until the next group of geniuses comes forth. That's the reality of a small country in which basketball can sometimes be something of an afterthought, even today, no matter how much I love it.

For the moment, though, there's the Olympics.

Our Heroes

It's time to know your team, Pounding the Rock. These are the handsome daredevil never-say-never underdogs that will conquer your hearts, loins and minds. Without further ado, the Team:

No. 4: Luis Scola
PF, 32 years old, Phoenix Suns

One of the two heroes of the recent history of our team, Scola is someone that transforms into a force of nature when playing within the rules of the international game. He lacks the mobility to become a lockdown defender, but his help defense for Argentina will be key. More importantly, he has the ability to average over 20 points per game in this tournament, and we will need every one of those points when facing tall teams like Spain and Brazil.

No. 5: Manu Ginobili
G, 35 years old, San Antonio Spurs

What else is there to say about Manu Ginobili? His commitment to the national team was fundamental to set the tone for everyone else. Who can forget him going to the Olympics despite having his contract with the Spurs on the line? Or crying after he was injured in the semifinal, another what-if that haunts me after how well we started that game. He is and will probably always be my favorite player, and if I want victory for our team, it's more because I feel that Manu deserves it than because I need it personally.

No. 6: Marcos Mata (25) and No. 7: Facundo Campazzo (21)
SF and PG, Peñarol

The younguns. I wish I could say I know a lot about them, but I honestly don't. I wasn't particularly amazed by Mata's game in the friendlies before the Olympics, but Campazzo did show two potentially useful characteristics: the ability to pass the ball with flair, and the potential to heat up from deep. Unfortunately, he is basically a hobbit from Hobbiton.

No. 8: Pablo Prigioni
PG, 35 years old, Caja Laboral Vitoria

Prigioni is a quality player, but unfortunately he is also someone I wouldn't have wanted in the national team over Pepe Sánchez and Montecchia, just a few years ago. Presently, he's beyond any doubt our best (and only, really) option for the point guard position. He's a solid defender, with lots of experience, and pretty much the definition of a sure hand. His mortal flaw? An appaling lack of magic. Mileage may vary.

No. 9: Juan Gutiérrez (28) and No. 11: Martín Leiva (32)
C, Obras Sanitarias and Peñarol

Martín Leiva is in the national team, so obviously he knows how to play basketball. He can move without the wall and play the pick and roll, but don't expect shadows of Oberto. The fact that he spent almost the entirety of his career in the Argentinian league should give you an inkling of the ceiling of his game, at 32 years old. What you might not be able to visualize are his blood-curling jumper, or his hapless free throw escapades. I haven't watched Juan Gutiérrez play since his limited role in the America's Tournament last year, so I feel like I should just admit my ignorance and let Chilai educate us on the depths of his competence. (Spoilers warning! He sucks.)

No. 10: Carlos Delfino
SG, 29 years old, I-have-no-idea (Milwaukee Bucks?)

I don't know what happened to Carlos after the tradepalooza of the last month. He might be playing in Russia for all I know.

When I can't sleep at night, it's usually because I'm wondering what Delfino we will see in these Olympics. On a good day, there is practically nothing Manu can do that Delfino cannot replicate (except for some of those magic passes or plays that Delfino would never attempt). On a bad game, though, he can be the opponent's best weapon, launching stupid shots like an Argentinian Iverson-wannabe.

What keeps me awake, though, is that Carlos will be the kernel of our bench in these Olympics. To some extent, he might be the entirety of our bench on the final stage. And that's our reality, on 2012.

No. 12: Leonardo Gutiérrez
PF, 34 years old, Peñarol

You might be wondering why 99% of the team seems to play in Peñarol. You might be, because I sure am. Leo is old but looks even older, and his contributions to this team will be cold three-pointers that shouldn't go in but do so anyway. Don't expect anything else from him, and you won't be disappointed.

No. 13: Andrés Nocioni
SF, 32 years old, Caja Laboral Vitoria

There might be someone with more heart and love for the national team than Manu, and that someone is Chapu Nocioni. There are two things you must know about him: first, he has been injured in just about 50% of the international competitions he has participated in; second, he has played in practically every one of those anyway. I have seen him walk onto the court while hobbling, or swat balls into the stands with bandaged hands. He has played with uncharacteristic low energy in the friendlies so far, but I cannot imagine him not bringing somwe of his fire for his last Olympics.

No. 14: Hernán Jasen (34) and No. 15: Federico Kammerichs (32)
SF, Cajasol Sevilla and Regatas de Corrientes

Two limited players that were at one point or another relegated from the national team to make way for Nocioni. Kammerichs in particular is one of those players that do not have the look of an athlete - he exudes vibes that fall halfway between a caveman and a woodsman. Consequently, anyone that watches him play immediately wants to see him succeed, just for the novelty of it. Jasen is like him, minus the shaggy beard and dirty locks of hair.

Coach: Julio Lamas

It's full circle for Julio Lamas. Julio started his career as one of León Najnudel's assistant, and for those of you who don't know him, León was one of the forefather or Argentinian basketball. Later on, he and Rubén Magnano became the assistants for Vecchio, a very controversial coach for the national team in the 90s. When Vecchio left amidst scandal in 1997, Lamas took over and kept Magnano as an assistant. (Magnano will always be remembered for his crazy sprint after Manu scored the game winner versus Serbia and Montenegro in Athens, 7 years later, already the team's head coach.) Lamas kept the position for two years, and he was responsible for setting the basis for the Golden Generation. He had the courage to force a generational change that gave a chance to the likes of Pepe Sánchez, Manu Ginobili and Andrés Nocioni, among others. He has returned now, to hopefully see them off in style.

The Crystal Ball

Here's a quick explanation for the tournament's format:

At London 2012, both the men’s and women’s basketball competitions will begin with a preliminary stage. The 12 teams will be divided into two groups of six and each team will play every other in their group. Teams receive two points for a win, and one for a loss (although they receive no points for losing by forfeiting the game).

The best four teams from each group during the preliminaries will qualify for the knockout stage, with the winners of the semi-finals going head-to-head in the gold medal game.

Argentina's group consists of France, Tunisia, Nigeria, USA and Lithuania. Assuming that Tunisia and Nigeria learnt to play basketball via YouTube tutorials, obtaining the second place in the group becomes the only real goal of this phase for Argentina. Avoiding Spain and Brazil for as long as possible is the best idea. France and Lithuania will of course have the same objective, and unfortunately France has an annoying one-eyed midget that might break Priggioni's ankles with a shrug of his shoulders.

Today at 4pm Argentina faces Lithuania, a country that for a long time featured some of my early European heroes. It might be the most important game of the first phase. So pick your team, grab a beer, and join me on the virtual couch. There's basketball to watch.