RIO DE JANEIRO — U.S. men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has a favorite Argentina story. It takes place in Beijing with his team in the tunnel, about to take the court to play the Gauchos in the semifinals at the 2008 Olympics. In a scrum behind the Americans are their opponents, dancing, hugging and singing.
Krzyzewski turns to assistant Mike D’Antoni and says, “Forget the scouting report. That’s what we have to beat.”
The U.S. beat the Argentines then, and beat them again on Wednesday, 105-78, in the quarterfinals of these Olympics. But for the better part of two decades—going back to 2002, when they won eight of nine games, beat the U.S. and collected an astonishing silver medal at the World Championships in Indianapolis; and 2004, when they beat the Americans again on their way to winning gold at the Athens Olympics—Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino have carried the country’s basketball fortunes further than South Americans ever thought possible.
With Ginobili and Nocioni announcing their retirements from international competition after the game, Argentina’s Golden Generation left a court together for the final time. But the four showed the same spirit for which they’ve always been known. And they found a boost from the young legs of point guard Facundo Campazzo, whose scoring and passing pushed Argentina out to an early 19-9 lead before the U.S. landed a counterpunch, putting the game away with a 28-2 run of its own.
Argentina had won its place in the knockout round by the grace of a 111-97 double-overtime defeat of Brazil that Ginobili needed three English superlatives to describe. “Unbelievable,” he said. “The basketball today was just ridiculous. The heart of some of our players is incredible.”
One of the players whose heart Ginobili extolled was Campazzo, who finished with 33 points, 11 assists and four steals, and opened the second overtime with back-to-back three-pointers. “He’s that kind of guy,” said Scola. “You want to kill him one second, then hug him three minutes later. He’s a special player. He’s going to be leading this generation soon.”
Added Delfino, “I don’t know how much we deserved to win the game. We missed shots, we missed free throws, but we won somehow.”
“Winning somehow” was the hallmark of the Golden Generation. Fans the world over can recount Ginobili’s heroics with the San Antonio Spurs, but his countrymen will never forget the fallaway bank shot in transition he scored at the end of Argentina’s first game in Athens, which barely beat both the buzzer and Serbia and Montenegro and set the tone for the Gauchos’ run to the gold. That the statue unveiled of him in Buenos Aires two years ago was made from bronze seemed somehow unworthy. “What words?” Krzyzewski said last night. “A Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame competitor. He plays all the positions, and with heart and commitment. It was an honor to compete against him.”
Nocioni is 6’7”, but Argentines know him as El Chapu, after an undersized Mexican children’s character called El Chapulin Colorado. El Chapu—“He’s not a superhero,” Nocioni points out, “but an antihero”—wears a red shirt; Nocioni picked up the nickname as a kid because his fair skin burned easily. He lived up to the heat-absorption part of that moniker in the victory over Brazil, scoring 37 points and sinking eight three-pointers. But he’s known most for the combativeness that kept him in the NBA for eight seasons.
It’s a small miracle that Delfino even took the court in Rio. Since 2013 doctors have operated on his right foot seven times, and the former Houston Rocket only began to play again in earnest last month.
As for Scola, he just had what would be a career year if he were playing for famed English boarding school Eton rather than the Toronto Raptors: He was chosen as both the NBA’s top sportsman and Argentina’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony. So of course, before that group-stage game against the Olympic hosts, he plotted with Brazil’s Marcelinho Huertas to jointly address the crowd—Scola in Spanish, Huertas in Portuguese—in a call for calm and respect. “South America is a great place and the way we do sports is fun,” Scola explained. “We just cross the line sometimes. We kind of got caught up in that a little bit at the Olympics, and this isn’t the place for that. This is a place for families, for friends, a place to have fun.”
The greatest legacy that Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni and Delfino leave will be their example of what loyalty to the national team can lead to. It has become a bromide to say that teams from beyond the U.S. benefit from stability and playing together. Sometimes that truism gets trotted out as counterexample, as a way to explain or excuse the slow start or perceived underachievement of Americans who haven’t always had that luxury. But the enduring success of Argentina and its nucleus will long serve as a model for any country determined to achieve excellence in the face of long odds. Ruben Magnano, the coach of those teams in Athens and Indianapolis, had schooled Scola and Delfino as youth players; by the time the Argentines finished up their business in Indy, running the sets they were first taught as teenagers, Hoosiers were wondering how you say “picket fence” in Spanish.
In the middle of Wednesday night’s fourth quarter, with the U.S. rout in hand, all four vets sat the bench. The Argentine fans who had made the short trip to Rio sang, as if to compensate for all that sidelined spirit, until with a little more than four minutes to play coach Sergio Hernandez sent them back in as a group and gave those supporters one last chance to say goodbye. “We’ve had the good fortune to touch the sky with our hands,” Nocioni said afterward. “It’s unthinkable to have had the level we’ve had for so many years. I grew up watching NBA games for a half hour at a time—you couldn’t see more—so [this has been] a dream come true.”
Someone asked Nocioni if he had a favorite memory, and you could see his mind on infinite loop, unable to spit back a precise answer. “Even the bad memories,” he finally said, “are good ones.”
Wednesday night Nocioni and Ginobili, and probably Scola and Delfino too, came back through the tunnel for the last time. To other teams around the world—including the U.S. on two big-stage occasions—Argentina will long be remembered as the light of an oncoming train.