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It was one of the magic moments of the Athens 2004 Olympics, as Argentina's most talented generation of basketball players beat the stars of the USA on route to Olympic glory. A decade later, six members of that team still remain, and are preparing to play together in the World Cup later this month in a bid to qualify for an Olympic farewell at Rio 2016.
“A lot of time has passed and I am very proud to have been part of that victory and to still be in the team today. It was the high point of our careers and one of the major triumphs and celebrations in Argentinian sport,” said small forward Andrés Nocioni, 34, who currently plays in Spain for Real Madrid having spent seven seasons in the NBA.
The team sealed Olympic gold with victory over Italy in the final, but it was the previous day’s semi-final victory over a USA side fielding basketball legends like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, that symbolised their achievement. This was the first time since NBA players were allowed to compete in the Games that the USA had been denied a place in an Olympic final.
Currently ranked third in the world, the Argentina team, coached by Julio Llamas, has been preparing for the 2014 Basketball World Cup in Spain. Running from 30 August to 14 September, it will provide the sport’s first qualifying places at Rio 2016.
“It is very difficult to plan for the future. Each of us is assessing what lies ahead on a year-by-year basis. I myself went into retirement from 2010 to 2013 and now I’m back in the national team. But we are getting older, and the Rio 2016 Games will surely be the last appearance of our generation, or at least most members of the group that remains in the team,” said 35 year-old small forward Walter Hermann.
As well as Nocioni and Hermann, four other players from the Athens 2004 gold medal team coached by Ruben Magnano (currently coach of the Brazilian national team) are still playing for their country: small forward Carlos Delfino (31), center Leonardo Gutierrez (36), power forward Luis Scola (34), and shooting guard Manu Ginóbilli (37). The latter, voted MVP in Athens, is set to miss the World Cup through injury, and has yet to confirm if he will indeed return to the team.
Together, these names form the backbone of Argentina’s greatest basketball achievements, including a bronze at the Beijing 2008 Games, second place in the 2002 World Championship and the America’s Cup title in 2011. Their legacy off the courts has also been just as important, however, popularising a sport that is now second only to football in the hearts of the Argentinian people.
“After so many years, we remain proud of that victory. The Olympic gold medal we won in Athens really helped popularise basketball in Argentina, especially among young people. Today, our base is much stronger than it was ten years ago and I’m happy that we’ve helped consolidate the sport in our country,” said Walter Hermann, who played in the NBA for three years and went on to spend a season in Rio de Janeiro playing for Flamengo.
Of the famous group that won gold in Athens, point guards Pepe Sánchez and Alejandro Montecchia, shooting guard Hugo Sconochini, power forward Rubén Wolkowyski, and centers Fabricio Oberto and Gabriel Fernández have already retired from the Argentinian team.