Manu Ginobili is a balding 35-year-old father of twins, and the rest of Argentina’s Generacion Dorada (Golden Generation) is getting up there in basketball years, as well. Their average age is 32. Despite the receding hairlines, they still play and celebrate with the same youthful exuberance they showed back in 2002, when they toppled Team USA at the world championships, and again in 2004, when they upset the NBA-led Americans in the Athens Olympics semifinal.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony were on that U.S. team.
After Argentina beat Brazil on Wednesday night to advance to Friday’s semifinal against Team USA, the aging players linked arms, formed a circle and jumped up and down like schoolboys. Pablo Prigioni, a 35-year-old forward, punted the basketball into the stands as Argentine fans serenaded the team with the same patriotic songs they sing at soccer matches.
“We just accomplished a huge goal to make it to semifinals,” Ginobili said. “We know we are in a situation where thousands — if not millions of basketball players — want to be in.”
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Friday’s semifinal is a rematch of Monday’s final group-stage game, which the United States won 126-97 after leading by just one at halftime. Last month in an exhibition in Barcelona, the United States nearly blew a 15-point lead before hanging on for an 86-80 win. Both games were very physical, and players nearly came to blows.
The U.S. players are familiar with Ginobili, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino from the NBA, and they expect another highly competitive game.
“We have to change the defense that we played last week, but I’m not telling you the strategies,” Kobe Bryant said. “This is the third time we have faced them, and every time we play them it is more and more interesting.”
Added coach Mike Krzyzewski: “They are a better team together than they are individually, and individually they have two of the best players of international basketball, which are Scola and Ginobili. We played two tough games against them, and we expect this one to be the toughest. Pablo Prigioni will be playing this game, and he didn’t play the last game.”
Ginobili conceded that Team USA is the heavy favorite. Still, he believes Argentina’s experience and team spirit can compensate for what they may lack in athleticism. He and Scola have been playing side-by-side since 1996, and most of the players have been together for much of the past decade.
“We are gonna try to do the same approach, try to turn the ball over less, make a few shots in the second half hopefully, and not let the Americans run,” Ginobili said. “Then, if they get inspired and LeBron or Kobe [Bryant] starts to make 20 three-pointers, there’s little you can do. We have maybe a 10 percent or even a 5 percent chance of winning, but we are going to fight for this.”
Andres Nocioni said the Argentines are “like 12 brothers playing together.”
Though Argentina is known more for its soccer tradition, the Golden Generation has raised the national basketball profile. In fact, the basketball team has won more big titles than the soccer team in the past decade. Argentina won silver at the 2002 World Championship, gold at the 2004 Olympics, and bronze at the 2008 Olympics. The soccer team hasn’t won a World Cup since 1986, and the under-23 team failed to qualify for these Olympics after winning back-to-back gold medals.
Ginobili had a poster of Michael Jordan in his bedroom as a kid. He chose to pursue basketball rather than soccer and emulated NBA stars in his neighborhood gym. All over the country, other young boys made the same choice. This generation will forever be remembered as the one that put Argentine basketball on the map.
“We are getting older,” said Scola, 32. “We know we don’t have two more Olympics. We may not have one more. This is a special chance for us. We are going to play the Olympic semifinal for the third time in a row.
“That’s pretty big for our country. This is Argentina. We’ve never done that before and this is the same group that did it the two other times, so it’s emotional for us.”
In other words, watch out Team USA.