The Olympic men’s Basketball Final on Sunday sees a re-match from Beijing 2008, when Spain pushed the USA to the brink before the Redeem Team pulled away late. Emmet Ryan looks at the last chance for three of Europe’s best ever exponents of Basketball to win gold.
The noise has been building since the Dream Team destroyed all before them in 1992. Basketball was becoming a global game but the United States still ruled all before them. As a new millenium dawned, the tide began to change. The USA had a narrow escape on the road to gold 2000. A sixth place finish at the FIBA World Cup in 2002 and then four losses en route to bronze in Athens 2004. These teams were not the loaded rosters of the Dream Teams of Barcelona 1992 and Canada 1994. Proper order was supposed to be restored when a powerful roster went to Japan for the 2006 FIBA World Cup but Europe hadn’t read the script.
In the semi-finals Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Greece shocked the USA but the real challenge to American dominance on the hardwood would come from a different side of the Mediterranean. The rise of Spain grew out of a core from the 1998 European Under 18 Championships. Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon, and Juan Carlos Navarro made their first statements on the world stage by taking gold. A year later Navarro’s legend as an America-killer would be born, taking MVP honours as Spain topped the USA in the World Under 19 Championship Final.
Through the early 2000s Spain was knocking on the door but not doing enough to make the world believe. A bronze at EuroBasket 2001, silver in 2003, and fourth in 2005. Then in Japan 2006, expecting to see the US in the gold medal game, Spain lifted the Naismith Trophy with victory over Greece. World Cup success in Basketball preceded their Football success by four years. A first ever EuroBasket Gold arrived in 2007 and now all eyes were on Olympic glory.
The Golden Generation was growing in strength. By the time they reached Beijing in 2008, Pau Gasol’s brother Marc had joined the senior team. Rudy Fernandez was ready to make a breakthrough and the world was about to be introduced to Ricky Rubio. Having been shellacked by the Redeem Team in the group stage, Spain fought back to make the final. Pau Gasol has 21 points, Navarro added 18, and Fernandez led the charge with 22 but it wasn’t enough as the USA took gold 118-107.
Injury however would define Spain’s point guards between 2008 and 2012. Rubio saw heavy minutes in Beijing as Calderon, by then a three-year NBA veteran, was sidelined and unable to play in the medal games. Rubio and Calderon were expected to split duties in London but a torn ACL meant the Timberwolves sensation wouldn’t make it to the games.
Even without Rubio, Spain are not short at guard and Calderon has been ably assisted in London. Time however is starting to tell on the trio that tasted gold at Under-18 level in 1998. Pau Gasol and Navarro are both 32, the latter has been hampered by injury throughout the London tournament, and Calderon is 31. Age is not a concern for Spain in the long-term but for this group that have defined the rise of La Roja, it’s their final chance to complete the international medal set.
There may be decades before a team from Europe can muster the kind of roster Spain has in London. Serge Ibaka joins the Gasol brothers to make Spain an imposing force in the front court. Fernandez, Rodriguez, and Navarro didn’t last in the NBA but all three save their best for the national team. The odds will always be against the USA’s opponents but if ever a team was built to take on LeBron, Kobe, and Durant it’s this Spanish line-up.
The FIBA World Cup comes to Spain in two years time. The old guard will be feeling their age at that time but on Sunday they have one last chance to claim the ultimate prize.
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