Frankly, I’m glad Manu finally announced that he’s coming back for his 16th NBA season.
Because now people will stop asking me about him.
I think it’s safe to claim that Manu is the greatest basketball player our country has ever produced. But here’s the truth: When Manu was a kid, he was just average. He didn’t even make our national youth team.
Manu had a few things working against him at a young age. He wasn’t tall. He was way too skinny. He wasn’t a prospect at all. This was the golden generation of Argentinian basketball, a group that would go on to win a Olympic gold medal in 2004. Oberto. Nocioni. Pepe Sánchez. Prigioni. When we all started playing together in 1996, Manu wasn’t nearly good enough to make the “A” team.
He got cut when he was 15.
While a few of us started our careers in Europe, Manu stayed home. He played for the northern Argentinian club Andino before getting traded to his hometown team in Bahía Blanca. At first, he didn’t play much, but when he got onto the court, scouts began to notice. Eventually, a scout from Italy brought him over to the second division team Viola Reggio Calabria.
By the time Manu came back to Argentina to join the national side, he was a different player. Gone were any concerns about being the skinniest player on the floor.
Instead, he came back as the ferocious competitor you know today.
But enough about Manu — you’ll get to see him back in the NBA again next year, after all.
To really understand my story and to appreciate how Team Argentina came together, you have to understand how Argentinians viewed basketball in the ’90s. Basketball was nothing more than an alternative to soccer, a sport played for the sake of variety. There’s so much cultural pressure on the national soccer team — expectations are sky-high. For instance, when Argentina lost in the World Cup Final in 2014, people acted like it was the apocalypse. It was rough.
They got second in the world, and it wasn’t good enough.
For the basketball team, it is a completely different universe of expectation. One of the first major tournaments our young group played in was the qualifier for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We didn’t end up qualifying, but we got really close. Even though we didn’t make the Olympic field, back home people were like, “Holy cow! That’s incredible that you made it that far!” We were received very warmly. That was just the reality of people’s expectations when it came to basketball in Argentina.
Back then, we felt like a realistic goal for the 2004 Olympics in Athens was making the final Olympic tournament field of 12. That was all we wanted. Getting to that stage round was the highest achievement we could imagine. Winning the gold was out of the question — the U.S. had won every Olympic tournament since 1972. Even though we beat them in 2002 in the FIBA Worlds, we knew the U.S. would be bringing bigger stars to the Olympics and it would be a different situation. If we could find a way to get on the medal stand, it would be historic.
But the crazy thing was: Team Argentina did better than that, going further than any of us could have ever dreamed.
We shocked the world.
My dad played basketball semi-professionally. As a kid, I found it amazing that he would go to his job at the bank for seven or eight hours, come home to see us, and then head off to practice at nine or 10 at night. He’d travel all over the country to play in tournaments, playing against teams in tiny cities or remote areas of Argentina. He’d make a little money, but that’s not the reason he played.
I remember asking myself, Why is he doing this? But he loved the game so hard that it was contagious. He played what I like to call “real basketball” — which means played only for the love of the game.
I followed my dad everywhere he went, so it was only a matter of time before I started playing basketball, too. Eventually, we got a hoop over our garage and started shooting and doing dribbling drills out on the sidewalk. That might sound like a pretty normal thing for most people in the United States, but in Argentina in the 1980s, people looked at us like we were crazy.
Soccer is the national game of Argentina. But basketball became a major way in which my dad and I connected.
There was one big problem, though — cable broadcasts weren’t available yet in Argentina during the late ’80s and early ’90s, so there was no way to watch NBA games.
So we got creative.
Watching games live wasn’t an option, so we would buy old VCR tapes. Typically, they were tapes that someone had purchased in the United States and brought back to Argentina to sell on the street. It was almost like a garage sale for American TV.
But then cable TV came to Argentina and changed our country forever.
The year was 1992, and the Chicago Bulls were in the Finals against the Portland Trailblazers, coached by Rick Adelman. (Who was my first NBA coach, funny enough.) My friends and I got absorbed in it — watching the Finals on cable that year was the beginning of my generation’s relationship with basketball. More and more, basketball served as an alternative to soccer — not a lot of people played it just yet, but it was visually beautiful in the same way soccer was — the passing and movement away from the ball — and that helped generate interest.
Soccer is the national sport, and it will always be. Nothing will ever touch soccer — basketball will never even come close. But basketball became the competitive younger brother.
You see, even though Argentina doesn’t have the population of many major sports powerhouses, there are a couple of things Argentinians have going for us.
First of all, organized basketball is the only game in town. There’s no three-on-three, one-on-one, pickup basketball in Argentina. There’s only five-on-five full-court basketball — the game is team-oriented from the moment you begin to play. You see the results of that approach to the game from the youth level all the way to our national team.
Second, and more important, we’re passionate. And I don’t mean, “Oh yeah, I’m passionate about winning and scoring 40 and being the best player on the floor” — that’s the fun part that anyone would enjoy. Being good at sports is super fun. But it’s the moments that aren’t fun that are most important for growth, and Argentinians are passionate about the process. How do you think it is that Messi, who is so undersized, got so good?
In my case, it didn’t hurt that I was blessed with height — my dad was tall so I grew tall, too. I towered over most of my peers, so I was scoring a lot from the moment I started playing. I was dominating. By the time I was 11 or 12, I got my first recruiting call to join a travel team. It all happened so fast — one minute I’m joining a more competitive basketball team and being considered for our national youth program in basketball, and the next I’m considered a lock for a pro career. It wasn’t a matter of, “Will I ever play basketball for money?” That was going to definitely happen. It was more like, “How high can I go? Will I play in Europe? Will I play in the NBA?”
I signed my first local basketball contract when I was 15.
Later that year, I travelled with the Argentinian youth national team to play in a tournament held in Ecuador. Throughout the whole tournament, three European scouts sat in the crowd, taking notes. At the end of one game, one of the scouts came up to me and told me he represented Saski Baskonia, a first-division club in Spain.
“We’d like to offer you a contract.”
I signed it and I moved to Spain.
I was 17.
It’s crazy to look back at it like this now, but as I’m writing this, I’ve been a professional basketball player for 22 years. The game has taken me all over the world. I had a lot of proud moments in the NBA, but when I’m talking about my career, Team Argentina’s triumph in 2004 stands out above it all.
Everyone in the international community uses their matchup against USA Basketball to get a sense of how good they are. That was true for me, too — I used our semi-annual game against the U.S. to get a sense of where I stacked up. In 1999, we played against the U.S. in an Olympic Qualifier in Puerto Rico, and I remember feeling overwhelmed. It was like, Should I even be playing basketball?
I know it sounds like I’m kidding, but it was that bad. We weren’t ready to compete with them in 1999. For time, I guarded Vin Baker in the game, and he had two inches and forty pounds on me. The first time he slammed into me, he moved me completely out of my space. I went flying. I’m one of the biggest guys on our team, and Vin backed me down like it was nothing.
Hmm, I thought. This guy is way stronger than me.
Another play, he went down the floor and set up for a three. I thought to myself, No way he makes this. He was flying around me and if he had range too I’d be cooked. Then I’ll really have something to think about.
He buried it.
That’s it! I thought. There’s no way I could ever compete with these guys!
But our group was made of iron, and we knew we’d make it more competitive the next time, and the time after that. By this time, most of us had been playing together for so long that everything on court was second nature. Everyone knew his role, and it didn’t hurt that we had the most talented collection of Argentinian basketball players in history.
Everything changed by the early 2000s. We qualified for Athens. A rematch with the United States loomed. While historically the U.S. had regularly beaten us, I could tell we were gaining ground — in 2002, we’d even beat the U.S. in the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis, our first time beating a United States team that had included NBA players.
That’s when we knew we could compete with anything the rest of the world had.
It didn’t matter to us that the 2004 U.S. team would be even more packed with such All-Stars like as Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Here’s the thing — the U.S. had never lost an Olympic basketball game with pro players. We knew what we were up against.
But we had the group I’d been playing with for a decade: Manu, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, Fabricio Oberto, Pepe Sánchez, Walter Hermann and everyone else.
And by 2004, we were older, stronger. Not only did we think we had a chance of beating the U.S., I swear to you — and this feels so funny to say, a decade later — but we knew we would beat them.
Our confidence was just on another level.
The thing I’ll always remember about that game is how it felt to walk out on the floor. I remember how strong the energy was in the locker room.
It felt different. The U.S. expected to win. We were going to win, though. No one on our team doubted what the result would be.
That entire game, which was the semifinal of the Olympic tournament, wasn’t like any of our previous games against the United States, in which we knew we had a chance but ultimately believed we would lose. As spectators, we’d seen so many other teams almost beat the U.S., but then falter or get nervous at the end. Even when we beat the U.S. in Indianapolis, we never actually believed we would win.
When it came time for Nocioni or Manu to make big shots, they hit them. (Manu ended up with 29.) We passed the ball incredibly well. Where other international teams had faltered closing it out against the U.S., we only got stronger down the stretch. We led the whole game, and when the U.S. made a late charge we played with the same passion and ferocity we had played with at the beginning of the game.
Something that was hard to remember at the time, I have to admit, is that we still had to win another game to win the gold. We had beaten this supposedly unbeatable team, and it felt crazy and we weren’t really conscious, in the moment, that we had more left to do.
But you probably know how that ended.
Argentinian passion is not to be messed with. Ask Messi. Ask Manu.
Speaking of — Hey Manu, see you in 2020 in Tokyo? You’ll probably be too old by then, but something tells me you’ll surprise everyone. It wouldn’t be the first time.