RIO DE JANEIRO – The last stand of Argentina’s Golden Generation lasted about six minutes. The group’s impact is immeasurable.
The beautiful basketball Argentina showed in the Olympic quarterfinals Wednesday – in the first quarter before the U.S. went on a 27-2 run en route to a 105-78 win – brought back memories of the 2004 Olympics that changed the international game as we know it.
It marked the final national-team games for Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni. Maybe Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino, too. All are four-time Olympians and gold medalists from 2004, the only time the U.S. failed to take gold at an Olympics in the Dream Team era.
“This [Argentina] team in 2004 really brought about what USA Basketball is today,” said NBC Olympics analyst Doug Collins, who also called Argentina’s 2004 Olympic semifinal upset of the U.S. “All of a sudden, [USA Basketball] got together and said we’re going to have to start doing this a lot differently. We just can’t send a group of all-stars over there, throw them together and expect you’re going to win.”
Argentina raced to a 19-9 lead six minutes into the game.
Manu Ginobili, now 39 years old, danced past Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan for a reverse layup.
Luis Scola, 36, poked away a Kyrie Irving backcourt pass, triggering a fast-break that culminated in an Andres Nocioni three-pointer. Nocioni is also 36.
Facu Campazzo, a spark-plug point guard in his second Olympics, ignited this charge, but the gold medalists are the heart of this team.
"Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni … this generation we never want to end," Campazzo said before the Olympics, according to Argentina's Mundo D. "They are leaving a legacy for a new generation. We need to be like sponges to absorb all of those values."
At Athens 2004, Argentina’s first Olympic basketball title capped the nation’s greatest sports day in history outside of its two World Cups.
In the morning of that fateful day at the Athen's Games, the men’s soccer team bagged Argentina’s first gold medal since 1952. In the evening, the El Alma Argentina (The Argentine Soul) downed Italy 84-69. The U.S. sheepishly put away Lithuania for bronze earlier that day.
“I know that it had a big impact [on international basketball],” Ginobili said. “How to measure that, it’s impossible.”
It produced seismic change in the U.S., though to be fair the Americans lost six games to five different nations at the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympics combined. Only Argentina beat them twice.
USA Basketball overhauled. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski came in. Players were chosen whose skills fit the international game that nations like Argentina had honed.
Carmelo Anthony is the only member of that 2004 team on the U.S. roster in Rio. As the Argentines were showered with applause from the crowd following the loss – some stuck around for 20 minutes – Anthony wanted to get his say in, too.
“I just told them, thank you,” he said.
The theme of Wednesday’s quarterfinals was dominant displays from U.S. and Spanish sides that struggled at times in group play. Spain, in particular, dropping its first two games and rallying just to make the knockout stage.
Beyond that, nostalgia ran through the four games.
Tony Parker announced his international retirement following France’s 92-67 loss to Spain. Parker, 34, paced France in scoring at the 2012 Olympics, where its only losses were to gold medalist U.S. and silver medalist Spain.
The next year, he topped the entire EuroBasket tournament in scoring in guiding France to its first major international title.
“I tell my team, don’t forget what we accomplished,” Parker said Wednesday. “We brought French basketball on the map.”
Australia, meanwhile, bounced back from 31- and 33-point quarterfinal defeats to the U.S. in the last two Olympics to rout Lithuania by 26.
Retired NBA champion center Luc Longley was on the Australian bench Wednesday, just as he was in 2000, when the Aussies last made a semifinal run. He’s an assistant coach now.
The late game Wednesday would pit Croatia against Serbia at the Olympics for the first time.
These two nations were formerly part of Yugoslavia, which beat U.S. college players at the world championships on this date 26 years ago.
That game was held in Buenos Aires. Ginobili was 13 at the time. Six years later, he would begin wearing national-team colors and did so through 2012.
In 2014, Ginobili reportedly said he was “98 percent” sure he was done playing internationally. Argentina’s coach, Sergio Hernandez, refused to believe it.
When Ginobili called Hernandez in March, telling the coach he wanted one final Olympics, Hernandez dubbed it the most important news for Argentine sport at the moment.
On his way out off the court Wednesday, Ginobili was tossed a shirt printed with the last names of the 2004 Olympic team.
He held it in his left hand while cradling a game ball as he moved down an interview line, holding back tears after being asked repeatedly about memories and legacies.
“Sad and happy,” Ginobili said. “Today I go home with a bag full of emotions.”