Argentina's end of an era was emotional for the Americans, too

Defense and Durant key for Team USA turnaround (1:25)

After a terrible start against Argentina, Marc Stein points towards defensive play and Kevin Durant's performance for the reason behind Team USA's turnaround. (1:25)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Mike Krzyzewski can still picture the whole scene. It's one of his favorite stories to recount from his time in international basketball, how he looked back over his shoulder in his first Olympics as Team USA head coach to get a handle on all the commotion behind him before a semifinal game in Beijing.

"In the tunnel, not in the view of any spectators, was the Argentina team," Krzyzewski said, "dancing together and showing spirit.

"It was beautiful. And that's how they competed."

"I love them," Coach K concluded.

That was a widespread and unavoidable sentiment on a bittersweet Wednesday night at the Olympic basketball venue, where two titans of the world game -- Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola -- played in a major tournament in the light blue and white stripes for what probably was the last time.

Brazil might not seem like a storybook setting for a couple of Argentines to walk away from the sport they changed, but you fell for these two all over again in Argentina's 105-78 quarterfinal defeat to the United States. Even on enemy soil.

If not your heart, Ginobili and Scola and their countrymen always won your respect with how hard they played, how together they were, how proud they will forever be to have worn their country's colors. The nation responsible for plunging USA Basketball into the deepest of self-examinations, resulting in a total overhaul of the program and, yes, the hiring of Krzyzewski as coach, is irresistible to a hoops lifer.

"First of all, we beat an outstanding ... not just a team," Krzyzewski said. "They're what I call a program. An amazing culture.

"Congratulations to Argentina and the magnificence they've shown the world for the last almost two decades."

I know, I know. You want to talk about Spain. You want to talk about Team USA's looming rematch with the Spaniards in Friday's semifinals ... one round earlier than usual at the Olympics. You want to talk about whether Spain, with wins over Lithuania, Argentina and France by a combined 94 points, has indeed supplanted Australia as the hottest team in the tournament.

You surely want to know, most of all, if Team USA is going to lose in the semis.


We still have time to get into all that.

This was a night to pay tribute to Ginobili, Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino.

The last four holdovers from the seminal 2004 Argentina squad that, after failing to qualify for Sydney in 2000, stunned Team USA in the semifinals and somehow won the gold medal in their first try together.

"Truly amazing," said Kryzewski, who will never forget the achievement because he otherwise might never have had this job.

So both Krzyzewski and Team USA veteran Carmelo Anthony, who was just a 20-year-old on the roster in 2004, made sure not to leave the floor without letting Ginobili, now 39, know how honored they were to scrap with the Argentines for all these years.

"I'm not going to say the exact words [they told me]," Ginobili said. "They were just very cool and important displays of affection and respect."

It all added up to some scene inside the Carioca Arena 1, just two hours after Ginobili's dear friend Tony Parker played the last game of his international career in a heavy loss to Spain and wound up being applauded by the world's press on his way out of the interview room after pouring his heart out at the podium.

USA/Argentina, in similar fashion to Spain's 92-67 cruise, was realistically over as a contest in the third quarter, but the Argentina fans serenaded their heroes with song and dance and chants for the entire fourth, making this building shake and paying tribute to the Class of '04 in the only manner they know.

And there was Ginobili, after a 27-point pounding in the one country where he's usually unwelcome, shuffling off the floor as a hero, with the game ball tucked under his arm and tears in his eyes.

Scola, for his part, didn't outright say it was the end as Ginobili and Nocioni had, but couldn't help joke when someone asked about the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo: "I'll be 40. I'll be happy if I can walk."

"It was emotional," Ginobili conceded. "I didn't want it to be. I was hoping just to sneak out and go to the locker room and do what I had to do there, but everybody conspired against it."

Said Scola: "It was fun. The whole [tournament] was fun. We knew it was going to be special, going into South America and playing close to home, but I don't think nobody had an idea it's going to be this cool."

Several of the Americans on the court had a similar takeaway, mesmerized by a noise and atmosphere they had never experienced.

"I love it, man," Anthony said. "There's nothing like being in front of Brazilians and Argentinians at the same time."

Said teammate Paul George: "This was amazing. We couldn't understand what they were saying, but the environment was just amazing. I'm happy they sent Scola and Manu off on a great note."

Even in the land of green and gold, celebration was the only option. With their flex cuts, their toughness, their brotherhood, Manu & Co. won the only gold medal in men's basketball to elude the United States in the six Olympiads in which NBA players have been allowed to participate.

It has been a frequent lament in this cyberspace that there appears to be little in the pipeline to continue Argentina's success in the new millennium, but Scola refuses to see that as a tragedy.

"The [truth] is, in 70 years of basketball history in our country, for 60 years -- or 55 years -- we were between 10 to 20 [in the world]," Scola said. "That was our range.

"And now all this happened and we happened to be top three for 10 years, 12 years, 13 years. You know reality says there's a strong chance we come back to where we were before. Just because, along our history, that's what we've been.

"We happened to have this generation of very good players and we jumped to top five. ... Do we see Ginobilis and Nocionis in our [young] guys? No. But [did] people [think] in '99 or '98 that we're gonna be winning a gold medal in 2004? No. Nobody. People would laugh [at that].

"Our goal in '99 ... the whole goal for our whole careers was just to make it to the Olympics once. Not winning, not make it to the quarterfinals, not make it to the semifinals, not making a medal. Just be there. One time. That's all we wanted. And that was '99, not '81. That was five years before we won the gold medal."

Golden Generations can do that.

Just don't ask them to explain where it all came from in a country whose young sports dreamers long to be Maradona or Messi.

"Nobody really knows," Scola says. "It just happened."

Just give them their night. Give Manu and Scola and Chapu and Cabeza their moment. Friday afternoon's semifinals are a rematch of the gold-medal game at the last two Olympics, but the focus on Spain can wait.

"Today I go home with a bag full of emotions," Ginobili said, having exited with 14 points, seven assists and one perfectly Manu-esque reverse layup when the underdogs were building an early 10-point cushion.

But ...

"We left, I think, a footprint in FIBA basketball. Proud of it."

"For a moment we thought we could compete with them," Scola said, hearkening back to the 19-9 lead Wednesday night that quickly became a 47-27 deficit after a tidy U.S. run of 38-8.

"But this is a fair game. They're just better than us now. We know that. They got more athleticism, more talent, bigger. We're OK with it, because it's just the way it goes. There was a time where we could compete with these guys. And actually there was a couple times we beat them. We're not there now."

Not that Scola sounds terribly discouraged by the prospect of Team USA, despite its recent struggles, beating Spain in a third successive Summer Games and snagging gold once again.

"If nobody else beats them," Scola said with a smile the other day, "then we're the last ones who did."