Thursday / July 26 / 2012
The Spanish-American War redux
Rick Olivares

The days of a Fernando Martin gushing about the Americans’ basketball prowess are over.

If you don’t remember Martin, he was the star of Spain’s basketball squad when they faced the United States of America during the gold medal match of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. That was the game where Michael Jordan, still a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, wrote on a piece of yellow legal pad a message for then coach Bobby Knight: “Coach, don’t worry. We’ve put up with too much s**t to lose now.” Knight forwent his pre-game speech and the US thrashed Spain 96-65 to win the gold.

After that game, all Martin (who later played 24 games for the Portland Trailblazers) could do was exclaim in halting English, “Jordan… Jump, jump, jump. Very quick. Very fast. Very, very good. jump, jump, jump."

But times have changed since the 1984 Olympics. The 1992 Olympics saw Jordan (along with fellow ’84 Olympians Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin) suit up once more for the fabled Dream Team. That team and those summer Olympic games (including the qualifying Tournament of the Americas) changed basketball forever as the world arguably got a lot better after that.

Prior to the ’92 Olympics, the basketball powers outside the United States included the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Although the two latter countries have broken up into different states and nations, new powers have arisen. There’s Argentina, France, China, Germany, and most notably, Spain.

Spain is not entirely enamored with the US and both say that the two countries should compete for the gold medal in London.

Before the start of the summer, there were Spanish forward Serge Ibaka’s comments about LeBron James not being a good defender. And just last week, Marc Gasol, who plays center for Spain and the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA, offered his view in the ongoing debate whether the 1992 US team is better than the current incarnation.

Truthfully, I see nothing wrong with the comments of Ibaka and Gasol. But the media looking for hooks have amplified those statements, not add fuel to the fire but to start a fire. And well, it’s like the Spanish-American War all over again (the turn of the 19th century conflict that saw Spain cede Cuba and the Philippines following the end of hostilities).

It used to be Croatia and Serbia that provide the NBA with a lot of Euro talent. But lately, it has been Spain with the Gasol brothers Marc and Pau. There’s also Rudy Fernandez who suited up for Portland and Denver before returning to Spain to play for Real Madrid (the basketball team version not the football squad). There’s also Sergio Rodriguez, Fernandez’ teammate in Madrid, who once played for the Portland Trailblazers, Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks. There’s Toronto’s Jose Calderon. Oklahoma City’s Ibaka and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio.

That’s at least seven players with NBA mileage in them. Seven world-class players who can battle the US on even terms. In the Beijing Olympics, the US led by only four points late in the game until a late spurt saw the “Redeem Team” pull away for a 118-107 win for the gold medal.

In the last tune-up match before London, the two teams faced each other in Barcelona in an exhibition match on the anniversary of the ’92 team’s exploits. The US easily won 100-78 despite as Spain missed some standouts. So you can expect when they meet during the Summer Games, it will be a lot different.

Although Argentina is a contender with a lineup teeming with NBA talent in Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and Pablo Prigioni, both the US and Spain, drawn in separate brackets, are expected to meet up during the knockout rounds.

Gasol’s comments will be remembered (more so because Kobe Bryant voiced out that this current team will beat the ’92 version). And Ibaka will get to test his defensive mettle against his NBA teammate in Kevin Durant.

How huge will it be for Spain to be Olympic gold medalists? They are already the world champions in football for the last four years running. And they also have Alberto Contador, the noted cyclist, and Rafael Nadal who is the number three-ranked male tennis player in the world. Spain is simply turning out some really terrific and talented athletes. An Olympic gold medal will be icing on the cake.

Jump, jump, jump?

Nope. I think it’s going to be a war.

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