USA ends brilliant international career of Manu Ginobili, Argentina’s “Golden Generation”

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Listening to the crowd for the final five minutes of play, you would have had no idea the game was a blowout.

Wednesday in Rio, Manu Ginobili just didn’t have enough clever playmaking — and, more importantly, enough energy in his legs — to lift Argentina to an upset of Team USA. The 105-78 loss spells the end of Argentina in these Olympics.

It also spells the end of international play for Argentina’s golden generation, which was led by Ginobili and included Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, and Andres Nocioni.

For the final five minutes of a game where Argentina trailed by more than 20, a loyal and raucous Argentinian fan base serenaded and thanked Ginobili and the golden generation in the only way they knew how. After the game, they kept on cheering as Ginobili and company stayed on the court, hugged one another in tears, and accepted the adulation of their fans.

We should all say thank you to them.

It was this core group of players — even more than the excellent Spanish and French teams that followed — that changed the dynamic of international basketball and showed teams they could beat the USA. It was Ginobili, with both his international and NBA play, that was the best evangelist for David Stern’s gospel of NBA globalization.

It was Argentina that handed the USA its first post-Dream Team loss, beating them in group play during the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis. It was Argentina that crushed the USA in the semifinals of the 2004 Athens Olympics that sent the USA to bronze. The Argentinians were clear and away the better team in that tournament. It was that day that USA basketball changed, and soon Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski were put in charge of changing the USA Basketball culture — of trying to build the kind of continuity and team chemistry that Argentina had shown.

Argentina went on to win the gold in Athens. Only the USA, Soviet Union, and Argentina have ever won men’s basketball gold.

This remains a very tight Argentinian group, one that had been playing together since their teens. They grew up together on that international stage, and while they went down different paths with their club careers — Ginobili picking up four titles, a Sixth Man of the Year award, a couple of All-Star appearances, and incredible respect as a member of the Spurs — they always came back to their international team bond.

That bond is why after a 2012 London Olympics, when they said they would part ways, they changed their minds and came back for one more run at it in Rio.

Wednesday night that came to an end, at it was emotional for them. Ginobili — who had 14 points and 7 assists against the USA — was given the game ball and hugged it close all through his press conference.

Argentina was a longshot to medal in Rio, and then had the misfortune to be matched up with the USA in the quarterfinals (they didn’t have the size and athleticism to keep pace with the Americans).

This summer the international basketball stage has said goodbye to Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and now Manu Ginobili. Things will never quite be the same.

But none of those legends had the impact on the international game that Manu did.