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Argentina's golden generation changed international basketball forever

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The "Golden Generation" of top Argentinian players likely played its final game in a Round of 16 loss to Brazil at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. We remember how this group of players turned the world upside down.

Harry How

On Sunday, Brazil thoroughly defeated Argentina in the 2014 FIBA World Cup Round of 16. The result may seem like a footnote, but it was culturally significant.

The Argentines have usually owned their South American rivals in international competitions, but the younger and fresher legs wearing the green and yellow overwhelmed the group we've dubbed "The Golden Generation." With no Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino to help pick up the slack and older players like Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Walter Hermann and Andres Nocioni simply unable to keep up, Argentina was toast.

Sunday's loss marks the end of an era. Unless the old guard returns for one more international competition at the 2016 Olympics, we just witnessed the final game for a group that changed international basketball forever. Led by Ginobili, Scola and many others, Argentina showed the world that Team USA could be beaten with the right combination of talent, teamwork and cohesion.

It began at the 2001 Tournament of Americas. Playing hosts for the tournament, Argentina went 10-0 and thoroughly dominated all foes in the process, including a supremely underwhelming United States squad made up of junior college players like Marcus Banks. (Remember him?) Team USA went 0-10.

But that was just a precursor to the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis. Argentina was again afforded the chance to play against the U.S, and this time, Team USA sent a roster of B-Level NBA players led by Paul Pierce and coach George Karl. However, a 25-year old soon-to-be San Antonio Spur named Manu Ginobili led his Argentine squad to an 87-80 upset in the group stage of the tournament, snapping a 58-game winning streak for the Americans. "They put on a clinic," Karl said after the game. It was clear that Team USA had been embarrassed.

The U.S. explained the defeat by noting how little it historically cares about the FIBA World Championships, but that only set the stage for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The Argentines brought seven players that ended up serving time in the NBA, flanking Ginobili with Delfino, Scola, Hermann, Nocioni, Pepe Sanchez and Fabricio Oberto, as well as legendary coach Ruben Magnano. But early on, Argentina struggled to find its way, as losses to Spain and Italy in the group stage almost prevented it from advancing.

Meanwhile, Team USA faced similar issues to 2002. The Athens roster looked like a team a pre-teen would put together on a video game. Superstars like Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Tim Duncan were paired with mercurial head coach Larry Brown and asked to lead an odd-fitting bunch of characters that included rookies LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. The Americans also lost a pair of group-stage games to Puerto Rico and Lithuania, advancing by the skin of their teeth.

Fortunately, the basketball gods made sure a rematch happened. Argentina beat Greece in the quarterfinals and Team USA knocked out top-seeded Spain. This set up a semifinal showdown between Argentina and USA. Here, the Golden Generation showed the world how good they really were.

What took place between Argentina and Team USA set the upheaval of Team USA's program in motion. Team USA was naive to the truth: Argentina was simply better. They were just as talented. They were more physical. They had more chemistry. Better yet, they played with a flair that flustered a cocky American side.

With the game in hand and Team USA scrambling frantically to try and pull out a miracle, Luis Scola delivered the exclamation point with a dunk that crowned one country forever and forced real change in another country's way of doing things. (Move to 8:55 to catch the glory.)

While Argentina couldn't technically be crowned champions after that victory, they ultimately got revenge over Italy in the final to claim an unlikely gold medal. Team USA settled for bronze.

"In 1992, the U.S. had the best players ever," Ginobili said following Argentina's semifinal win. "Here, they are great players too, but they are young and they never played internationally, so with different rules it's a whole different thing. The rest of the world is getting better and the States isn't bringing their best players."

The Argentine wave soon hit the NBA. Top players began establishing themselves over the years, with Ginobili leading the way, and Argentina was ranked No. 1 by FIBA for the first time in its history in 2008.

But a revamped Team USA squad coached by Mike Krzyzewski and lead by James, Anthony and Kobe Bryant was more adequately prepared for Argentina this time around. Ginobili suffered a severe ankle sprain and was virtually useless in Argentina's 20-point semifinal defeat. Team USA won gold and Argentina took bronze. Four years later, an aging Argentina again reached the semifinals before falling again to Team USA. The Americans eventually got their revenge, but not after the upstart Argentinians drew first blood.

Over these past 10 years, Argentina's Golden Generation put the world on notice. Not only were they capable of beating the Americans at a game the U.S. owned since the 1950's, but they cemented their legacy as the best collection of basketball talent south of the Equator. It's fitting that Argentina's run (likely) ended at the hands of a South American rival that grew in their shadow.

It's been a fun ride. As fans of international basketball, we thank Argentina for making competitions more interesting.