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Argentina, Land of Soccer . . . and Hoops

By Will Kuhns
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page D09

BUENOS AIRES -- The morning after shocking the Washington Wizards with 25 points and 18 rebounds in an NBA playoff game, Chicago Bulls rookie forward Andres Nocioni made front page news here. The leading sports daily, Olé, superimposed five words about Nocioni inside a little box on the bottom corner of a gigantic soccer photo.

It wasn't much, but it was significant that a basketball player other than San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili carved out such precious print real estate.

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Soccer rules the sports scene in Buenos Aires, but Nocioni's emergence in the first two games of the Bulls' playoff series against the Wizards further illuminates the success of Argentina's modest, 20-year-old professional basketball league -- success that Ginobili and the country's Olympic gold medal-winning squad brought to light last summer in Athens.

The nets in this country end in frayed knots that splash out as the ball passes through. That was just one of many quirks American Michael Pegues noted upon arriving in Argentina three months ago to play professional basketball.

"The nets are long, they hold the ball up a bit," he said. Pegues, 27, from Forestville, starred at DeMatha and the University of Delaware. Now he plays for Atenas, a team based in Cordoba. "They don't make much of a sound, either." No satisfying thwap, like back home; it is a softer swish here. But at some games, it is quiet enough to hear that sound.

For example, when Pegues and his teammates played a pair of games recently at a neutral site in Buenos Aires called Obras Sanitarias (Sanitary Works), neither crowd surpassed 500. Between swishes, the ball made varying thuds as it bounced off a floor riddled with dead spots. Squeaks from sneakers punctuated the ceaseless flow of words from two radio announcers. Late in the second game, fans pounded their fists on aging aluminum sign boards to lend rhythm to the songs they sing at every game, similar to those heard at soccer stadiums.

It seemed an unlikely birthplace for an Olympic gold medal, but this is where Argentina's most glorious basketball moment began. All 12 members of the national team that emerged as champions in Athens last summer started their careers in this league, the Liga Nacional de Basquet (LNB), and the ceremonial first tip-off took place at Obras Sanitarias in 1984.

The level of play, facilities, organization, exposure and salaries lag way behind those in the NBA and Europe's top leagues. But in 20 years, the LNB has expanded Argentina's talent pool and become an effective launching pad to Europe. The country's economic crisis in 2001 set the league back, as players fled abroad and owners reduced investments in their teams.

There are three players from Argentina playing in the NBA: Nocioni, Ginobili and Carlos Delfino of the Detroit Pistons. According to Osvaldo Orcasitas, regarded as the country's premier basketball journalist, more than 200 Argentines play basketball in Europe and North America. The strength of the gold-medal squad came from the best of those players.

Thousands of people danced in the streets when Argentina captured golds in basketball and soccer on the same day last summer. But basketball still lacks a mainstream following. In some cities, such as Bahia Blanca (Ginobili's hometown), Cordoba, Corrientes and Mar del Plata, games often sell out, but in modest facilities, most resembling old high school gymnasiums with capacities of less than 4,000 people.

Each team is allowed two foreign players on its roster -- almost all of whom are from the United States. Pegues is one of about 60 U.S. citizens playing pro basketball in Argentina. Many are younger players looking for an avenue to Europe, or, like Pegues, trying to re-ignite their pro careers. A few are veterans of international basketball who have decided to settle here. Their experiences are mixed.

Very few coaches speak English, so teammates serve as interpreters. Less-stable clubs do not always pay salaries on time. The schedule changes constantly, often on short notice. Hardly any gyms have air conditioning or heat.

Since arriving in January, Pegues has not played much and is frustrated. The 6-foot-5 forward had taken a year off after leading England's league in scoring with the Leicester Riders and did not come here in top physical condition. Still, he feels he is not getting a fair shake from Atenas, the most successful team in Argentina basketball history, with eight league titles.

"This team, Atenas, they think they are the friggin' Celtics," Pegues said. "They go way out of their way to only have Cordobian players and to not rely on the Americans. It seems like they are the only team that does that. And the fact that [Argentina] won the gold medal doesn't help at all."

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