Spain had five members of its 2016 Rio Olympic team at its disposal: Ricky Rubio, Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernández, Víctor Claver and Willy Hernangómez. Many from that group had represented Spain in previous tournaments — including the 2012 London Olympics — while Gasol’s national team career began in 2006. The Americans, by contrast, had just one player with Olympic experience: Harrison Barnes.
To be clear, any excuses for skipping out on China proffered by American players could also have been applied to Spain’s prominent names. After all, the 34-year-old Gasol played 79 regular season games, endured a midseason trade and logged 24 postseason starts for the NBA champion Raptors before signing on for Spain’s grueling summer slate, which included exhibitions in California and Europe before the trip to China.
Meanwhile, Rubio competed despite coping with the prospect of playing for a new team (the Phoenix Suns) and a new coach (Monty Williams) next season. Hernangómez competed even though he is heading into a contract year with the Charlotte Hornets. Fernández, a former NBA player, competed even though he has already long been one of his country’s most famous basketball stars. Llull and Claver, who once played for the Portland Trail Blazers, both competed despite being 31 years old. Indeed, every Spanish player competed despite knowing that Team USA, its longtime nemesis, would again field a roster stacked with NBA players and enter the World Cup as heavy favorites. They had plenty of reasons not to show up, but they showed up anyway.
Spain’s breakthrough, of course, came after years of close calls and bitter disappointments. This World Cup title, the country’s first international tournament championship since 2006, made up for underwhelming showings at the 2010 and 2014 FIBA tournaments and built on hard-fought silver medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. For years, the Spaniards have played bridesmaids to the Americans. This time, they blitzed through the tournament with an 8-0 record as Team USA stumbled to an abysmal seventh-place showing.
USA Basketball Coach Gregg Popovich spent much of this summer fretting about his team’s relative lack of shared experience. Spain perfectly embodied the other side of that coin: Its suffocating team defense keyed a 14-2 start against Argentina, while its offense displayed a rhythm the Americans never sustained. Here was Gasol, pirouetting out of a pick-and-roll to find a wide-open three-point shooter. There were Rubio and Fernández, executing clean and purposeful dribble handoffs as they have hundreds of times before.
Now that it’s over, one hopes that the American players who sat out the World Cup took the time to watch Rubio, who has matured from a baby-faced teenage prodigy to a bearded vet on the national team, win MVP honors. And that they saw Fernández raise the champions trophy high as confetti poured around him. And that they caught clips from Gasol’s gleeful post-tournament interview.
“Tomorrow, the sun will come up again and the world will keep going, but we get to be world champions,” Gasol said, in footage captured by EuroHoops. “It’s been a good three months. A really good three months.”
After so many trying years and bitter defeats, Gasol’s satisfaction and joy in the moment provided priceless visuals and a powerful argument for representing one’s country regardless of the individual costs and inconvenience.
The jubilant scene raised the question: Was America’s next generation of basketball talent even paying attention?