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Luis Scola: the great captain
“If there's no love, then let there be nothing, my love,” says Indio Solari in “El Tesoro de los Inocentes.” Luis Scola’s relationship with the Argentine national team is built on love. The commitment of the iconic captain with his national team is of an unsurmountable value. And because there was love, there was –and there is– everything.
"For the 1999 FIBA Americas, we had some resignations, which is why I decided to call Luis Scola for the senior national team. So, he asked to meet me and explained that, although his objective was to play in the national team, this time, he preferred going to the U19 World Cup in Portugal because it was the last time he'd be able to play with his teammates from the formative categories. But he said that he’d accept my determination. I thought about it for a few minutes and said to him that the national team needed him, that several of the U22 Cup in Melbourne would be there, and that it was the perfect moment. We never talked again about it, and this is the first time I share this publicly. I was amazed at how a 19-year-old young man dealt with the situation and explained his point of view, the maturity with which he faced it, the manners, the education, and the foundations with which he had done so, and that he’d also have the discipline to accept the coach’s decision. He didn't mention the situation again, and this didn't affect his behavior, his commitment, or his attitude. Luis then made an extraordinary contribution. He played an excellent tournament, and with the entire team, he got the bronze medal." Like this Julio Lamas reflects, more than twenty years later, about the first time he called Luis Scola to play at a Tournament of the Americas.
And this is how Scola himself relieves it: “I remember that the senior continental tournament coincided with the Portugal World Cup, where Argentina ended fourth. Julio called me and told me that I'd be playing with the seniors in Puerto Rico, which, at the time, I didn't like. I believed I needed to end my cycle with the youth team. Of course, looking back, I see it differently. It was an excellent tournament that was the start of everything that happened later."
In that tournament in San Juan, Argentina didn't get one of the spots to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney but left a great impression with its team built mostly by young people. There, Scola averaged 9.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game and was outstanding with 22 points in the win against Puerto Rico (101-96) in the second phase.
For the following continental meet up, Scola had to face a similar situation to the one he'd experienced two years before: he was the fundamental key of the national team that participated in the U-21 World Cup in Japan. He was also a part of the senior national team, led by Rubén Magnano. Argentina was the host of the tournament. The thing was that there was a four-day difference between the end of the youth championship and the beginning of the senior championship. For Scola, it was enough time to be in both competitions. He didn't mind the more than 18.000-kilometer distance between Saitama and Neuquén, a city in the southern part of Argentina. He didn't mind the twelve-hour difference either. The power forward astounded everyone: he was the highest scorer in the tournament and took home the bronze medal. After that, the golden conquest and the qualification to the 2002 World Cup in Indianapolis.
In the continental championship, Scola registered an average of 7.8 points and three rebounds. Argentina, with Emanuel Ginóbili as their guide, overcame all their rivals to obtain the title for the first time and show the entire planet that a team was shaping up to make history.
To the 2003 FIBA Americas in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Argentina arrived full of pride after achieving the World silver and knowing that more glory still lay ahead for them. The road had more obstacles than expected, losing against Mexico in the first game, and then against Venezuela in the second phase. The duel for one of the Olympic tickets was against Canada. The 88-72 victory showed Magnano’s best face. There, Scola shone with 18 points (9/11 in 2PTs) and five rebounds. In the final, it was a challenge to stay at the height of the United States. With 9.5 points per game, Luifa was the fourth-best scorer of the team, behind Ginóbili, Andrés Nocioni, and Fabricio Oberto. He was yet to become the protagonist in the attack. His collaboration in the rebounds, with 3.3, wasn’t stellar either.
In 2005, Argentina presented a team without it's most outstanding figures, because the gold in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens qualified them directly to the 2006 World Cup in Japan. It was the only time that Scola registered an absence in a continental tournament since his debut.
In 2007, the stage was very complicated. The Las Vegas tournament granted two spots for the Olympic Games. It was known that one of them would go to the United States, who had built an all-star roster. Argentina, however, was going in without several of its fundamental players. For several reasons, Ginóbili, Nocioni, Oberto, Rubén Wolkowyski, and Juan Ignacio Sánchez weren’t attending. Because of this, Scola’s importance grew exponentially. With Pablo Prigioni and Carlos Delfino as his primary support, Luis, who was captain for the first time, was the offensive spearhead of the team coached by Sergio Hernández: in six of the ten games, he scored twenty or more points. The tournament's crucial encounter was against Brazil in the semifinals that defined the qualified teams to Beijing 2008. Argentina defeated a mighty Brazil, 91-80, with 27 points (10/14 in 2PTs) and nine rebounds by Luifa. Despite the NBA superstars that led Team USA to the title, Scola was chosen as the championship's MVP. His 19.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, plus his determining role in the Argentine success, supported this decision.
In 2009, once again in San Juan, Argentina once more regretted the absence of essential names. Scola always preferred staying away from that subject and, instead, value the people in the squad. The captain knew that he could carry the weight of the national team. The defeats in the first two games (against Venezuela and Brazil) left Hernández's squad staring at the abyss. However, the wins against Panama and the Dominican Republic, with 20 and 30 respective points by Scola, rerouted the team. A perfect second phase gave Argentina the ticket to the semifinals and the qualification to the 2010 World Cup in Turkey. Once again, Scola managed to score 20 or more points in six of the ten games (including 31 points in their defeat in the semifinal game against the hosts). This time, he was the tournament's highest scorer, with a 23.3-point average, 6.8 rebounds, and was the tournament's MVP for the second time in a row.
The context in 2011 was very different. Argentina was hosting in Mar del Plata, and Julio Lamas brought together a stellar team: Ginóbili, Nocioni, Delfino, Prigioni, Sánchez, Oberto and, of course, Scola. A great festival was prepared to celebrate the best national team in the history of any sport in the Argentine nation. But it wasn't an easy task. Although Argentina did indeed shine in most games, they lost against Brazil in the conclusion of the second phase (and Nocioni was injured) and then had to face a robust Puerto Rico to get the Olympic ticket. In that semifinal against the Puerto Ricans, Scola scored 27 points. And in the final, Luis had another unforgettable performance with 32 points, crowning the team again as champions of the Americas. The 21.4 points per game placed him once again as the highest-ranked scorer of the tournament. He was also the sixth-best rebounder of the event, with an average of 6.3 rebounds. Was there anyone else that could've been the MVP? There was no room for doubt, and that's what the public acclaimed before the ceremony.
The team rebuilding was already well underway in 2013. The only Olympic champion in the Caracas FIBA Americas was Scola. The mission of Lamas’ men was to be among the best four to secure a spot in the World Cup, which would take place the following year in Spain. Their participation had ups and downs, with three losses in the first and second stages, against the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. This last one was absolutely surprising. However, counting on the talent and drive of their captain, and now with the rebelliousness of Facundo Campazzo, his new squire, Argentina was able to reach safe harbor. The crucial game was against Canada because the winners would go to the World Cup, and the losers would remain empty-handed. As so many times before, Scola's figure was outstanding, scoring 28 points to seal the deal, 73-67. During the event, Luis surpassed the 20 points in five encounters, and averaged 18.8 points per game, and added 6.9 rebounds. Despite being the tournament's highest scorer, he wasn't the tournament's best player (it was Mexican player's Gustavo Ayón's turn), although he was named to the All-Star Five.
Scola's continental career was full of complex challenges, but in 2015 he tackled one more. With Nocioni as a veteran ally, and joined by an up and coming group of young players, Argentina went to Mexico City in search of one of two tickets to Rio 2016. History repeated itself. Even though they didn't have the most star-filled squad, the national team led once again by Sergio Hernández overcame each hurdle until they arrived at a critical match: the semifinals against Mexico, the host and reigning champion. A couple of days before, the locals had one the conclusion of the second round. But in the game that granted the Olympic spot, it was the Argentines’ experience –particularly Luifa and Chapu’s– that mattered the most to reach the dream. The defeat in the final against Venezuela frustrated Scola, who wanted to win the cup somewhere overseas. He did recover the MVP. Once again, he scored more than 20 points in half of the games, and the 35 points scored against Canada were the most significant score of his career in the continental championships. He was, in the end, the highest scorer, with 21.1 points per game. He was also second in the rebounds ranking, with 10.1 per encounter.
Scola values his accolades, but he always points out the collective context: “Being MVP four times is a great individual recognition that's usually linked to the group’s success. It's very difficult to be the best player in a team that hasn't done well.”
The power forward went into the FIBA AmeriCup 2017 while recovering from a sprain in his left gastrocnemius muscle. After resting in the debut against Venezuela, Luis couldn't be more than a minute in the court to face Canada, because he suffered another sprain in the same muscle, but now in his right leg. The forward stayed with his teammates in the duration of the tournament but wasn't able to play again. He gave advice, he encouraged them, and he shared his routines. He celebrated the victorious path and mourned the defeat in the final against the United States. Was that Scola's farewell to the continental tournaments?
Nine appearances. Two gold medals, four silver, and three bronze. The mission was always accomplished. Four MVPs. The highest scorer in the tournament's history, with 1306 points. Luis Scola, the great Argentine captain, is the icon of the competition of the Americas.