Luis the Great: Reflecting on Argentina's hero
BUENOS AIRES (Argentina) - It defied logic several months ago when Luis Scola, at 39 years of age, performed as well as he ever had to help Argentina reach the FIBA Basketball World Cup Final in Beijing.
When most players his age had already walked off the court and started writing new chapters in their lives, Scola was still Scola, one of the hardest working and smartest players in international basketball.
He averaged an eye-popping 17.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
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According to his father, Mario, who played professional basketball player himself, Scola trained like "Rocky" at his farm in Castelli, a village 180km outside of Buenos Aires, before the World Cup.
"They (Scola and training partners) would go and run at 7am when it was freezing cold and they would spend hours and hours training, repeating over and over again the same exercise, just as Rocky," Mario Scola said.
It's remarkable, but other than his hairstyle
Other than his hairstyle — Luis Scola used to have tresses but wears it short now — he has never changed who he is or what he does for Argentina. Under his national team coaches Ruben Magnano, Sergio Hernandez or Julio Lamas, he's always displayed an abundance of skill, talent, graft, intelligence and most important of all, leadership.
So as Scola, whose 41 World Cup appearances are the most of all time and 716 points rank second only to Oscar Schmidt (843), turned 40 on Thursday (April 30). Let's reflect on the magnificent career of the great that Argentina has given us.
"THEY WOULD GO AND RUN AT 7AM WHEN IT WAS FREEZING COLD AND THEY WOULD SPEND HOURS AND HOURS TRAINING, REPEATING OVER AND OVER AGAIN THE SAME EXERCISE, JUST AS ROCKY."
For the many who appreciate World Cups and Olympics and have watched Scola since he competed for his country more than two decades ago, they took immense pleasure in China 2019 because of the famous Argentinian.
El Alma Argentina (The Argentina Soul), as the national team is officially nicknamed, were supposedly too young, too inexperienced and lacking talent and weren't supposed to claim a top two finish, but they had Scola.
Argentina knocked off great teams on their way to the title game. The biggest scalp was Serbia in the Quarter-Finals, while a victory in the Semi-Finals over France, who had knocked off the United States in the last eight, was also impressive.
In those games, Scola put on exhibitions.
He had 20 points and five rebounds against a star-studded Serbia as Argentina prevailed, 97-87, and he followed that up with 28 points and 13 rebounds in a 80-66 win over France.
Scola turned in an inspirational effort in the win over Serbia
Spain ruined the party by putting the shackles on Scola and thumping Argentina in the Final. The runners-up finish was as painful for him as it had been 17 years before when Yugoslavia beat Argentina after overtime in the 2002 World Cup Final in Indianapolis.
In that game , Scola made what would have been the biggest play of his life with 5.9 seconds remaining when he knocked the ball out of Yugoslavia center Vlade Divac's hands at mid court and dribbled towards a potential game-winning layup, but the referee blew his whistle and called a foul.
It was Scola's fifth, and he left the game with 11 points. Yugoslavia ended up prevailing, 84-77.
The disappointment was fuel for Argentina's run two years later at the Athens Olympics, though, where Scola performed like a superstar, averaging 17.6 points and 5.1 rebounds en route to the gold medal. In the 84-69 title game triumph over Italy, Scola had 25 points and 11 rebounds.
Scola had 25 points and 11 rebounds in the Gold Medal Game victory over Italy at the 2004 Olympics
Whenever he played for Argentina from that moment on, Scola was one of the best players in the world. He has always said that it benefitted his game to play every summer because it helped him get ready for the following season.
There are so many moments in his glorious career that showed how tough he was. He's been a real warrior.
At the 2006 World Cup in Japan, Scola was hit in the mouth in the Round of 16 against New Zealand and lost a tooth.
For a long time, Scola was viewed as one of the best players not to be in the NBA, an example of San Antonio's savvy and intelligence when it came to drafts because they picked him 56th overall in 2002. But as Scola continued to play for Baskonia in Spain and developed into one of the top players outside of America, the cost of his buyout grew.
NBA teams had a limit on what they could spend on buyouts and in Scola's case, he would have to pay the majority of his.
In the summer of 2007, San Antonio reluctantly traded their rights to Scola to Houston, and once his $3.2 million buyout was paid, Scola travelled to Texas and became a teammate of Yao Ming.
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While Scola thrived in the NBA, his commitment to Argentina's national team never waned.
He played at the FIBA AmeriCup 2007 in Las Vegas, averaging 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, and was named as the tournament's MVP, despite the USA beating Argentina in the Final.
Before the Olympics in Beijing the next year, Scola played for Argentina at the FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament in Nanjing and heard applause every time he ran onto the court, even during warmups. His status and connection to Yao made him a favorite of the Chinese.
Then at the Olympics, Scola averaged 18.9 points and 6.6 rebounds as Argentina, despite losing Manu Ginobili to injury in a Semi-Final defeat to the USA, bounced back with a 87-75 Bronze Medal Game victory over Lithuania.
Every summer was special for Scola and Argentina.
He averaged 23.3 points per game and led an Argentina without several frontline stars to a third-place finish at the FIBA AmeriCup 2009 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and at the 2010 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Turkey, Scola had one of his best-ever performances in the national team shirt, 37 points and nine rebounds, in a 93-89 victory over Brazil.
Scola was that tournament's leading scorer at 27.1 points per game as Argentina finished fifth.
When Argentina hosted the FIBA AmeriCup 2011 in Mar del Plata and the country's golden generation was effectively awarded a two-week victory lap, Scola averaged 21.4 points and 6.3 rebounds as his country won the title.
Ginobili and Andres Nocioni played their last games for Argentina at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but Scola didn't consider stopping with the national team.
The world saw something else in Rio with Scola. It was evident that his presence was not just important for the national team, but his country. He walked onto the court with microphone in hand before his team's game against Brazil, along with opposing guard Marcelino Huertas, and implored the crowd to be on their best behavior, saying there was no place in international basketball for the violence often seen at sporting events in the two countries. The teams then played the best game of the Olympics, one that Argentina won after two overtimes.
Scola and Huertas gave stirring speeches before Argentina's2016 Olympic clash with Brazil in Rio
Scola turned out for Argentina in 2017 for the AmeriCup and also for the American Qualifiers for the World Cup in China, too.
At the World Cup, as well as Scola had played, he took no solace in his inclusion to the All-Star Five because the disappointment of losing to Spain in the Final was too great.
Everyone else has been able to marvel at his achievements there, though, and eventually he'll be able to savor them, too.
For now, he continues to play, though the coronavirus pandemic that has forced him and many others off the court has increased the challenge for him to be at the Tokyo Olympics, which have been pushed back a year.
"When you are 40 years old, one more year is a blow, the chances of playing are less," he said. "If I can, I'll be there and it'll be great."
If anyone enjoys facing a challenge, it's Scola.