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Luis Scola, “El Capitan”, flag-bearer, Olympics hero and a legend too

09/10/2019
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In Argentina they call him “El Capitan”, the Captain, he’s a symbol, an icon, a little bit of everything, but above all, he’s the link between the “Golden Generation” that made Argentine basketball a world powerhouse and the new era represented by the players who won the silver medal at the last World Championships in China, clinching a berth for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, too.  In Europe, Luis Alberto Scola is a legendary figure, the superstar who as a young man brought Baskonia among the EuroLeague contenders, by postponing his inevitable landing in the NBA, where he eventually stayed eight seasons, succeeding in doing the same things he did on this side of the ocean.

Now he is 39, he no longer wears his bobbed hair behind a thin black band, his temples are white, his wrinkles dug into his face. But on the court, he is always the King of the pivot foot, of the fakes, of the low-post game to which he added over time the three-point shot as well as the innate ability to read the defense and hurt it with a crispy pass.

Where to start with Luis Scola, with El Capitan? Perhaps from Buenos Aires, the football capital of the world, the place where he decided to do something else, to play basketball, instead. Strange choice? No, he explains: “Italy is also a football country, but good basketball is played here. Argentina is a football country, as there are many others, but there is also room for other sports. Basketball is doing well in our country, obviously it does not have the popularity of football, but we are doing well, we have room for improvement and we can do even better.” After all, there is a reason if Luis Scola, a basketball player, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the flag-bearer during the opening ceremony. “It was the highlight of my career – he says – The picture of me, with the flag and the whole Argentine delegation behind it, sums up my whole career. Whatever I did on the court should be mentioned after the honor of carrying the flag in Rio. It was the most important thing that I have achieved.” Four years earlier, in Beijing, it was Ginobili who did the job, who had the honor.

Scola began playing in Buenos Aires, played for the Ferro Carril Oeste, a team which won three Argentine championships in the 1980s and also won the South American club championship. It is a historical basketball club, but Luis Scola is clearly the most famous player to have ever been part of it. Only, he left to play in Spain when he was a teen-ager. The next step was Vitoria, Basque Country. “My connection with Vitoria is special. I had the chance to stay there for so many years, and without a doubt it was fundamental to make me grow as a person. Even as a player, but above all as a person. My first kids were born while I was playing in Vitoria. The things I did in my career, and I didn’t even think I could do it, make Vitoria a place that will always be special to me.”

In Vitoria, he won the Spanish title and played three consecutive EuroLeague Final Fours, on top of a championship series against – of all the teams – Ettore Messina’s Virtus in 2001. Scola was 21, but he was already one of the team’s key players along with another Argentine’s big man, Fabricio Oberto. Virtus was led by Manu Ginobili. “We have had some great EuroLeague seasons, we achieved the goals, made the Final Four three years in a row. I think it didn’t mean to be for us, and at some point we had to look ahead, I went to the NBA. It wasn’t meant to be, but I don’t think about it much, it doesn’t bother me, many of the things we did are the same as winning the EuroLeague,” he says. When he decided to go to the NBA, in Houston, he was already 27 years old. And he was already an Olympic champion. “We had a great group of players, who happened to play well together and to get along well together. We made a lot of noise in the basketball world. That team will always be remembered, but we also have many other things too, new players to show, goals to achieve in the future,” Scola says. In Athens, in 2004, when Argentina won the title, Italy finished second. Scola scored 25 points in the final game. He was the top scorer. The MVP as a fact. The “albiceleste” was also the team that eliminated the United States in the semifinal games. Scola is the third Olympic gold medalist to play in Milan after Bill Bradley, who won in Tokyo in 1964 and played in Milan in 1966, and Hugo Sconochini, who played in Olimpia before winning the gold, again in Athens.

But Scola has been a winner wherever he played. In his rookie season, in Houston, the Rockets won 22 games in a row. “It was fun. I used to come off the bench, but one day, Yao Ming got sick and I moved to the starting line-up. That was the first of 22 consecutive wins. I’ve been lucky. Who moves to the starting-five and win his first 22 games? Until that moment I had been a reserve, then I went to the starting line-up and stayed there for the next six years.” In the NBA he gradually added the three-point shot to his repertoire. But the changes – he says – are necessary to survive and prosper. “When I came from Argentina to Europe I had to adapt to the differences. The same when in Gijon from the second division, we went to the first division, in Spain (he was on loan-ed). The game gets faster, the players are bigger, more talented. In Vitoria, I debuted in the EuroLeague and I had to change further, because in the EuroLeague there are the best teams in the continent and playing is difficult. The NBA is completely different. The need to adapt follows you throughout your career. Basketball also changes, not just the game, the basketball and the way we play it. You must be constantly able to adapt and change, your game, your body to keep up with the pace and what the game throws at you.” An example: in Vitoria he had a three for his entire EuroLeague career. In Milan, he made two threes in his first game after returning from China where he spent the last two years, “at a level not that bad, you play against so many young players and the Americans are players who in Europe and sometimes in the NBA were superstars.”

The last few months have been incredible for Scola. First the decision to play once more for the National Team, in the World Cup. “I was certain that we would do well and that I would play well, because I am an optimist. I had also talked to Coach Messina, but it wasn’t the right time to talk about the future. If we hadn’t qualified for the Olympics I would have retired, but when we qualified, it was my wife who came to me and said I should keep play another season. So, I looked at all the options and chose Milan. I don’t know what to expect, I’ll work hard, I’ll play hard, I’ll try to have fun. The most important thing for me is to have fun. At this point in my career, I don’t have to do these things, to stay on the court, doing things, make some more money. These things are beyond me. I do it because I think it will be fun, it gives me a reason to be happy every day. I will try to make the most of this experience: it is the most important thing. Of course, to have fun you have to do things right. If the team plays well, if I do well, this is what would make everything more fun.”

Finally, there will be the Olympic Games in Tokyo: “For two or three years I didn’t even think about playing in 2020, it was a long shot until two or three years ago. Not only because of my age, but also because we had to qualify and it is always difficult. Even in the years when we had our great team, we always struggled to qualify. It is difficult in the Americas. You have the USA, Brazil, Canada, Puerto Rico. They are all teams that play for the few spots available. Now I’m so close, I don’t want to look too far ahead, I try not to do it and just think about what I have here. When that time comes, of course, for me it will be special.” It would be his fifth Olympics. Like Oscar Schmidt. He is currently the fifth All-time scorer ever in the Olympic tournament with 525 points (he has a career-high of 37 against Russia in 2008), two more than Ginobili, only eight less than Wlamir, who’s fourth, and 98 shy from the third place of Pau Gasol. Like these players, Scola is an example of longevity. Secrets? “No secrets – he answers – I eat well, I sleep well, I train. It is a matter of always being a professional.”

 

 

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