“I’m getting old,” Rudy Fernandez says with a smile, pointing to his aching back. Seated a few yards away, longtime running mate Pau Gasol courts attention, the grey hairs sprinkled throughout his craggy beard. Moments later, Felipe Reyes comes into the room, wrinkles drawn out beneath his eyes.
Once, the trio peered into the future together as Spain’s young guns, harboring big dreams and lofty goals. Now, over a decade later, they are the past masters, deservedly satisfied with what they have accomplished, in unison and apart.
Sunday, in northern France, the band of brothers has the opportunity to write an unexpected extra chapter in their legend by defeating Lithuania and capturing the EuroBasket trophy for the third time during their careers. Defying expectations, logic and time.Gasol and Reyes were both just 23 when these two Goliaths last squared off for the European title, 12 years ago, with a 36-point blast from the now-Chicago Bulls forward not enough to deny their Baltic rivals a 93-84 victory in the final in Stockholm. “That team was very talented,” Gasol recalls. “They escaped from us. And they beat us soundly.”
Fernandez, later to have a stint in the NBA with Portland before returning to Real Madrid, had yet to break through. But other stars-in-the-making announced themselves to the world. Jose Calderon. Juan Carlos Navarro. Jorge Garbajosa. “La Generacion de Oro.” The Golden Kids.
Former Raptors forward Garbajosa apart, they are still hanging around, although Calderon and Navarro have sat out this summer to rest their weary limbs. Their fates and their accomplishments, in their native land at least, will forever be intertwined.
“There is definitely something special,” Gasol told ESPN.com. “But I don’t know if it’s coincidence, or if it’s timing. Our generation, of the 1980s, it is a mix of special players and that’s why we were so successful early on and that’s why there are still a few of us left playing at a high level.”
It did not all happen by chance. The Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the Spanish finished ninth, ignited interest. The domestic ACB league, already potent, grew in prominence. Hopefuls, like Gasol and his younger brother Marc, passed through a talent development system a million miles removed from the hustle of AAU ball, moving onwards into clubs like FC Barcelona where promise was prized and lavishly rewarded.
“You have to give credit for how people work with the kids, with the young players,” Spain’s current coach Sergio Scariolo declares. “Unfortunately we have a problem when these players finish their junior years and turn professional. But that is a gap worldwide. Only the USA, with college basketball, has found a way to solve this problem for players from 18-21 years. But people work hard in Spain, in the schools, in the clubs, that’s a key for sure.”
Bumps in the road are expected ahead. The Spanish did not win any of Europe’s junior national team championships this summer. The ACB, despite the big budgets of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona (around $17 million per season), has not escaped the financial downturn. Although Marc Gasol might now be the best big man in the NBA, there is no youthful successor in sight. Even if he — along with Navarro, Calderon and Ricky Rubio — returns for Rio 2016, it will surely be the end of this particular lineage.
The prognosis is not fatal, argues Scariolo. With so many absentees, he has had to throw new faces into action in this campaign. It has needed something special from Gasol, a little help from Nikola Mirotic. But others have at least held their own with Sergio Rodriguez slotting into the playmaking role Calderon has long made his own.
“This year, we’re more cohesive,” Pau Gasol says. “We’ve worked together from the beginning, we’re a little more concentrated. We weren’t favorites this year to be where we are, at the point of the championship, because we have so many players who are missing. So we were just able to focus, work together and reaching our goals.”
And they have, after all, advanced further than 12 months ago, on home soil, when Spain united in silent disbelief when they exited the FIBA World Cup at the quarterfinal stage with a loss to France. It was unforeseen. “Everybody talked about the USA-Spain final,” Gasol adds. “The championship was made for us to find ourselves in the final. In the end, we lose in the quarterfinals and we’re out.”It brought evolution, from then to now. “There were a lot of different scenarios. Different coaching staff. But the essence, the spirit of the team, remains the same. It’s just last year it wasn’t meant to be. But this year we have the chance to do something special.”
Even after becoming world champions in 2006, after being crowned as the kings of Europe in 2009 and 2011, to take gold in 2015 might be Spain’s finest hour. “Absolutely,” Fernandez declares. “Because we have a very good generation, a lot of new players. To play with new guys is sometimes difficult because they don’t know the tournament.”
Victory over their old foes would not be an act of vengeance for 2003. “We have beaten them since,” says Reyes. Just an act of rejuvenation. Losses to Italy and Serbia in the opening round of the tournament in Berlin nearly sent the Spanish on their way. The era would have been over. Instead, by ousting France in the semifinal behind Gasol’s 40 points and a mountain of leadership, they get to play for a prize not even they imagined could be theirs.
Lithuania, too, has some redemption to seek. Two years ago in Slovenia, perhaps even deeper and stronger than they are now, they were ruthlessly crushed by the French and had to settle for silver.
“The 2013 final hurt us,” their point guard Mantas Kalnietis admitted. “We were flat in the game and France were better than us on the day. We don’t want the same thing happening again here. We can learn from our mistakes that we made in Slovenia and play with the heart and determination that got us here in the first place.”
The two finalists have so much in common, says Scariolo, who confirmed to ESPN.com that he will look to land a seat on an NBA bench once the 2016 Olympics are done. “It is certainly not the two teams with the most talent. That’s obvious and evident.
“But in theory, we can consider ourselves equal in qualities that are more intangible than the two teams [France and Serbia] going for the bronze medal. But, in sport you admit there is a margin for mental force, for the spirit of team, for tactics, for other factors that contribute to quality.”
How much Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas can shackle Gasol with Lithuania’s relentless team defense may sway the destination of the trophy. With a physical bout looming, how much help Spain’s Generation Next can provide might determine whether their totem can add to his already-packed résumé.
“They have a very strong team that will make it very difficult to win, by their game and fighting spirit,” Gasol observes. “We’ll have to stay highly focused because the concentration, working together, that pride and courage.
“Those are the things that have brought us to this final, and now we must make the last effort.”
With so much achieved already, there is nothing to lose. But what a formidable gain it would be to land one more title, to have one last stand, even just for old times’ sake.