RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil– International basketball is going through a seismic shift at this summer Olympics.
Some of the biggest stars who gave their countries a global identity are leaving leaving international competition.
Guard Tony Parker of France, a 34-year old guard who is the greatest player in the history of his country, has announced he is retiring from international competition. He will continue to play for the San Antonio Spurs as will 39-year old guard Manu Ginobili, who also retired from international competition. Ginobili is one of the remaining members of the Golden Generation which won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Seven-foot NBA All Star center Pau Gasol of Spain, who is 36; and 38-year old 6-10 All Star forward Dirk Nowitzki of Germany should be close behind them. There is a chance Gasol, who will be 40 when the 2020 Olympics take place in Tokyo, could also say goodbye to the international game at the end of Rio.
These aging FIBA stars made major contributions as the NBA continued to build its international presence. At last count, there were 100 foreign born players in the league and 26 internationals were selected in June at the 2016 NBA draft.
Parker, a four-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs, a six-time All Star and four time All NBA selection as well as a 2007 Finals MVP, is, along with Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, arguably one of the top three Europeans to play in the NBA in their prime.
Parker bowed out gracefully Wednesday when his team lost to natural rival Spain and his childhood friend Gasol, 92-67, in the Olympic quarterfinals. Parker scored 14 points, but it wasn’t enough. “I felt like Spain was the Spurs,” he said. “And I was on the other side.”
Parker was one of the big three with the Spurs, along with Ginobili and 41-year All Star center Tim Duncan, who retired at the end of this season. Parker and Ginobili will return to the Spurs for at least one more year where they will be joined by Gasol, who signed with San Antonio as a free agent.
“The conversation with Timmy was weird when he told me he wasn’t going to play,” Parker said. “For me, it makes my job easy, with Pau and LaMarcus Aldrdge. It’s going to be geat, and like I said earlier, Spain had a great generation. It’s just life. Everything comes to an end.”
For a while, it appeared Ginobili would hang it up altogether, too. “I don’t think I could handle both of them leaving at once,” Parker said. “Those 15 years, all the championships, all the records, everything that we accomplished, it’s just stuff when I retire I can cherish and show my kids everything that we won with the Spurs”. Ironically, his international resume doesn’t match his NBA success. Parker never played in the FIBA World Cup and only played in two Olympics, never winning a medal. But Parker made France relevant on the European stage by leading France to eight binennial EuroBasket tournaments, winning a gold medal in the 2013 competition and a.bronze in 2015.
”I just took a lot of pride playing for the national team,” Parker said. ”I just love playing in this competition. I love this atmosphere, which is very different than the NBA. Growing up, my dream was to win an NBA championship. That was my ultimate goal. But as I grew up, I fell in love with the national team.
”We won the gold medal in juniors when I was 18. So then my goal was to try to bring the first national team ever championship for France, and we did that in 2013. Overall, just great experiences. I enjoyed it all these years. These last 16 years have been great. I don’t regret one second.”
Parker expressed sadness that France did not win a medal in Rio yet is already looking back fondly on his time in the national team jersey. I was still obviously disappointed that we lost the game and think we could have done a lot better but Spain was just great tonight. We made a decision to stop :Pau and Nikola Mirotic goes off, but that’s basketball.”
Mirotic was unstoppable when Argentina attempted to double Gasol. The 6-8 stretch forward scored 23 points and made five threes. “I felt like Spain was the Spurs,” Parker said with a smile. “And I was on the other side.”
But at the same time, Parker didn’t want to dismiss everything France accomplished during his national team career, the last eight years with coach Vincent Collet. “I’m very proud of what we did with the national team,”’ he said. ‘It’s the best results in the history of French basketball.
“For the first time in history, we went to two Olympics in a row and the last five years, we’ve gotten a medal every year. I just don’t want to, like my whole team, (say) don’t forget what we all accomplished. In 2005, it had been 50 years since French basketball had won a medal.”
That was the year that France finished third at the EuroBasket in Belgrade, although even that experience could very easily have been sweeter because Greece pulled off a dramatic comeback to beat the French in the semi-finals.
“So I think we put French basketball on the map,” Parker said. “Obviously, we played against a great generation of Spain because we played them the last six or seven years and we won some, they won some. It was just a great rivalry. Spain had a great generation. If it hadn’t been for Spain, we would have had 10 medals, 15 medals. But life is like that.”
Spain vs. France was Europe’s greatest rivalry over the last 10 years, soon to be replaced by Serbia-Croatia.
“I just say that I’ve been honored to play against Tony Parker throughout so many years on the national team,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said. ”He’s a great competitor and it was so tough to prepare games versus him.”
Parker was sad that France did not win a medal in Rio yet is already looking back fondly on his time in the national team jersey. He played in France’s program for nearly half his life and said it’s difficult to say goodbye. He says he has “a lot of great memories. A lot of tough memories, but that’s sports.”
The 105-78 loss Argentina received from the U.S. didn’t matter to the Argentine fans, who chanted “Ole … ole … ole … ole … Man-ooh, Manu-ooh” well after the game. He was presented a game ball afterward and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski applauded his accomplishments.
“What words? A hall of fame player, a hall of fame competitor … as fierce a competitor that I, as a coach, have faced in my entire time in international basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “There really has been nobody completely like it. He’s not a position. He plays all positions and with the heart and commitment that he’s had for his country, no one could have represented his country at a higher level or better than Manu Ginobili. It was an honor to always compete against him. Ultimate respect from all of us from our whole contingent to Manu.”
Ginobili is one of only two players, along with Bill Bradley to have to won a European title, an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal. He spent the early part of his basketball career in Argentina and Italy, where he won several individuila and team honors. His time with Italian side Kinder Bologna was particularly productive; he won two Italian league MVP awards, the Euroleague MVP and the 2001 Euroleague and Triple Crown championships before joining the Spurs in 2002, where he was a two-time All Star and his teams won four NBA championships.
Ginobili hoped to fade away into the sunset without much attention, but that didn’t quite work out.
“It was emotional,” said Ginobili, who teared up with the outpouring of appreciation. “I didn’t want it to be. I was hoping just to sneak out and go to the locker room and do what I had to do there. But everybody conspired against it. … It’s OK that it happened.
“They were just very cool and important displays of affection and respect. You can’t expect much more than that. You win and you can lose, but when legends of the game, people that you care a lot about on your team, say some things … it means a lot. Today I go home with a bag full of emotions.”
Ginobili finished with 14 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds in his final game in an Argentine uniform.
“This is my 20th year since my first game with the national team,” he said. “I’m very proud. And at the same time, I’m happy – sad and happy because having the opportunity to play this game at 39, it’s not something that happens often.
“How many athletes are my age, especially basketball players? I’m so incredibly lucky to have stayed healthy, to have played with some of the same guys for so long and having done so well with my team – it’s been an amazing run. I’m very proud of it.”