While Team USA has its choice of NBA players, reaching the Olympic gold medal game without LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard, most other countries need all of their NBA players to participate in order to be competitive.
One such country is Nigeria, which went 1-4 in pool play and was competitive in most games, with former lottery pick Ike Diogu as its centerpiece. Trail Blazers defensive ace Al-Farouq Aminu passed on playing for Nigeria because the country took too long to process his insurance paperwork.
As the NBA invests in improving basketball in Africa, even holding an exhibition game last summer in Johannesburg, the Nigerian national team came away from its performance in Rio rather jaded after a lack of financial support from its country.
Coach William Voigt, a Vermont native, was hired in 2015 to lead Nigeria in the AfroBasket Olympic qualifying tournament, and he has become a lot more than a coach.
Many of Voigt’s players paid for their own flights (and most flew coach) and accommodations. Playing for Team Nigeria is a complete commitment, and Voigt, who is no longer under contract, is hoping that the country will invest more money into the basketball program.
“It’s pretty well known we didn’t receive any support. We did this on our own,” Voigt said. “We’ve faced hardships as a team that other teams in our group couldn’t even fathom. The fact that they can get here and be as competitive as they were, I think it speaks volumes to them.
“Just something as simple as having food for our players and having a flight to where they’re going and having insurance for our top players may be a huge swing in terms of what we do. I’m just trying to catch my breath, to be honest. We understand that’s not necessarily where the country is right now, but even the smallest level of support can reap huge rewards for what we can do.”
Players such as Aminu and Portland teammate Festus Ezeli are eligible to play for Nigeria and would greatly boost its reputation, but perhaps the conditions are discouraging standout players from participating.
Diogu, a national team veteran, will be 33 in September and likely has one Olympic run left. He’s frustrated because he sees the country’s young talent — aided by the NBA’s efforts and those of Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian — but the lack of support is apparent.
“The thing about our group is we’re all Nigerians but a lot of us are based in the US and we have some really, really talented young players back in Nigeria and in the US,” Diogu said. “There are some monsters that are coming up and if we could secure them early, get them in our system, I think the future is going to be really scary for Nigeria basketball.”
Voigt began his career as 22-year-old intern with the Clippers fresh out of Pomona (Calif.) College. He has been a college assistant and coached in the NBADL and overseas. He was visibly distressed over the off-court issues of his team’s Olympic experience.
“We’re coming out of pocket to find a place to stay,” he said. “Those are things we have to navigate. For us to show we can compete with the best teams in the world with hardly any support whatsoever, getting a small amount will really push things forward.
“We’re representing a whole continent. What the NBA has done [in Africa] is great, but the NBA does not represent the Nigerian national team. So they’re not going to provide any of those things for us. There’s no reason why we can’t become a true, legitimate global basketball power. We’ve got the kids.”
The Nigerian men’s soccer team was stranded in Atlanta because the payment for a charter to Rio was late. The club arrived just before its opening game with Japan after Delta Airlines agreed to make the payment. Nigeria won the bronze medal game on Saturday, beating Honduras.
“Farouq is not here because of a late insurance payment,” Voigt said. “I’ve got to think he probably helps us. He waited so long for the insurance, he got fed up. I think his insurance is like $15,000. That’s a drop in the bucket to like Team USA’s budget.
“Let’s be realistic, if they have millions of dollars, I’m probably not [Nigeria’s] coach. We know we’ve got to have a chip on our shoulder. We’re not asking for a yacht [like Team USA stayed on in Rio]. A little bit of support keeps this thing moving in the right direction.”
Internationally, Schmidt a force
There is an Olympic beach volleyball player for Brazil named Bruno Oscar Schmidt. He and his teammate, Alison Cerutti, cruised to the gold medal, making them national heroes. But the adoration level of the man Schmidt was named after — Oscar Schmidt — may never be eclipsed.
Schmidt drew the biggest ovation of the Opening Ceremony when he carried the Olympic torch. He is Brazilian sports royalty and also a Naismith Hall of Famer for his international basketball exploits.
Schmidt once dropped 46 points on a Team USA, leading Brazil to the gold medal at the 1987 Pan American Games. He played in four Olympics and is considered one of the greatest non-American players of all time.
“It was my dream to play in a competition like [the Olympics in Brazil],” he said. “I couldn’t but now I am a fan, rooting for the national team.”
When asked if the current Brazilian players, most of whom were in grade school or not yet born when he scored 46 against the United States, remember him, Schmidt said, “Of course they do. What kind of question is that? It’s not been a long time [ago] that I play.”
One could only wonder what might have been if Schmidt had decided to play in the NBA. After being drafted in the sixth round by the Nets in 1984, Schmidt passed on entering the NBA because the league did not allow its players to compete for national teams. Playing for Brazil was of the utmost importance to Schmidt.
“Until 1992, you couldn’t play both,” he said. “You were not allowed, so [I] refused because the national team for me is the best. Today, it’s different. Did you see the crowd [at the Olympics]? Brazil likes basketball. I’m proud. No more worries. I’m proud.”
The 6-foot-9-inch Schmidt was voted one of FIBA’s all-time top 50 players, a list that includes other former international stars Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, and Andrew Gaze.
When asked where he would stand if he had played a full NBA career, Schmidt not-so-humbly said, “Top 10 of all time. Top 10. No question.”
Parker, Ginobili exit Olympics
The Olympic tournament brought to an end the international careers of France’s Tony Parker and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, as both will concentrate on getting the Spurs another NBA title before they retire.
Parker’s French team was mostly a disappointment through the tournament and was eliminated easily by Spain in the knockout round. Once one of the NBA’s baby faces, Parker is now 34 and said he plans to play five more years for the Spurs.
Most NBA players resist playing internationally in the offseason because of the wear it places on their body. But Parker and Ginobili did so well into their 30s.
“It’s mixed feelings because at the same time I’m disappointed we lost the game and I think we could have done obviously a lot better,” Parker said. “But at the same time I don’t want to throw away everything we’ve done in the last 16 years, and in the last eight or nine years with coach [Vincent] Collet. I’m very proud of what we did on the national team. It’s the best results in history for French basketball, first time in history we went to two Olympics in a row. So I told my whole team, don’t forget what we accomplished. We put French basketball on the map. It will take some time to adjust from this loss, but it’s not like we lost against anybody. Spain is one of the best teams in the world for several years.”
Parker has spearheaded the resurgence of French basketball, but like many other countries in the Olympic tournament, France is trying to make the difficult transition from veterans to younger players. Parker received some help from former Spurs guard Nando de Colo, who led the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game.
Hornets swingman Nicolas Batum was practically nonexistent for France, averaging just 7 points. Collet would not single out Batum, but the French will need reinforcements to move forward without Parker, one of the world’s top point guards.
“It was my last game, I’m not going to change my mind about that,” Parker said. “I’ve been playing for 16 years with the national team for every summer. And it takes a toll on you, wear and tear. Because I played 15 years in the NBA, went to conference finals half of my career, been to the NBA Finals five times, and then you go every summer [to Team France], it’s tough.
“I told [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] it was going to be my last summer. I want to finish my Spurs career on a good note. I want to play another five years. I always stick to my word. When I signed my Spurs contract in 2014, I told him I was going to play two more summers and then I was going to be done.”
The Spurs will be a dramatically different team next season because of the retirement of Tim Duncan and the acquisition of Pau Gasol.
“I had a conversation with Timmy and he told me he was not going to play, I knew that day was going to come that we wouldn’t be the Big Three,” Parker said. “I’ve been very blessed, that’s all I can say, playing 15 years with Timmy and all the championships, all the records, everything that we accomplished. When I retire, I can tell my kids everything that we won. I’m happy that we have Manu for one more year. My day will come, too. That’s just life.”
Ginobili became very emotional after Argentina’s 105-78 loss to the United States on Wednesday night. He held on to the game ball, cried while walking off the court, hugged teammates, hugged Team USA players, and shook hands with fans.
Though the 2004 Olympics were a nightmare for Team USA, they marked a milestone for a young Argentina team that included Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, and Carlos Delfino, all of whom eventually played in the NBA. All four also played in Wednesday’s loss to Team USA.
“I’m proud of the longevity, the way we played the game, of all the things we accomplished, the friendships and the camaraderie we created, so I’m proud of a lot of things,” Ginobili said. “This is my 20th year since my first game with the national team. 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.”
Ginobili is committed to one more year with the Spurs but said he’s done with Team Argentina. It comes at a time when the team is in transition.
“How many athletes are my age, especially basketball players?” he said. “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.”
The US players had nothing but kudos for Ginobili.
“They congratulated me. They were very kind, very respectful, and when legends of the game show their respect, it has an extra value. They didn’t have to do it,” he said. “They could have just shaken my hand and then go do their thing and go think about Spain, but they spared some very kind words, respectful words. I truly appreciate it.”
Argentina, a country that was a basketball afterthought, has become a power in the last 15 years.
“It has been an incredible era,” Ginobili said. “It is something very important in your life that is ending, and that means a lot, so you’ve got to think of so many things, and well, [it] makes me feel a little emotional. There is nothing missing, and I feel very fortunate for being on this team for so many years, and have contributed. I think we did well overall.”
Said Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski: “We beat an outstanding team [in Argentina], not just team, what I call a program. An amazing culture, one of the outstanding cultures in global basketball, maybe as good as any. Those players, a number of them were probably in their last Games, what a remarkable run by Argentina. They’ve shown the world for the last two decades. It’s tremendous.”
The Lakers were so impressed with Yi Jianlian’s performances during recent international competition that they offered him an opportunity to return to the NBA on a one-year, $8 million contract. Playing for Team China, Jianlian’s skills are undoubtable. The question is whether he has enough confidence and physicality to stay in the NBA. The sixth overall pick in 2007, taken ahead of, among others, Joakim Noah, Thaddeus Young, and Rodney Stuckey, Yi played in the NBA for five seasons with four teams. He actually averaged 12 points per game in 52 games with the Nets in 2009-10 but eventually was relegated to a bench role and opted to return to China. Yi is 28 now and averaged 20.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 46.7 percent 3-point shooting in the Olympic tournament. Of course, many of those games were decided in the first half, as the Chinese lost their five games by an average of 29.5 points, including a 57-point loss to Team USA. Yi scored 25 points in that game . . . The Mavericks have to be thrilled with the way Andrew Bogut has played for Australia in the Olympics. If you recall, Bogut missed Game 7 of the Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals because of a bone bruise in his left knee. Bogut assured Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that he would not play in the Olympics unless he was 100 percent. He recovered from the injury in six weeks and looks nimble and reenergized, leading Australia into the bronze medal game. In Australia’s first six games, Bogut was 27-of-33 shooting, averaging 6 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. Of course, Bogut and US forward Harrison Barnes are members of the Mavericks only because Kevin Durant decided to sign with the Warriors. The Mavericks have sought a dependable, defensive-minded center for nearly a decade and Bogut looks prepared to contribute. Barnes, on the other hand, is essentially the 12th man for Team USA, having played in three of the team’s first seven games. He signed a $94 million max contract with Dallas after the Warriors rescinded his rights.
One Olympic player to watch in the future is Argentina guard Facundo Campazzo, who dazzled with 33 points, 11 assists, and 4 steals in a win over Brazil. Facundo, 25, is contractually obligated to Real Madrid for one more season. He was undrafted by the NBA in 2013 and could be the next Argentine product to transition to the NBA. When asked if he wanted to play in the NBA, Facundo said, “I would love to. I would like to, but I know that it is not easy, not easy to [get there and play] in the best way possible. It is a dream for me.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.