Few remember the feat: our team made the big blow at the World Cup in Spain and beat the future champion of the tournament 74-70. As was customary at the time, the Americans presented a varsity team, but with future NBA stars like Admiral Robinson and Steve Kerr, and they only lost that game.
How long do feats last? Years, decades, generations? Do they have an expiration date? Will one day stop celebrating the 1-0 to Brazil on Saturday at the Maracana? Or is the memorable forgotten and the historical falls out of history? When did the triumph that the basketball team achieved the July 13, 1986, 35 years ago yesterday, when they beat the United States for the World Cup in Spain In a feat of Argentine sports that, however, after the victories of the Golden Generation against the same rival – already made up of the stars of the NBA -, would be blurred in the collective amnesia and reduced to a simple anniversary?
One piece of information should suffice to put that unforgettable but forgotten triumph in context: The United States won the World Cup 86 and only lost one game, against Argentina in Oviedo. That the NBA phenomena did not play was not our fault. As they were used to until the Barcelona 92 Olympic Games, when they finally began to summon all their stars, The North Americans presented a sub-22 team in Spain 86, with university basketball players, but not for that reason exempt from quality and projection: 11 of those 12 world champions would go on to the NBA and most would be absolute stars, such as Steve Kerr and the Admiral David Robinson. The ideal quintet of the World Cup 86 confirms that in Spain 86 phenomena played, also east of the Iron Curtain: Drazen Petrovic (then Yugoslavia, elected MVP of the tournament), Oscar Schmidt (Brazil), Arvydas Sabonis and Valeri Tikhonenko (from the Soviet Union), and Robinson himself.
Victim of the eternal leadership conflicts, Argentina did not have a good World Cup and finished twelfth among 24 teams. The reconstruction of that impossible victory against the United States vindicates the surnames that made the history of the 80s -Esteban Camisassa, Diego Maggi and Sergio Aispurúa, among others-, the missing link between the 1950 champions, also winners of a university team of the United States in the final of the World Cup in Buenos Aires, and the heroes of Indianapolis 2002 and Athens 2004.
As if it were a maxim of our sport, which seems to win titles when it does not reach the tournaments on a red carpet, there was not much hope in that team. In Buenos Aires, for example, the World Cup was not televised. Channel 8 of Mar del Plata bought the rights and distributed them among the different stations in the country interested in broadcasting the tournament, but no game – not even the victory against the United States – reached the Buenos Aires screens or the suburbs. The antecedents, it is true, did not invite us to expect a feat. Led by Puerto Rican Flor Meléndez, the team started the World Cup in Santa Cruz de Tenerife with a first round without great emotions: it beat the countries it could defeat (Holland, Malaysia and New Zealand) and lost when it was inferior to its rival (Canada and Yugoslavia). The first three from each zone qualified for the second phase and the national team finished third, one point above the Dutch.
Already in the following stage, also in a group with six teams, Argentina traveled to the north of Spain, to Oviedo. By the tournament regulations, it dragged the defeats against Canadians and Yugoslavs -also classified-, so it was mathematically impossible to qualify for the semifinals: only the leader and the guard from the new zone would advance. On top of the debut was the United States, which had won all five matches in the first round (Ivory Coast, China, Germany, Puerto Rico, and Italy). Perhaps due to laziness or lack of tension, the Americans had beaten Puerto Rico by just one point but the rest of their triumphs had been categorical, by an average of 21 points. Argentina seemed on the way to receive another slap. “United States and Argentina, Unequal Clash,” headlined the Spanish sports daily “As” that morning. Or as Camisassa himself admitted to TyC Sports, in 2020: “They thought that the only thing the game would do was to see if the electronic scoreboard worked or not, that they were going to convert us two million points”.
Argentina’s starting five formed with Miguel Cortijo (10 points), Carlos Romano (16), Camisassa (21), Hernán Montenegro (0) and Maggi (11). Then Aispurúa (14), Héctor “Pichi” Campana (2), Luis Oroño (0) and Sebastián Uranga (0) would enter, while Marcelo Milanesio, Gabriel Milovch and Fernando Borcel stayed at the bank, as privileged witnesses. Directed by Lute Olson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the United States had in its starting five Tommy Amaker (4) Kenny Smith (11), Derrick McKey (7), Charles Smith (17) and Robinson (17). Later came Kerr (11), Sam Elliott (4), Rony Seikaly (1) and Muggsy Bogues (2), while Tom Hammonds, Brian Shaw and Armen Gilliam remained as substitutes throughout the game.
Except for Amaker, who would not play in the NBA but would have a great career as a college coach and assistant to Mike Krzyzewski, the rest would achieve extraordinary résumés in the top basketball league. Just some facts: Robinson would be an absolute legend (two-time Olympic champion and two titles with the San Antonio Spurs, voted ten times for the All Star and elected NBA MVP in 1995); Kerr would win eight rings (five as a player, three with the Chicago Bulls and two with Spurs, and three as the coach of the Golden State Warriors); Shaw would be a three-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers; Kenny Smith would add two titles with the Houston Rockets; Elliot would win a ring with Spurs; McKey would reach a final with the Indiana Pacers, Gilliam would score 12,700 points in the NBA; Seikally would have 6,744 rebounds; Bogues would play 14 years in the NBA, Hammonds would stay 12 seasons and Charles Smith would be a star of the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Nicks before an injury spoiled his career. But all of them lost against Argentina in the Municipal Palace of Sports in Oviedo, 35 years ago yesterday.
As Maggi reminded TyC Sports in 2020, “We had a slight hope for a friendly against the United States that we had played before the World Cup, in France”. According to the pivot that in Oviedo would annul Admiral Robinson and would become the figure of the feat, “In that preparation game they had taken a big difference from us in the first half but in the second we had played them as equals and that gave us a bit of confidence. They were still much superior ”. Already on the night before the game, he rebuilt the “Vasco” Aispurúa, “Flor Meléndez gave us a scouting for each rival, whom we had to defend, especially the big people”. For Maggi, “Steve Kerr was already a great scorer and had to be scored closely. We set up an intense game, with a lot of defense, and in attack we did very well. The United States entered a little weak and, when they realized it, they did not have the reaction to win the game.
Some images on YouTube, with the technical lack of definition typical of the time but of enormous symbolic value, show the stories of the time: “Farmhouse, brand Kerr, double Maggi”. The chronicles of that day indicate that the Spanish public cheered for Argentina and that the great merit was the defense, a virtue that, for Meléndez, the team had hinted at in the first round, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. “You had to see the disconcerted face of the United States coach, Olson, without being able to turn the course of the game despite the permanent changes,” wrote Osvaldo Ricardo Orcasitas (ORO), the special envoy of the magazine El Gráfico. According to the chronicle of the Catalan newspaper El Mundo Deportivo, “Argentina put the Americans in trouble, who did not measure up to rebounds or to penetrate despite Robinson’s 2’11” and Smith’s 2’07 ” .
In a different basketball, with very few 3-point attempts (5/8 for Argentina and 4/11 for the United States), the national team was always ahead: 11-10, 24-22, 29-27, 37-34 (at rest), 44-43, 54-50, 67-56 and 72-62. The final card also shows a great difference in favor of ours in defensive rebounds, 19 to 11. However, a final attack from the Americans, with Maggi already off the court for five fouls, and a double from Kerr in the absence of 30 seconds they reduced the distance to a very close 72-70. That’s when Aispurúa got a foul with three seconds to go and scored the two most important singles of her life. “I was never a whore after converting, and I didn’t do it again, but after making those two shots an insult escaped me. It was a mixture of joy and not understanding what we had achieved“Vasco recalled in what must be one of the best insults in Argentine basketball.
The game was played on a Sunday and for Clarín it would be the main cover title the next day with a photo of Montenegro, seconded by Maggi and Camisassa, in full Charles Smith’s mark. Also El Gráfico would dedicate its cover to the feat under the title “The greatest triumph of Argentine basketball.” Although the photo – issues of a time when broadcasting from Europe to Argentina was not something instantaneous – corresponded to the match against Yugoslavia, in which the national team played light blue. In the historic victory against the United States, the national team wore a white jersey. A photoshop exercise managed to erase the word “Jugoslavia” from the clothing of the rivals.
The unexpected heroes celebrated that night with champagne and the next day they beat China 97-80, but after the subsequent 78-70 loss to Italy they went on to play in Madrid for ninth place. While the Americans would win the next four games, including the final against the Soviet Union, two consecutive falls of Flor Meléndez’s team against Greece and Cuba marked the final twelfth place for Argentina, but the feat had already been written. For Maggi, “that game was the most important of my life, I had to defend Robinson and I did it very well.” According to Aispurúa, “although we faced it with all the illusion, we knew it was difficult, that’s why the celebration was so strong.” And according to Camisassa, “I was the scorer in that game and the best Argentine rebounder (four offensive and two defensive), which for me was an honor. Just as when you beat those rivals, you give it more value over the years. At the time it seemed important to me, but over time I value it much more ”.
Unforgettable triumphs shouldn’t be forgotten, whether it’s an anniversary or not.
Photo: Argentine Basketball Confederation.