Gold Standard

Suns forward Luis Scola helped basketball in Argentina reach new heights, including a 2004 Olympic gold medal.
(NBAE/Getty Images)
When Luis Scola was growing up just outside downtown Buenos Aires in Argentina, he and his basketball-loving family had a problem: There wasn’t anywhere to play the game for fun.

Scola was interested in basketball, not soccer, primarily because his father, Mario, played it professionally. At 6-7, the elder Scola’s skills were much more compatible with the hardcourt than the “beautiful game.”

But as a youngster, the future Suns forward couldn’t just get his friends, father and cousins together to go play a game of pick-up outside.

“It was very, very difficult to play for fun because there were no playgrounds for basketball,” said Scola, who played in a club system instead. “And maybe even more importantly, there was no way in the world you would get 10 people to play basketball. Nobody knew how to play.”

But with Scola’s generation a change began to occur, in large part due to the unanticipated rise of the country’s basketball team to the peak of international competition.

His inclusion with the country’s international team began when he was just 15 years old. Scola received a self-described “surprising” tryout for Argentina’s under-19 men’s basketball team. With his father as an influence and a growth spurt under his belt, the forward’s ability to score and rebound in the paint were his most attractive attributes on the court.

“All of a sudden, I received a call saying I made the team, and I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t see it coming,” Scola said. “I really had no idea. I remember getting that call, and only two days later I had to report for camp. The next thing I knew, we were in Greece, and I spent the whole month there.”

Scola felt then that basketball was going to play a major role in his future, although he didn’t know to what extent. As he continually rose through the ranks and stuck with the country’s international team, he would soon realize his potential.

The next major hurdle cleared was being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2002, when he was 22 years old. But the Spurs were not ready to bring him stateside yet; in fact, the team held on to his rights while he continued to play overseas in Spain.

During the next three years, Scola was able to dominate the Spanish competition. But what really put him on the map was not the club experience; it was once again a major breakthrough while wearing the blue and white of Argentina.

In 2002, the Argentines were the first to defeat an American squad composed of NBA players. They would double-down on the U.S. two years later, while on their way to a gold medal during the Summer Olympics in Athens.

In the Olympic semifinal game against the U.S., it was current San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili who carried the team with 29 points while Scola was steady with 10 points and four rebounds. The gold medal game a day later, though, belonged to Scola, as the Argentines easily handled Italy behind the forward’s team-best 25 points and 11 rebounds.

The corps of that team included Scola, Ginobili and other future NBA veterans like Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino and Fabricio Oberto.

For the most part, that group was still together this past summer in London for the summer games. Despite the team’s loss in the bronze medal match against Russia, Scola said that moment best epitomized how the group had come together.

“Most of them I’ve known since 1995-’96, so I’ve been playing with them every summer,” Scola said. “We learned how to like each other, and now our relationship is amazing. We’re really tight, and I’ll never see a locker room as together as it was when we lost to Russia in the last Olympics.”

In the big picture, he described the years spent with the Argentinian international team as some of the happiest in his life, both on the court and off. As the team rose to the level of a gold medal in the Olympics, Scola also met his wife and started a family that now includes four sons.

The heights he and the Argentinian team reached in 2004 soon created another transition phase for the forward, though.

After five years of having his rights held onto by the Spurs, Scola was traded to the Houston Rockets prior to the 2007-08 season. And following 10 years in Spain, the power forward was about to move to his third continent.

What aided him with the transition on the court was the fact that he was 27 years old as a rookie in the NBA, and the wealth of international experience he had allowed him to contribute right away. In his first season with the Rockets, Scola averaged over 10 points and six rebounds in just over 24 minutes per game.

Current Suns assistant coach Elston Turner was just beginning his tenure as an assistant with the Rockets during Scola’s rookie season in the NBA. What he saw was a polished and complete player from the very beginning.

What wasn’t as noticeable, according to the coach, was Scola’s competitiveness and ability to play through pain. That’s best exemplified by the 346 consecutive games played to start the power forward’s career.

“During some of my days in Houston, I saw him get busted up,” Turner said. “He’d still want to play, but the doctors wouldn’t let him. They had to hold him back because he wanted to go, and that right there is a special competitor.”

Those thoughts on Scola’s toughness were echoed by the Suns’ starting point guard, Goran Dragic. The two first had their careers intersect in Spain for a couple of months when Dragic played outside of his home country of Slovenia for the first time.

The point guard was just 17 years old, and, despite the short stint together, Dragic believed Scola to be a natural leader.

They soon met up again, this time for about a season and a half with the Rockets. While Dragic described most Argentinian players as tough, he has witnessed a special blend of skill and competitiveness out of Scola.

“What people may not see is that he’s relentless every night,” Dragic said. “Even if he doesn’t have his shot, he’ll always give a team something – whether it’s rebounding, passing or his defense. That type of player, you’re always glad to have them on the team.”

Those attributes are the reasons why Scola has been able to find a niche in the NBA and produce to the tune of 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game through 22 contests this season with the Suns.

Suddenly the kid who was surprised as a 15 year old to make an international team for Argentina, now has had a career in basketball that includes a gold medal, 10 years in Spain, five in the NBA and a new start in Phoenix.

But what may give Scola the most joy about the game is the state of basketball in his home country when he returns.

If he wears a shirt with an NBA logo around Buenos Aires, people don’t stop him to inquire what the logo represents. They already know.

When he goes home, he won’t have to pop a tape into the VCR just to watch NBA games that are a couple years old – like he did as a kid in an effort to watch Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The NBA is shown regularly on the country’s cable package now.

But better than all of that is he can finally do the one thing he always wanted to as a kid: Find some friends and go outside to simply shoot around.

There are six or seven playgrounds around Buenos Aires now, according to Scola, and the neighborhood youngsters actually play the sport.

“Now, everything has changed,” Scola said. “So many people are involved in the game there, either by watching or by playing. The NBA is followed so much more now.”

In large part, that is due to Luis Scola.