Coach Sergio Scariolo leads Spain to FIBA World Cup crown
It's been an amazing 2019 for Sergio Scariolo.
The Italian was one of Nick Nurse's assistant coaches as the Toronto Raptors dethroned the Golden State Warriors to claim their first NBA title in June.
Just three months later, he has led Spain to their second FIBA World Cup title 13 years after their first.
"We were not the best, we were not the tallest, but we have worked hard to prepare for clutch moments, never losing our faith. And basketball rewarded us with a trophy we clearly deserved." - Victorious Spain head coach Sergio Scariolo
Scariolo said afterwards, "I have to thank my players, because they were wonderful, all of them. I had a good feeling about the game, as I realised that they had the utmost respect for Argentina and were anxious about the final.
"I also have to thank the Raptors front office for letting me be here, the Spanish Basketball Federation for allowing me to work in the NBA, as well as my family for their understanding on my absence."
The United States had won the last two basketball world titles after Spain's triumph in 2006 with the Europeans failing to reach the podium on both occasions.
But now they are on top of the world.
Route to the final
Spain finished top of Group C with three wins out of the three in Guangzhou.
The European powerhouse defeated Tunisia 101-62, Puerto Rico 73-63 and Iran 73-65.
They maintained that unbeaten record in round two, taking care of Scariolo's native country Italy 67-60 before seeing off tournament dark horses Serbia 81-69 to cruise through to the quarter-finals.
A 90-78 victory over Poland meant a semi-final with Australia and, with the United States falling to France, Spain were no longer outsiders for the title.
Scariolo's men prevailed again in the last four, beating the Boomers 95-88 to set up an all-Spanish language final with Argentina.
And despite the best efforts of Luis Scola and co, it was Spain who emerged victorious to give Scariolo his second big success of 2019.
A long time coming
He returned to the role in 2015, winning a third Eurobasket title that year before leading Spain to bronze at Rio 2016.
This triumph in China, let's not forget, came without injured star centre Pau Gasol.
In his absence, brother Marc - part of the Raptors' NBA champion team - helped lead the Spaniards to glory.
Just before the World Cup, Scariolo spoke to Olympic Channel about the tournament and potential split loyalties if Spain and Italy met in the second round, which they did.
Olympic Channel: You obviously helped bring the NBA title to Toronto. What was that whole ride like?
Sergio Scariolo: It was great. It was unbelievable. We could not predict it was going to end up that way. We started working towards the summer to be competitive and be at our highest peak in the playoffs. It’s what we always had in front of our eyes. And that’s actually what happened.
We had a more than good regular season. But frankly in the play-offs, we were able to raise a level and be extremely solid mentally. We were good physically. We got to that shape thanks to our medical and condition staff. It was fun. It was a great win and an unbelievable outcome.
OC: What's it like working in the NBA?
SS: It’s quite difficult with all the time schedules, back-to-backs, different leagues. Sometimes (players) in good moods and sometimes in bad moods.
OC: What did you make of Spain's 90-81 warm-up defeat to Team USA in Anaheim earlier this month?
SS: That was not a game where the team was there to win at any cost. It was at the point of our process, training camp preparation, where a lot of areas were to be improved.
But it was good to compete against such as a great team with so many talented players, super-athletic, great NBA players. I mean, people that know the NBA from within know that those are established and well-recognised top NBA players.
Maybe somebody else can recognise the Lebrons, the Hardens and the Kawhi type of players. But those that follow basketball know that these guys are so talented, so strong, so good.
"They still form an extremely strong unit and will be again the team to beat in the World Cup." - Sergio Scariolo on two-time defending champions USA
But it came differently as expected....
OC: Spain haven't been on the podium at the World Cup since winning it in 2006. How important is this World Cup as you prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?
SS: I mean, of course it’s important. It qualifies for Tokyo. The question is more because sometimes you have the tendencies to think of one competition in terms of qualifying for another one. That’s partially true. I mean, here we have a European Championship, a World Cup which are great competitions period by themselves.
Not considering the fact that they qualify for the Olympic Games, which is the most important one without a question, but at the same time you have to try and compete and try to do well at this competition because it’s what you have in your hands and have this year.
We will try and be a good version of our team, but we are missing many good players, like the US as well. Not too many other teams other than Canada are missing a lot of their main players. But I think we will be able to be competitive even if physically we are probably not the most athletic and not the biggest team in the competition. We will try to fight it out.
OC: Europe is very strong right now making for a competitive fight for the two Olympic spots available in China. Who do you expect to be your biggest rivals for those places?
SS: I just watched the Serbia-Greece game two days ago in Athens and you feel those are the best candidates to clinch the two spots which directly qualify to Tokyo from Europe. US will, for sure, have no problem to qualify. But I think that Serbia is at the top of the strength of this generation this year and have a chance. They are probably closer than anywhere before.
OC: There are no medals for coaches at the Olympics. Do you think there should be?
SS: Participating in the Olympics is such a great experience in itself. Every little thing and aspect of this since even the previous year where there are so many little or big events are getting you close to the Olympics, then the ceremony, the competition, the village. It’s something special. It’s basically the reason why when I started in 2009, I accepted the offer from the Spanish Federation.
OC: You’re from Italy but coach Spain. Do you find it hard listening to the Spanish anthem 'Marcha Real' rather than 'Fratelli d'Italia'?
SS: That’s always a tough moment because you’re representing the country you’ve chosen. But at the same time, you know where you’re from and you know which your home country is and frankly, I don’t like to play against Italy. And when I see the competition, I always catch myself rooting for Italian athletes and Italian teams everywhere they compete.