BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Amary, Ubiratan and Wlamir.
These names are forever linked to the golden age of Brazilian basketball, when the squad claimed FIBA World Championships in 1959 and 1963.
But it’s been 24 years since the team, which took silver in 1954 and 1970 and bronze in 1967 and 1978 at the championship, has placed in the top four in the prestigious event. At the 2006 FIBA World Championship, Brazil’s lone victory in five games was against winless Qatar.
But Brazil may be on the verge of making up for lost time. The squad has been overhauled, beginning with the Brazil Basketball Confederation naming Carlos Nunes as president, ending the 12-year reign of Gerasime Bozikis.
The confederation also has partnered with the nation’s top club teams to reestablish the national championship tournament.
But perhaps its biggest move – and certainly the one that’s earned the most attention internationally – was the hiring of Rubén Magnano from Argentina as coach. Magnano seized the spotlight when he guided Argentina to become the first South American team to win Olympic gold when it won the Athens Games in 2004. His squad, led by Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola, who play in the U.S.’s National Basketball Association (NBA), defeated Italy, 84-69. Four years later in Beijing, Argentina left with the bronze medal after defeating Lithuania, 87-75.
“Brazil has excellent athletes playing nationally and abroad,” said Magnano in his first speech as the coach for the Brazilian team. “I’m going to travel and talk to each one of them to see how they are and to ask them about their goals.”
Magnano already has accomplished one of his biggest challenges: convincing Brazilians who play in the NBA to play for the national team, which they traditionally haven’t done.
But they certainly are now.
Leandrinho Barbosa, a guard for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and power forward Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs) are leading Brazil’s charge at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, which runs through Sept. 12. The team’s other top player, Anderson Varejão of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been sidelined with a sprained right ankle and has yet to play.
So far, Brazil is in good shape at the 24-team tournament in which the winner earns an automatic berth in the 2012 Olympics in London. Brazil hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1996.
Brazil is 2-1 and tied with Slovenia for second place in Group B, behind the United States (3-0), but ahead of Croatia (1-2), Iran (1-2) and Tunisia (0-3).
Brazil opened the tournament with a dominating, 81-65 win over Iran on Aug. 28 in a game in which forward Guilherme Giovannoni scored 17 points and Barbosa and Splitter added 13 apiece. The next day, Brazil defeated Tunisia, 80-65, behind Barbosa (21 points), Splitter (16) and forward Marcelinho Machado (13).
Brazil was dealt its first loss of the tournament on Aug. 30, when it fell to the United States, the defending Olympic champion, 70-68, in the final seconds.
Point guard Marcelo Huertas was fouled on a drive to the basket with 3.5 seconds left. He missed the first free throw and then the second intentionally but grabbed the rebound in the corner and passed it to Barbosa, who was closer to the basket. He shot over Kevin Love, but the ball hit the back and front of the rim before falling to the floor as the buzzer sounded.
“I thought it was going to go in, but it’s OK,” said Barbosa, who scored 14 points, ESPN.com reported. “I think we did a great job, it was a great game. I don't think the USA knew that we could cause problems for them and we did it.”
Marcus Vinicius Vieira Souza scored a team-high 16 points and Splitter added 13 points and 10 rebounds. The U.S. was led by Kevin Durant (27 points, 10 rebounds), guard Chauncey Billups (15 points) and guard Derrick Rose (11 points).
“[Brazil] was the South American champion, they were 9-0 and won a tournament in Puerto Rico last year with the same team they have for this tournament, so they’re seasoned together,” said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, as reported by ESPN.com.
Brazil finishes pool play against Slovenia on Sept. 1 and Croatia on Sept. 2. The top four teams in each of the four pools advance to the knockout round. Brazil hasn’t reached the medal round since 1986, when it placed fourth after losing to Yugoslavia, 117-91.
Brazil’s national basketball team also boasts those who excel in European leagues, including Huertas, of Spain’s Caja Laboral, and France’s Le Mans’ forward J.P. Batista, who was named to the national team to replace Nenê Hilário (NBA’s Denver Nuggets), who was sidelined for the event with inflammation in his legs.
But Magnano also is grooming younger talent, as he added Raulzinho, an 18-year-old guard who plays for the Minas Tennis Club, to the roster.
“From the first day, I have been welcomed with open arms because the players know what it's like to be new to the team having experienced that themselves,” said Raulzinho, as reported by FIBA.com. “It's great to practice and play with the likes of Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejão. But I'm learning a lot by playing with Marcelinho Huertas, who is a great teacher. As for our coach Rubén Magnano, I speak often to him and we talk about tactics, about my game. He is very approachable.”
The team’s ultimate goal is completing its gold rush when Rio de Janeiro hosts the 2016 Olympics. But the country needs to make a bigger investment in the sport if it’s to topple the world’s top teams, such as defending world champion Spain, Argentina, and of course, the United States, Minas coach Flávio Davis says.
“Brazil can indeed become the 2016 world champion,” Flávio Davis says. “We have a winning Olympic trainer and many athletes are rising, but they are still few considering the country’s potential. It’s important to [have] a policy not only to build stadiums and gyms. We need to train the coaches, to make them good teachers. This way, we could stop missing out on the talent that gets lost along the way.”