Five years on, "The Champ" returns
Real Madrid's Sergio Rodríguez replaces Ricky Rubio for London Olympics
If it ain't broke, why fix it? Spain's national basketball coach, Sergio Scariolo, is opting to take the same group of players that won Eurobasket gold last summer in Lithuania to the London Olympics - with one solitary exception. Five years on, Real Madrid's Sergio Rodríguez, "el Chacho" ("The Champ") returns to the national team to replace NBA star Ricky Rubio, who is still recovering from a serious ligament injury in Minnesota.
The Canarian point guard has had an outstanding season at Real, topped by a sublime, if ultimately unrewarded performance in the playoff final series against Barcelona. His call-up offers him the chance to resume his love affair with the national team, which began eight years ago when he was a key member of the under-18 team that won the 2004 European title in Zaragoza. He was named MVP of the championship with an average of 19 points and 8.5 assists per game.
The next year and still barely 19, he was playing with the senior team at the European Championships in Serbia. And at the World Championships in Japan in 2006, he caught international attention in Spain's 75-74 semifinal win against Argentina by scoring 14 points (including three out of three three-pointers) to guide his country into the final against Greece, which it won 70-47.
That was enough to take him across the pond to the NBA at just 20. However, the adventure didn't quite work out and after four years and 290 games for Portland, Sacramento and New York, he returned to Spain to play for Real Madrid in 2010. On the way he won silver at the 2007 European Championships in Madrid and suffered the biggest disappointment of his career when he was left out of the squad for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
"It is possible that I am enjoying the best moment of my career," Rodríguez said a few days ago, during the middle of the Liga playoff final series.
Some of Spain's other 11 internationals have not had such a good season, however. Barcelona's Juan Carlos Navarro has suffered serious physical problems in recent months, owing to his plantar fasciitis - an inflammation of the connective tissue on the sole of his foot. He has missed several games and had to limit his time on court in others. Meanwhile, Rudy Fernández missed the final stretch of the season with the Denver Nuggets following an operation for a back injury in March. Other players have also suffered injuries, but the state of his two small forwards is one of Scariolo's biggest worries. For that reason, the Italian coach will be taking Valencia's Rafa Martínez as a reserve during the preparation phase.
Spain's players will assemble in Madrid on June 28 and play eight friendlies in the run-up to the Olympics, with the last in Barcelona on July 24 against the United States. The Games begin on July 27 and Spain, which has won gold at the last two European Championships, plays its first match against China on July 29. Once again, it will be aiming to reach the final as it did in Beijing four years ago. On that occasion it lost 118-107 to the United States in a thrilling encounter, which was close right up to the end.