World
6:16 am
Sun July 22, 2012

Spain's Olympic Basketball Team Takes Aim At U.S.

Originally published on Sun July 22, 2012 2:43 pm

Spain is a country that partied for days after winning the European Soccer Championships earlier this month.

Soccer dominates the sports scene, and the Spanish side is favored to win Olympic gold in London this summer. But Spain is also a basketball powerhouse and is currently ranked No. 2 in the world behind the U.S.

At a school gym, you'll find Spaniards who actually know that. Basketball is growing in popularity among kids, especially girls.

"Basketball is a sport that's beautiful for me," says 13-year-old Lucia Gutierrez.

Gutierrez says her bedroom walls are plastered with posters of the Olympic team. Her teammate, 15-year-old María Lopez, chimes in.

"Basketball is a part of my life," Lopez says.

Reaching The International Stage

A generation ago, basketball became a fixture in Spanish schools, and now that's paying off as Spanish players make a mark far beyond their homeland.

"It's a lot of work, and a little bit of luck. You know?" says Borja Castejon, the head of the Basketball Federation of Madrid, who has trained several Olympians.

There are now a dozen Spaniards in the NBA — including Pau Gasol, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I think if Pau Gasol went to the metro, every person would try to make a picture with him," Castejon says.

Now, Spanish basketball players are trying to translate their newfound fame into Olympic gold.

"Obviously the United States is the No. 1 team," says Mark Elkington, a sports reporter who covers the Spanish team. He says the Spanish side would like to get a draw where they don't have to play the Americans until the final.

"But you're probably more than likely going to meet them in the final," he adds. "And then it's the case of, you know, you've got to play your absolute best game. I mean, they ran them very close in Beijing, but lost in the end."

He was referring to the 2008 Olympic final, when the U.S. took the gold, beating Spain, 118-107. The Spaniards are gunning for a rematch.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Soccer dominates the sports scene in Spain, a county favored to win Olympic gold in London this summer. But few Spaniards know how good their men's Olympic basketball team is, and the answer is very good - perhaps even good enough to win gold in that sport as well. Lauren Frayer reports on the sleeper threat to U.S. dominance in Olympic basketball.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is a country that partied for days after winning the European soccer championships this month. But Spain is also a basketball powerhouse, ranked number two in the world behind the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALLS BOUNCING)

FRAYER: And this school gym is where you'll find Spaniards who actually know that. Basketball is gaining on soccer's popularity among kids, especially girls.

LUCIA GUTIERREZ: Basketball is a sport beautiful for me.

Thirteen-year-old Lucia Gutierrez says her bedroom walls are plastered with posters of the Olympic team. Her teammate, 15-year-old Maria Lopez, chimes in.

MARIA LOPEZ: Basketball is a part of my life.

FRAYER: A generation ago, basketball became a fixture in Spanish schools and now that's paying off on the professional court.

BORJA CASTEJON: It's a lot of work, and a little bit of luck, you know?

FRAYER: Borja Castejon heads the Basketball Federation of Madrid and has trained several Olympians. He says that with a dozen Spaniards in the NBA, including the biggest star Pau Gasol, who plays for the L.A. Lakers, the days of Spanish basketballers living in anonymity are over.

CASTEJON: I think if Pau Gasol went to the metro, every people will try to do a picture with him.

FRAYER: Now, Spanish basketballers are trying to translate their newfound fame into Olympic gold. Mark Elkington is a local sports reporter who covers the team.

MARK ELKINGTON: You know, obviously, the United States are the number one team, and really, it's trying to avoid them if you can, to get to the final. But you're probably more than likely going to meet them in the final. And then it's the case of, you know, you've got to play your absolute best game. I mean, they ran them very close in Beijing, but lost in the end.

FRAYER: So, Spain took the silver four years ago and has been training for a rematch ever since. With a few injuries on the U.S. team, this just might be Spain's year. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

WERTHEIMER: And when Spanish Olympians march into the opening ceremony in London, it'll be Pau Gasol, the Spanish basketball star, who will be leading his country's delegation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.