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Old 11-07-05, 07:23 AM
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MYSA: Bulls' Nocioni and Spurs' Ginobili, Oberto could be first Argentine trio to...

Bulls' Nocioni and Spurs' Ginobili, Oberto could be first Argentine trio to play in same NBA game

Web Posted: 11/07/2005 12:00 AM CST

Johnny Ludden
Express-News Staff Writer
CHICAGO — Andres Nocioni, like many international players transitioning to the NBA, struggled during his first two months with the Chicago Bulls last season.

More coverage
Monday night: Spurs (2-1) at Bulls (1-1)

His English, though improving, wasn't great. His wife and newborn baby were living thousands of miles away and his new team was still enduring some growing pains of its own.

So Nocioni sought advice from one of the few people who could relate: friend and countryman Manu Ginobili. The two spoke by phone a handful of times before dining together at an Argentine steakhouse when the Spurs visited Chicago last December.

The only question was who would pick up the tab.

"It's supposed to be the home guy who pays, but last time he invited me and didn't pay," Ginobili said. "We'll make him this time."

Ginobili and Nocioni couldn't get together Sunday, but when they do, the Spurs guard will have muscle with him: rookie forward Fabricio Oberto, the sixth and most recent member of Argentina's gold-medal winning team to play in the NBA.

Tonight's meeting between the Spurs and Bulls — barring a sudden change in either team's rotation — will be the first time three Argentine players have shared the floor in an NBA game.

"I never think this could happen," said Alejandro Montecchia, the veteran point guard of Argentina's history-making team in Athens last summer. "Argentina basketball is growing fast, like, 'boom!'"

Nocioni's stunning dunk over Kevin Garnett in the 1999 Olympic qualifying tournament served notice Argentine basketball was on the rise.

The explosion culminated last summer when Argentina beat the United States for the second time in three years before defeating Italy for the gold medal.

"I think we still don't take the reality of this medal," Montecchia said. "I always dream to play in the Olympics. To play. But to take the gold medal ...."

Argentina's selfless, energetic style of play was considered a victory for basketball purists everywhere. Though Nocioni is not as daring a passer as Ginobili or Oberto, he — like most of his Argentine teammates — is just as relentless.

"The thing I can't figure out is how there can be so many of them on the same team with that kind of passion," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "You can look at every other team — I don't care what country you look at — and it's not the same. Serbia imploded this year in the qualifying tournament, and they have talent.

"I just think it's a phenomenon you're probably not going to see again."

In addition to Ginobili, Nocioni, Oberto and Carlos Delfino, who is beginning his second season with Detroit, Argentine point guard Pepe Sanchez and center Ruben Wolkowyski played briefly in the NBA. Forward Luis Scola, a second-round draft pick of the Spurs, figures to be the next provided he can free himself from his contract with Spanish power Tau Ceramica.

If Popovich had his way, half the Spurs' roster would be filled with Argentines. The Spurs wanted to draft Nocioni but thought he was ineligible after a former international scout provided an incorrect birth date for him. They also looked hard at signing Montecchia, 33, a few seasons ago.

Montecchia is tough, "and he shoots it from everywhere," Popovich said. "They'd all be here right now if I could get them out of their contracts, but I couldn't do it."

That includes Scola, who once again is dominating in Spain. The Spurs intended to sign him this summer until it became apparent he wouldn't be able to resolve his contract's $14.5 million buyout clause.

Scola's contract lasts three seasons, and the Spurs haven't given up hope Tau's owners will reduce the buyout before it expires. At the end of the deal, he can leave for $1 million. The Spurs also have considered trading Scola's rights, though any team interested in him probably is going to want assurances he'll be able to get out of his contract.

Only recently have NBA teams become more willing to spend the money needed to bring over top international players, including those from Latin America. Oberto had to wait until he was 30 — he's the fifth-oldest NBA rookie ever — to get an offer large enough to warrant giving up the money he was making in Spain.

"Manu has changed everything," Nocioni said this summer in Buenos Aires.

The success of Argentina's national team is rooted in the players' familiarity with each other. The core has played together for at least nine years. Montecchia, though older, also grew up in Ginobili's hometown of Bahia Blanca.

"Off of the court, we are all friends," said Montecchia, who came off the bench to score 17 points in 17 minutes in the gold-medal game. "That's very important because on the court you can play more easy. No one is selfish."

Ginobili considered retiring from the national team after the Olympics. The annual summer-long commitment along with the rigors of an NBA season began to wear on him.

But the break he was afforded after the Spurs' most recent championship — winning the Olympics guaranteed Argentina a berth in the 2006 World Championships — has rejuvenated him enough that he hopes to represent his country in Japan in August.

"Now, I feel like after one year off I want to do it again," Ginobili said. "But it's hard to play every year, especially when you play with a team like (the Spurs). If I was playing on a team that doesn't make the playoffs and you have four months off, it's all right. But here we have more than 100 games a year."

Oberto said he is unsure whether he will play in the World Championships. Montecchia has retired from the national team.

"Maybe in three or four months I change my mind," Montecchia said, "but I don't think so."

For now, Montecchia's career is on hold. After missing much of his Spanish team's schedule with a knee injury last season, he is unsigned. He spent the past two weeks visiting Ginobili and Oberto in San Antonio.

Tuesday's season-opening victory over Denver was the first time he had seen any of his countrymen play in the NBA.

"I almost cried," he said. "Ten years ago I thought the NBA was not possible for any Argentina player.

"Watching Manu, for me, was incredible. I was proud."

I hope Manu will have a good game tonight
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