MADRID (Reuters) - When the final buzzer sounded, the Spanish players hugged each other and began dancing around the court, the injured Pau Gasol abandoned his crutches to join his team mates’ celebrations and fans back home went wild.
Spain’s first basketball world championship was greeted with understandable excitement but team coach Pepu Hernandez slipped into the background, overcome with emotion having concealed the news that his father had died just hours before the final.
“Although I usually believe in being totally honest with the team I thought that if I told them it would only distract them and I didn’t want anything to affect them at such an important time,” Hernandez told Reuters in an interview.
“During the final I didn’t feel too bad because I was focused on my work and the team was playing so well. It was as if even without knowing it they were giving me the support I needed.
“But two or three minutes from the end all the emotions came to the surface. I didn’t know whether to smile or cry, so I just held on to the great memories I had of my father.”
Hernandez’s selfless behavior was typical of a man who has won universal admiration from Spaniards for his down-to-earth persona, common-sense approach to his job and ability to bring the best out of his players.
Spain’s success in Japan in 2006 was followed by a silver medal in the European championship in Madrid last year, an achievement that cemented their reputation as one of the top outfits in world basketball.
Now Hernandez and his players have their sights set on a first Olympic gold medal in Beijing in August.
“We are very lucky to have an extraordinary generation of players,” he said.
“An Olympic medal would be a reward for all the work we’ve done over the years but we want to put things in perspective and ensure we are a basketball power for some time to come and not just a temporary phenomenon.”
Basketball has always been one of Spain’s most popular sports, second only to football in terms of support and exposure, but, aside from the team that won a silver medal behind the United States at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it has never had so many quality players at its disposal.
Although not the first Spaniard to join the National Basketball Association (NBA), Gasol blazed the trail for the new generation of players with his move from Barcelona to Memphis Grizzlies in 2001.
Jorge Garbajosa, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Rodriguez and Jose Manuel Calderon have all joined Gasol in the world’s top basketball league, while the remainder of the squad is bursting with talented players from the powerful Spanish league.
Named MVP in the world championship, Gasol missed the final after breaking a bone in his foot and had to watch the match against Greece from the sidelines. He then had the misfortune to miss a final shot that would have given them victory in the European final against Russia.
Hernandez says that the bearded power forward, who moved to the LA Lakers at the start of February, is not in debt to the national team.
“I never want him to feel he owes us anything, it’s the opposite. Spanish basketball owes Pau Gasol so much. He is a fantastic ambassador. He has always done his work to perfection and his support in the world championship final was crucial.”
While Hernandez believes the recent exodus to the NBA is a reflection of the strength of Spanish basketball, he also recognizes that it could bring problems in the future.
“At the moment there is a very strong commitment from our NBA players to the national side but I understand that might change and they may come to feel that a career in the NBA is incompatible with playing for Spain.
“It can be very difficult to cope with the intensity of the NBA and an 80-game season but my job is to ensure we can deal with that and that there is a new supply of players coming through.”
While the quality is undoubtedly there, Spain’s recent success owes much to team spirit.
“It doesn’t matter how good the players are, if they don’t play as a team then you can’t succeed,” said Hernandez. “The great thing about these players is that they really want to play for Spain, there is a great atmosphere in the squad and they are all friends.
“I always say that the first thing a good coach needs to do is not interfere if there is a good team spirit. What I do is to encourage this so that a group of highly professional players can work well and I set our team goals so that we are all pulling in the same direction.”
Perhaps the greatest source of pride for Hernandez is that the basketball side have united a notoriously divided country in a way that is unthinkable in football.
“I remember one man coming up to me in Barcelona and saying: ‘I don’t like basketball but, you know what, your team has brought all Spaniards together’. That is incredible, something very powerful in a country like this.”
Editing by Clare Fallon