Garbo, Calderon revel in hoops revival

STEVE BUFFERY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:14 PM ET

MADRID -- Jamie Deans, a Raptors media relations co-ordinator, put it best when the team stepped off the charter at Madrid Barajas International Airport on Monday.

"It was probably the first time in history the bomb-sniffing dogs were asking for autographs," he said.

To say the least, there is mucho excitement in the air with the arrival of four Spanish NBA players for pre-season games -- from the security detail at the airport to the fans who linger outside the team's hotel. It seems half the population of the Spanish capital is trying to catch a glimpse of Jorge Garbajosa and Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors, and Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro of the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Raptors face Real Madrid tomorrow night right after the Grizzlies face another local Spanish side, MMT Estudiantes.

There were at least 50 Spanish journalists at Raptors practice and the newspapers and TV stations have been filled with news of the returning NBA standouts.

Basketball in Spain is at a all-time high, despite the fact that the national team lost in the championship game at the recent European championship to Russia, 60-59, here in Madrid. Spanish national teams have been among the best in the world for a decade or so, and the current generation of players from the Iberian Peninsula, including Garbajosa, Gasol, Calderon and Navarro, are considered the best ever, with apologies to the team from Espana that won the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Some have taken to calling it the Golden Age of Spanish basketball.

"For sure," said Calderon yesterday. "We had the silver medal in Los Angeles, but after that, it was like, stop. There was nothing else. Now, we're coming back."

Coming back? Even though they lost to a surprising Russian team at this summer's European championship, Spain has developed a reputation as THE powerhouse of basketball outside of the Americas. One just has to glance at Calderon's resume to get an understanding of just what this country of 45 million has accomplished in recent years on the basketball court.

Calderon played for the Spanish side that won the gold medal at the 1998 European junior and 1999 world under 20 championships.

He was also part of the team that finished fifth at the the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis.

He was later named team captain at the 2004 Summer Olympics, and was a key member of the national side that won the 2006 worlds, along with Garbajosa.

That win is considered one of the biggest sporting triumphs in Spanish history. Garbajosa, who was born in 1977, said it was as if there was something magical in the air in Spain in the early 1980's when such basketball proteges as Gasol, Calderon, Navarro and Felipe Reyes were all born.

He and Calderon are four years apart, have played together on numerous national sides and have become "special" friends, as Calderon describes it.

Part of that, of course, has to do with the fact that they play together overseas, with the Raptors.

"For sure because we spend a lot of time together, even more than our wives," said Calderon. "We were good friends (before joining Toronto), now we're even closer."

The origin of their friendship goes back to when both were teenagers and, in fact, Calderon was only 13.

They had come from faraway towns to sign on as developmental players with the Spanish professional side Tau Ceramica, in Vittoria, Spain.

"We were in the same situation, without our parents in another city. I was 700 kilometres from my parents at 13 years old," said Calderon, who hails from Villanueva de la Serena.

"And he is from Madrid, another 400 kilometres away."

Garbajosa turned pro in 1995, four years ahead of Calderon, and the Raptors pair played together on the national team for the first time at the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis, when Calderon was 19.

Now, they have their sights set on winning the gold at next summer's Beijing Olympics. The early betting is on the Americans, but don't count the Spanish out.


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