Since the arrival of Marcelo Nicola in the late 1980s until the incorporation of Luca Vildoza last season, more than 20 players from Argentina have worn the famous Baskonia jersey. The connection between the Basque club and the South American country deepened over three decades to allow both the club and those players to earn a well-deserved place in the European basketball elite. A key actor in this process is Alfredo Salazar, scouting director of Baskonia, who served simultaneously as the club's ambassador and recruiter in that country, starting at a time when almost no one was aware of the untapped talent there. Since then, many of the best Argentinian players ever have played for Baskonia, such as Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Fabri Oberto, Hugo Sconochini and Andres "Chapu" Nocioni, to name just a few. Salazar knows all the secrets of this special link between Vitoria-Gasteiz and Argentina, and he remembers how getting Baskonia established there was not easy. "There was almost no information, no cell phones, nothing," Salazar says in this EuroLeague.net interview. "You had to go to a telephone booth to make calls. You needed to know the home number of the person you wanted to talk to. So, you can imagine what it was like."
When, how and why did you decide to go to Argentina?
"When Josean Querejeta became the president of the club, he sent me there. In those times, it was known that some dual nationality agreements existed, even though nothing had been done yet and there wasn't a deep knowledge on that subject here. We gathered some information through our lawyers, because we were looking for new options for a club that wanted to grow but had some constraints because of the regulations regarding Spanish players. The idea was to explore something new -- nothing more. When Josean explained the idea to me, the truth is that I wasn't aware of where I was going. In those days nobody used to go there, nor to South America in general, looking for players. I accepted, but probably without thinking (ha-ha)."
Who did you contact there and what did you find once you arrived?
"The contact we had was Leon Najnudel [co-founder of the Argentinian League]. When I arrived there, I realized that I was in a country that I knew nothing about. Not only me, but anyone here in Europe. We were told and we knew that there were some players out there, but nothing else. So the main objective was, above all, to check it out. I was supposed to go to Cañada de Gómez on my first trip, but I ended up [200 kilometers away] in Santa Fe, so you can imagine the knowledge we had. Since it wasn't a long ride from there, I called and I eventually showed up in Cañada de Gómez, which was a very small village that worked very well with young players, so that was the starting point. Curiously, Najnudel's assistant at that time was [former Real Madrid head coach] Julio Lamas, and it was there that I met him for the first time. He was in charge of scouting, taking the car and going here and there to look for players. So step by step, I managed to build some relationships, make contacts, etc..."
Your first recruit was Marcelo Nicola, in 1989. But you weren't looking for him in particular, were you?
"I didn't have anyone in particular as a target. I just wanted to see what was going on, how it was, because they told us there were big guys who could be interesting, because good big players in Spain were few then. I saw that there were some interesting players, but I only saw what I saw, because I was going from one place to another by bus, with more will than knowledge. It was like starting from scratch. And for sure, Marcelo impressed me when I watched him. We didn't have anyone like him here, so when I saw him I realized that we had to sign him, that he was the man we must try to bring in."
How difficult was to recruit and to sign the first Argentinians?
"Well, it was complicated, because when you wanted a player, you had to fight and to pay a price for him. Nobody gives you anything for free in this business, and everything needs to go through a negotiation. But at the same time, we noticed that many of the players wanted to get out of the country to play, as the situation there wasn't very good. They didn't know much about how was it here in Europe, either, because there was not much information or videos or anything. But, you know, when they saw someone who they thought could help them come to Europe, many of them turned very responsive. I think they started to see me as the one who was able to bring them here. It was something that I wouldn't say came from improvisation, but it was unusual. Because it wasn't very common for them to meet someone from a European basketball club. I don't remember anyone else going there, besides myself."
To which extent were the Argentinians, especially the ones who came in the 2000s, a key part in building the famous "Baskonia character"?
"I think it could never have been the same without them. With them there has been a system, a way of doing things, and ultimately a special character in our club. It would have been different. I do not know if it would have gone better or worse, but different. In those years, the club was just trying to grow, to earn a spot in the European basketball elite, and they became very important in that process. Later on, they proved that they were big players and that they had that character."
Thanks to the success that many of them achieved playing for Baskonia, did you feel a "pull" effect?
"For sure, and we noticed it very quickly. When the trips began to become more frequent, I realized that things were different. People started to come to me, TVs came, they asked me for interviews, etc. I even remember that a player joked to me that if I flew back to Europe, he would follow me swimming! Many players realized that they wanted to come to Europe and that we were the right door to open. So yes, I felt that effect."
Which were the most difficult cases, talking about players?
"A very difficult case was Luis Scola. He was very young, but at the same time very mature. He had a crystal clear idea of what he wanted, and that was to go to the NBA. I used to meet him almost every day in order to convince him that coming to Europe was a good idea in terms of exposure, that if he played great here, the NBA scouts and everyone would look at him, and that this itinerary could be the best one to take. But I was unable to convince him. I remember calling the president over and over to tell him that Scola was refusing to join us, and he told me not to come back until I got him. So I ended up staying there for a month! But anyway, I always say that the toughest case, for me personally, was Nocioni, as there was another player who played in the same position and who everyone said was better than Nocioni. I went to watch both, but I was unable to make up my mind to agree with all the other people reporting that the other guy was better. Maybe he was better at that time, but the real deal is to foresee what is going to happen in a few years. It took a lot out of me, because I was thinking: How can I go to the club to make a proposal against everything and everyone? But in the end, I decided that the best thing to do was to say what I thought, that I shouldn't step back. If I was wrong, I was wrong, and the only thing that could happen to me is to be fired (haha)."
Is there a prototype of Argentinian player, do they share any specific attributes?
"When I went to Argentina the first few times, basketball wasn't a big thing there; everything was about football. But you could see what football games were like, how fans lived them, the passion they put into it ... And in basketball, even if there were not so many people attending the games or following the teams, you could see also that the atmosphere was very, very hot. That heat was in the stands, in the fans, and also in the players. The country is a brave one , and that bravery is also in its people, and its basketball players. They never retreat when there is something to fight for."
Is that bravery the thing that made them connect so well with the fans in Vitoria?
"The fans in Vitoria are very demanding and, don't take me wrong, it is not like they do not give credit to technical skills, which they do. But they appreciate a lot the players who battle hard, no matter the situation. That character is not demonstrated only through actions like a rebound or a slam dunk, but in the competitiveness you show, your desire to win everything, every time. And many of the guys that came here from Argentina had that inside them."
Vildoza and Patricio Garino have been the last one to arrive. Is the process quite different now?
"Of course, it is very different now, because there is much more information and you have many more options to communicate and to collect that information. Some time ago it was almost impossible to get game footage from South America, for example, and now I was able to go to Argentina having watched many games of Vildoza and Quilmes, while I also knew a lot about Garino because he had played in college in the States. When I went to see Vildoza he already knew I was coming , and I had a more developed idea of what I could expect, thanks to all the stuff you have been able to watch and the information you have previously collected."