Luis Alberto Scola is to Argentina's national basketball team what Gabriel Batistuta once was for its football equivalent. Ruthless, handsome and with an uncanny knack of finding the net, the imposing Scola is one of the pillars of his country's golden generation and holds three enviable records
He is the top points scorer in the history of his national team, has netted more often than any of his countrymen in World Cups while he is also the record-holder for most points earned in a single match.
As impressive as those honours are, the Phoenix Suns star, who has also plied his trade in Spain and with the Houston Rockets, could have established an entirely different set of statistics had he continued along his initial sporting path as a goalkeeper. Now a bona fide NBA star, Scola took time out to recall his days between the sticks, as well as reflecting on the upcoming FIFA Ballon d'Or 2012 award and his soft spot for Lionel Messi.
FIFA.com: Do you still follow football regularly?
Luis Scola: I used to watch it a lot more than I do now. It's not shown as much in the USA and it's hard to follow the Champions League due to the time difference, the scheduling isn’t very sociable. It's on way too early - it’s actually pretty cruel [laughs]. But I follow it when I can. I like to watch Barcelona, they’re very entertaining, especially when they play against Real Madrid. I used to watch it more, but there are some things that have happened in football that ended up making me distance myself from it a little bit.
I've always been a River Plate fan and I remember being in Houston watching their relegation play-off, which they ended up losing. I was watching it by myself as there was no-one else there who was interested, and I got really angry because some spectators invaded the pitch and tried to confront the players. I just couldn't accept that. I tried to imagine myself in the same situation and I thought 'there's no way I'd be able to control myself after something like that, let alone continue playing well'. After that I stopped following it so closely, that was the breaking point. But obviously I do still watch football. I'm up to date with the Champions League and Argentina's games.
In that case, you'll know that the FIFA Ballon d'Or will soon be awarded to the best player in 2012. Do you have a favourite to win the title?
I love Messi. I don't know if it's just because of the way he plays or if the fact that he's Argentinian also helps, but I admire him a lot. Even with my untrained eye, I love watching him: he plays so much, never gets injured and to top it all off he's a really down-to-earth guy. All of those things would make me vote for him.
You met him in person at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 didn't you?
Yes, the football squad went to the Olympic Village a couple of times and Messi was there. We chatted to them a lot, got some teams together and played PlayStation. We had a great time and there were also some mixed tennis matches between us. I'm not sure he'll remember it, but I do.
Did you ever play football?
Of course, in Argentina it's almost obligatory to play, or at least to try to play. I used to be in goal when I was younger and I loved playing there as I was bigger than everyone else. I must have been six or seven years old. But one day the coach arrived with a different goalkeeper and told me I'd be playing in defence from then on. I'll never forget what happened next. I played there and didn't like it, so I went home and told my mum I never wanted to go back.
Do you ever wonder what might have happened if you had continued playing football instead of turning to basketball?
No, I've never thought about it. To be honest, I was never good enough to have become a decent footballer, at any level [laughs]. I think my head and my heart always belonged to basketball.
Incidentally, Sergio Romero, Argentina's No1 goalkeeper, had an offer to play basketball before he made his professional debut…
Really? I didn't know that. There are various footballers who used to play basketball, so it doesn't surprise me. He's tall for a football player [at 1.90m], but even that's below the average for a basketball player. I'm 2.06m tall, so you can see the difference.
You just mentioned your brief spell as a goalkeeper in your childhood. Which footballers did you look up to back then?
[Antonio] Alzamendi of River Plate and Uruguay. I liked him because of his winning goal in the Intercontinental Cup for River in 1986 [against Steaua Bucharest]. I was very young but I remember asking my grandfather about him, as he was watching the game with us at home. Later, when I was older and more aware, I admired [Diego] Maradona, [Claudio] Caniggia, [Gabriel] Batistuta and [Fernando] Redondo. Generally I liked the players in the national team.
Which footballing moment has brought you most happiness in your life?
The '86 World Cup, without doubt. I don't remember much of the tournament itself as I was very young, but I clearly remember the Final against Germany. I watched it at home with my family and afterwards we went out celebrating. That was the footballing moment I've enjoyed most.