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Soccer dominates the sports scene in Spain, a county favored to win Olympic gold in London this summer. But few Spaniards know how good their men's Olympic basketball team is, and the answer is very good - perhaps even good enough to win gold in that sport as well. Lauren Frayer reports on the sleeper threat to U.S. dominance in Olympic basketball.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is a country that partied for days after winning the European soccer championships this month. But Spain is also a basketball powerhouse, ranked number two in the world behind the U.S.


FRAYER: And this school gym is where you'll find Spaniards who actually know that. Basketball is gaining on soccer's popularity among kids, especially girls.

LUCIA GUTIERREZ: Basketball is a sport beautiful for me.

Thirteen-year-old Lucia Gutierrez says her bedroom walls are plastered with posters of the Olympic team. Her teammate, 15-year-old Maria Lopez, chimes in.

MARIA LOPEZ: Basketball is a part of my life.

FRAYER: A generation ago, basketball became a fixture in Spanish schools and now that's paying off on the professional court.

BORJA CASTEJON: It's a lot of work, and a little bit of luck, you know?

FRAYER: Borja Castejon heads the Basketball Federation of Madrid and has trained several Olympians. He says that with a dozen Spaniards in the NBA, including the biggest star Pau Gasol, who plays for the L.A. Lakers, the days of Spanish basketballers living in anonymity are over.

CASTEJON: I think if Pau Gasol went to the metro, every people will try to do a picture with him.

FRAYER: Now, Spanish basketballers are trying to translate their newfound fame into Olympic gold. Mark Elkington is a local sports reporter who covers the team.

MARK ELKINGTON: You know, obviously, the United States are the number one team, and really, it's trying to avoid them if you can, to get to the final. But you're probably more than likely going to meet them in the final. And then it's the case of, you know, you've got to play your absolute best game. I mean, they ran them very close in Beijing, but lost in the end.

FRAYER: So, Spain took the silver four years ago and has been training for a rematch ever since. With a few injuries on the U.S. team, this just might be Spain's year. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

WERTHEIMER: And when Spanish Olympians march into the opening ceremony in London, it'll be Pau Gasol, the Spanish basketball star, who will be leading his country's delegation.



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