For NBA Brothers Willy and Juancho Hernangomez, Winning with Spain is Sweetest of All
LOS ANGELES -- Sparky Gonzalez likes to have a little fun, especially when his team is on the road. Like some of his peers in the NBA, the Denver Nuggets’ longtime equipment manager has a knack for using nicknames rather than last names to designate stalls in the locker room. There’s “Joker” for All-Star Nikola Jokic, “Plumdog” for second-string center Mason Plumlee and “Biggametae” for backup point guard Monte Morris, to name a few.
For years, Sparky saved a spot for “Sweet Life.” The moniker began with Danilo Gallinari as a nod to his Italian roots—and the title of director Federico Fellini’s famous film La Dolce Vita. Upon Gallo’s departure from Denver in 2017, the nickname was passed down to another promising European.
“After Gallo left the team, I took his name,” Juancho Hernangomez tells CloseUp360, “because I will be the next ‘Sweet Life.’”
That is, until the 2019-20 NBA season, when the 24-year-old Spaniard showed up to find that Sparky had a new nickname adorning his locker: “Gold Medal.”
It’s a fitting one for Juancho, given how 2019 turned out for him what he hopes to achieve in 2020. He played a pivotal part in Spain’s surprising march to the top spot at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. He averaged 10.5 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 57.7 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from three to help La Roja, led by tournament MVP Ricky Rubio and three-time NBA All-Star Marc Gasol, capture its second such championship.
For Juancho, though, the victory was extra sweet. For the second time in his life, he got to share in a medal ceremony with his older brother, Charlotte Hornets big man Willy Hernangomez. And for the first time, the two did so as champions on behalf of both their home country and their hoops-heavy family.
The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were a monumental occasion for basketball in Spain. For one, the Games brought USA Basketball’s “Dream Team” to the Iberian Peninsula, where a cast of all-time greats—including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone, among others—throttled all comers. The host country was no exception, suffering a 122-81 defeat to America’s legendary pros in group play.
While Spain’s men’s team went 1-4, the country’s women finished their first-ever Olympic basketball appearance in fifth place on their side. Among the leaders of that Spanish squad was a 6’1” center named Margarita Ivonne “Wonny” Geuer. She had won three straight Liga Femenina de Baloncesto titles in Spain with her club team, Real Canoe. During that run, she had predicted that the 1992 Olympics would be her swan song as a basketball player.
Once that day actually passed, though, Wonny decided instead to keep hooping. After those Olympic Games, she went on to win the FIBA Club World Cup and another Liga Femenina title in 1993, both with the club Ros Casares Godella, before leading Spain to the gold medal at the 1993 FIBA European Championship in Perugia, Italy.
The following year, Wonny and her husband, Guillermo Hernangomez—who had played center for a number of clubs in Spain, among them Real Madrid and Estudiantes—welcomed their first child into the world. They named their son Guillermo, but called him Willy (pronounced “Billy”). Some 16 months later, their second son, Juan (or Juancho) arrived.
With parents who competed at a high level, the two boys couldn’t help but absorb the game while growing up. The importance of basketball in the Hernangomez household only mounted after 2000, when Wonny gave birth to Andrea, Willy and Juan’s younger sister. When the siblings weren’t battling on the court in real life, they would often go head-to-head in NBA-branded video games on their family’s PlayStation console, all the while stoking their dreams of someday playing in the world’s best basketball league.
“[Basketball] has always been a very important part [of my family life],” Willy tells CloseUp360. “Thanks to basketball, now I am who I am.”
At 17, Willy earned a spot on the reserve team at Real Madrid, the vaunted Spanish sports club for which his father had once played. Two years later, the team loaned out Willy to Cajasol Sevilla (now known as Real Betis Baloncesto S.A.D.), where he emerged as an intriguing, young talent—alongside a rising Czech point guard named Tomas Satoransky and a tall, lanky, Latvian teenager named Kristaps Porzingis—for the top club in his mother’s hometown.
Willy and Kristaps played well enough there that, in the spring of 2015, each put his name into the NBA draft pool. Both wound up as picks of the New York Knicks—Kristaps at No. 4, Willy at No. 35 by way of a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers.
While the Knicks brought Kristaps over from Spain right away, they opted to keep Willy stashed overseas. But rather than send him back to Sevilla, New York had Willy continue with Real Madrid for further development.
By the time Willy returned to his hometown team in July 2015, Juancho had long since embarked on his own professional path. In 2012, Juancho signed his first contract with Club Estudiants, S.A.D.—another of his father’s former teams and a local rival to Real Madrid.
The Hernangomez brothers went head-to-head twice during the 2015-16 Liga ACB season. Real Madrid won both meetings, with a precocious teenager named Luka Doncic in tow, though Juancho put up more points (27 to 10) and rebounds (20 to 7) in far more minutes (60:52 to 19:12) than his older brother.
All told, Juancho acquitted himself well enough that season to follow in Willy’s footsteps and enter the NBA draft in 2016. The Denver Nuggets saw enough in his size, athleticism and inside-out potential to make him the No. 15 pick.
Both brothers would make the jump from Spain to the U.S. later that year, with their roles once again reversed. On December 17, 2016, the Nuggets hosted the Knicks at the Pepsi Center in Denver. This time, Willy’s production outpaced Juancho’s—the former logged 17 points and nine rebounds in 28:13, while the latter finished with one point in 1:54—but Juancho’s team came out on top, 127-114.
As proud as Wonny was to see her sons in the NBA, her dream had always been for Willy and Juancho to represent their country at the senior level, as she had.
The brothers came close to bringing that dream to life in 2015. After winning gold and silver with Spain’s youth teams at FIBA events in 2011 and 2014, respectively, Willy was promoted to the senior squad in time for EuroBasket 2015. Juancho, meanwhile, participated in practices against the top Spanish team that summer, before La Roja rumbled through Berlin, Germany, and Lille, France, to win the country’s third European championship—all under legendary head coach Sergio Scariolo.
Willy went on to win bronze with Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The following year, Juancho joined his brother on the senior team in time for EuroBasket 2017, where the Hernangomez brothers captured more bronze in Turkey.
The brothers, then, had already done well to stock their mantles with medals by the time Spain ventured to China for the FIBA Basketball World Cup this past summer. With Pau Gasol unable to play due to injury, Willy and Juancho would be the Spanish team’s only family tandem—and would need to contribute that much more to keep their country competitive.
“Nobody count on us after what the veteran guys did,” Juancho says. “They won a championship. They underestimate [us]. It was extra motivation for us.”
La Roja dominated the first round of group play in Guangzhou, fueling a belief that maybe, just maybe, this would be Spain’s year.
“We always thought we could win it,” Willy says. “We played better and that helped us to the win and fight for the championship.”
The true turning point, though, came in Wuhan. Two days after sneaking by Italy, Spain faced Serbia, which had demolished its four previous opponents by more than 40 points per game and beaten La Roja in group play during EuroBasket 2015. But for all the frontcourt talent that Serbia boasted in Nikola Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Boban Marjanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, Spain battled its way to an 81-69 win.
“We beat them, it changed our mentality,” Juancho says, “like, ‘Hey, maybe we can do something great.’”
Willy and Juancho Hernangomez combined for 10 points and eight rebounds in Spain's win over Serbia at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. (Courtesy of FIBA)
Spain finished the second round of group play undefeated as well, before beating Poland, Australia and Argentina en route to claiming the country’s second gold medal in a FIBA world championship and first since 2006 in Japan.
The Hernangomez brothers were key contributors during this year’s run. Willy averaged 7.0 points and 3.9 rebounds in nearly 13 minutes per game, while Juancho added 10.5 points and 5.4 boards in just over 23 minutes per contest.
“Winning the world championship with my brother is something that I'll always remember,” Willy says.
All the while, the brothers had the support of their parents, who cheered them on from the stands in China and celebrated with them at the end.
“They cried with us,” Willy says. “We were lucky enough that they were in China with us throughout the tournament. It was an incredible feeling.”
Success on the international stage has a way of carrying over to the pros. Winning gold breeds confidence, and the physical and mental preparation required to reach the podium during the summer can jump-start the transition into the season come fall.
For Willy, the result of what he calls “the most important medal I've ever won with the national team” was an entirely different swagger when he returned to Charlotte for his fourth NBA campaign.
“He just says he’s the greatest,” Hornets head coach James Borrego says with a wry smile. “He just believes. You can’t talk to him. I have to speak Spanish to him. He doesn’t let me talk to him in English.”
In Denver, Juancho found a locker room ready and willing to celebrate his triumph—even Nikola, whose Serbian squad succumbed to Spain and finished in fifth place.
“He was so happy for me,” Juancho says of Nikola. “He called me. He was proud of me. We are really close friends, so that's what family do: when somebody accomplish something, the other ones are happy for them.”
Juancho is proud of what he’s accomplished on his country’s behalf and motivated to bring that confidence to bear on the Nuggets. He would, however, prefer a return to his old nickname.
“I miss my ‘Sweet Life’ life, so maybe it's coming back,” he says. “I don't know.”
The Nuggets' equipment manager changed Juancho's nickname from "Sweet Life" to "Gold Medal" following Spain's run this past summer. (Courtesy of FIBA)
That old moniker may be long gone, even more so if Juancho and Willy go for gold again next summer. Both brothers plan to play for Spain at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Someday soon, they hope to see their sister, Andrea—who’s now a sophomore at Fairfield University in Connecticut after training with Estudiantes’ junior women’s basketball club—join them among Hernangomezes who have brought glory to Spain on the international stage.
“For us, just to be with the Spanish team is a dream come true,” Willy says, “but we always want more.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.