Manu Ginobili  
 


Manu Ginobili is that most disconcerting of NBA stars: A man without a plan. When the ball finds its way into his hands, all he knows is that, somehow, it’s going in the basket. He doesn’t care whether the points end up next to his name on the stat sheet, he just wants the final score tilted in his favor. A national hero in Argentina on the order of World Cup legend Maradona, Manu has won championships in Europe, the Olympics and the NBA—and awakened a sleeping basketball giant in his native land. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Emanuel David Ginobili was born on July 28, 1977 in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. His parents, Jorge and Raquel, already had two sons, Leandro and Sebastian. He was their little brother in every sense of the word. Younger than Leandro and Sebastian by seven and five years, respectively, Manu was very small and skinny as a kid. No one would have ever guessed that he was destined for basketball stardom.

The sport, however, was in Manu’s blood. Though virtually all of Argentina lives and breathes soccer, Bahia Blanca is the exception. A beach town four hours outside of Buenos Aires, it was—and still is—home to countless basketball clubs. Jorge, an excellent point guard in his day, was the manager for Bahiense del Norte. Leandro and Sebastian were two of the team’s top players. Manu often tagged along for games and practices, and his interest in basketball didn’t go unnoticed in the local hoops community. One coach, Oscar Sanchez, taught him to dribble one-handed without looking at the ball. Another coach, Fabiam Horvath, always made sure to have a spare ball for Manu. When he didn’t, the youngster never let him hear the end of it.

Manu watched the NBA whenever he had the chance. The only coverage available usually came during the league Finals. Games were rarely broadcast during primetime, so Manu stayed up to all hours to catch them. His idol was Michael Jordan. Manu marveled at Jordan’s talent, creativity and will to win, as he led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s. Manu had two of the star’s videos, Come Fly with Me and Michael Jordan’s Playground, and would have run them on a continuous dub if his parents had let him. A life-sized Air Jordan poster hung in his bedroom.


 
 

Jorge was happy to nourish his son’s love of basketball. So were his friends. One of Manu’s best buddies was point guard Pepe Sanchez, a fellow lefty who was equally passionate about the sport. (He would go on to play for John Chaney at Temple). Taller and stronger than Manu, Pepe was groomed for high-level international hoops competition from an early age. No one, on the other hand, considered Manu an elite prospect.

By the time the boys reached their teens, the separation between the two on the court had become a chasm. Pepe was the star of Argentina’s junior national team, while Manu wasn’t good enough to make the Bahia Blanca All-Star squad.

This situation would soon change. Both of Manu’s brothers were late bloomers, sprouting to taller than six feet in their teens. Manu experienced an even more dynamic growth spurt. In two years, he shot up 10 inches. At first, Manu was a bit awkward in his new body. Though he stood 6-3, he weighed only 160 pounds. One coach instructed him to never shoot beyond the 3-point line because it didn’t appear he had enough strength to reach the rim. But Manu had never been afraid to mix it up, and as he got stronger, he became more and more of a handful for opponents to handle, especially in transition. Like his idol, Manu loved to take the ball to the hoop, and he, too, had the ability to hang in the air an extra split second and dunk with great flair.

At the age of 18, Manu made his pro debut in Argentina with Andino during the 1995-96 season. The following year he joined Estudiantes Bahia Blanca of the Argentinian League. In 1997-98, his second campaign with the team, Manu led the league in scoring.

ON THE RISE

Manu’s rapid ascent attracted the attention of European scouts, and for the 1998-99 season, he signed with Basket Viola Reggio Calabria in Italy. Still growing, he was now approaching 6-6, and his game continued to improve. Manu averaged 16.9 points a game in his first year in Europe, but he did more than score. He had a wonderful feel for basketball, and worked as hard on the defensive end as he did when his team had the ball. Teammates loved having him on the floor because he always provided a spark. This was evident in his second year with Reggio when he was named the Italian League Player of the Year.

It was in Italy where Manu began honing what would become his NBA calling card: The Flop. Italian sports fans respond with great gusto to dramatic displays, and their outbursts have been known to sway the odd referee. When Manu was bumped or shoved, he would hit the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, drawing whistles where another player might not.


Michael Jordan, Wheaties box

 

 
 

Manu’s first two years in Italy opened eyes around the basketball world. Among those who had been keeping tabs on him was R.C. Buford, the GM for the San Antonio Spurs. He had first spotted Manu at the 1997 22-and-under World Championships. Buford was impressed by his athleticism, unselfishness and determination. Come the 1999 draft, he felt Manu might be worth a second-round pick. Fresh off its first NBA title, San Antonio grabbed him with the 57th overall selection.

The Spurs were hoping that in a few years Manu would mature enough to become a solid role player. Head coach Gregg Popovich saw him for the first time at the Tournament of the Americas in July of ’99, and what struck him more than anything was the lefty’s competitiveness. He knew a guy like that on the bench would be key to competing regularly for the NBA title. Manu was honored by his selection, but he was setting his sights a bit higher. The Spurs did not yet realize it, but their Argentine project had an unwavering belief in himself, coupled with an uncanny ability to elevate his game. In the meantime, he would continue to play across the Atlantic.

A hot commodity heading into the 2000-01 campaign, Manu signed with Virtus Kinder Bologna, one of Italy’s top teams. His first year with the club was one for the ages. Manu earned honors as the regular season MVP, and then starred in the playoffs as Kinder captured the Euroleague championship. He was also voted MVP of the Finals.

Manu followed up with another MVP award in the 2001-02 campaign. By then the Spurs had seen everything they wanted to see, and Manu had proven everything he needed to prove. In July he inked a one-year, $2.9 million deal with the club.

Before Manu joined San Antonio for training camp, he led Argentina into the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis. The U.S., riding a 58-game winning streak since 1992, was the favorite heading into the tournament, with the Argentines among the countries expected to battle for second place. But Argentina sent a loud message in the first round, winning all three of their games and averaging more than 100 points in the process. Manu was particularly effective in a victory over Russia. In 23 minutes, he pumped in 21 points and ran circles around center Alexei Savrasenko, who was thought to be a solid NBA prospect.

Argentina pushed its record to 4-0 with a win over Yao Ming and China, and then beat Germany, 86-77. The victory, however, was a costly one, as Manu sprained his right ankle shooting a 3-pointer over Dirk Nowitzki. With the U.S. up next for the Argentines, he sucked it up and helped engineer one of the biggest upsets in international hoops history. After racing to a 16-point halftime lead, Argentina held on for an 87-80 victory.


Manu Ginobili,
2004 Upper Deck Legends
 
 

In the title game against Yugoslavia, Manu was clearly less than 100%, and played only 12 minutes. Argentina, however, still managed to send the contest into overtime. But with Peja Stojakovich going for 26, the Yugoslavs won by seven. Despite his limited action in the final, Manu was hailed as a hero back home.

MAKING HIS MARK

When training camp opened for the Spurs, Manu’s ankle had not yet healed. In fact, he watched from the sidelines for the first two weeks of practice. The team he saw had a great shot at the NBA championship. Reigning MVP Tim Duncan and future Hall of Famer David Robinson formed a dynamic duo up front, while young Tony Parker displayed poise beyond his years at the point. Off the bench, Steve Kerr provided experience and long-range shooting. Manu figured to get his minutes as a reserve, backing up veteran guard Steve Smith.

His gimpy ankle hampered him early in the 2002-03 season, as he spent nearly the entire month of December on the injured list. Not only did he struggle to find his rhythm and adjust to the NBA’s physical style, but his limited mobility made learning the San Antonio offense more difficult. The Spurs, however, didn’t need much of a contribution from him. Duncan was enjoying another MVP-caliber campaign, Parker continued to mature into one of the league’s better floor leaders, and Robinson, in the last season of his 14-year career, was providing strong rebounding and defense.

Playing in their new home, the SBC Center, the Spurs went 60-22, and entered the playoffs eager to unseat Kobe, Shaq and the Los Angeles Lakers for supremacy in the West. By then, Manu’s game had rounded into shape. As his ankle got better, he showed steady improvement. Manu’s best stretch came in March, when he was named his conference’s Rookie of the Month. In 17 games (of which San Antonio won 14), he averaged 10.6 points, 3.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.24 steals.

As the post-season began, Manu was a regular part of Popovich’s rotation, along with Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen. After dropping their first-round opener to the Suns in overtime, the Spurs dominated Phoenix, winning four of the next five games. Against the Lakers, they were unstoppable on their home court, winning three games in San Antonio, and then finishing off LA in LA, with a 110-82 wipeout in Game 6. Manu was third on the club in this series with an 11.7 ppg average on 51% shooting.

Manu’s playoff performance seemed to catch his opponents by surprise. Conventional wisdom said that to beat the Spurs you had to force Parker into turnovers and neutralize the tandem of Duncan and Robinson. But Manu gave San Antonio a scoring threat that teams didn’t necessarily account for, especially on the break. He also proved the ultimate opportunist on defense, leading the Spurs with 41 post-season steals.


Tim Duncan, 2001 Heritage
 
 

In the conference finals against the Mavericks, the Spurs split the first two in San Antonio, and then took Game 3 in Dallas. Needing a victory in the worst way, the Mavs steeled themselves against Duncan, Robinson and Parker, only to watch in horror as Manu drilled them for 21 points, including thee 3-pointers, in a 102-95 San Antonio win. The Spurs closed out the series in six games to advance to the NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets.

The series, which went six games, was marked by stingy defense and sloppy play. San Antonio struck first in Game 1 at home, but New Jersey rebounded two nights later with a two-point victory. The Spurs won ugly in Game 3 in the Meadowlands, and the Nets won even uglier in Game 4. Game 5 was the key contest, and San Antonio won it 93-83 on clutch shooting from Kerr.

The Spurs came home to take Game 6 and the championship by a score of 88-77. There were some nervous moments in the second half, when the Nets built a 63-57 lead, but San Antonio reeled off 19 straight points to pull away. Manu provided one of the run’s highlights when he picked Richard Jefferson’s pocket and stormed the other way for a jam that brought the home crowd to its feet.

Manu quickly discovered that his life would never be the same. The reaction in Argentina to his rookie campaign was overwhelming. Clarin, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, chose him as the country’s outstanding athlete, and his Spurs jersey sold out almost overnight. He met Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, and had a gym dedicated in his honor in Bahia Blanca. When appearing at public events, Manu often required a police escort. The fanfare wasn’t all good news. Indeed, the Ginobilis became a potential target of Argentina’s kidnapping epidemic, and round-the-lock security became a must.

Amid the insanity, Manu found time to work on his game. He led Argentina to a second-place finish in the Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico, and then focused on the 2003-04 season with San Antonio. Manu assumed he would be a starter, though Popovich promised nothing. After letting Stephen Jackson walk to Atlanta, the Spurs replaced him with Ron Mercer and Hedo Turkoglu, both of whom slotted into the same position as Manu. For the first half of the campaign, Popovich used Manu in his starting five, expecting his explosive game to complement those of Parker and Duncan. The second-year guard took well to his new role, including a 33-point, 12-rebound effort against the Lakers in November. A month later he scored 14 straight points in Chicago to spark a comeback win over the Bulls.

Popovich, however, didn’t like the way the Spurs were playing. To shake things up, he moved Manu back to the bench, and inserted Turkoglu into the starting lineup. The change had the desired effect, as San Antonio finished the year at 57-25. Manu, to his credit, didn’t pout. In fact, he shot better as a reserve, improving his percentage from field, beyond the arc and at the line. One of the keys to his performance was the realization that he could do his thing at full speed without having to worry about pacing himself. Though his minutes dropped, his production remained virtually the same. He ended the year at 12.8 ppg, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.77 steals.

San Antonio headed into the playoffs ready to defend its title. But after sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and taking the first two games against the Lakers, the Spurs lost four straight. Manu topped the team in scoring in Games 3 and 4, but that was not necessarily a good thing. The Spurs looked like they had a righted their ship in Game 5, a brutal defensive battle, when Kobe sank a miracle jumper for a 74-73 victory. Demoralized, they lost Game 6 in LA, 88-76.

A free agent, Manu was romanced over the summer by the Denver Nuggets, who thought he would be a nice fit with Carmelo Anthony. But the Spurs weren’t about to let him go. In July, San Antonio inked Manu to a six-year deal worth $52 million. The contract was headline news in Argentina.

Nothing, however, matched the excitement generated by the country’s run for the gold in Athens. With the U.S. bumbling along, the Olympic hoops tournament was anyone’s for the taking. With Manu as the catalyst, Argentina raced to the semis against the Dream Team. In another eye-popping victory, he was spectacular, pumping in 29 points on 9-of-13 shooting. In the gold medal game, Manu scored 16 and added six assists as the Argentines rolled over Italy. When Argentina also won gold in soccer hours later, the country erupted in wild celebration. Manu rested for a month after the Olympics, and then rejoined the Spurs for the 2004-05 campaign.


Manu Ginobili, 2003 Topps
 
 

With Shaq headed east to Miami, San Antonio became the West's prohibitive favorite. The Spurs added Brent Barry, making them more athletic and more dangerous in transition, while a mid-season trade for Nazr Mohammed eased the pressure on Duncan in the paint. Parker, meanwhile, continued maturing into a clutch scorer and floor general. And for the third year in a row, Manu increased his numbers, most notably his scoring, which jumped to 16 points a game. The team finished 57-25 again and was primed for a run at the title.

That run would not be without obstacles. San Antonio began the playoffs by losing to Nuggets at home. After a win by the Spurs to knot the series, Manu gave his team a big lift with a 32-point effort in Game 3 victory in Denver. He followed with 24 points in Game 4, another win by San Antonio. Even more important were the intangibles Manu brought to the table. He was driving the Nuggets crazy with his signature flopping and groaning on defense, so much so that George Karl and his troops seemed more interested in bashing Manu than beating the Spurs. San Antonio closed out the series with a 99-89 win on its home floor.

Up next were Ray Allen and the Sonics. The Spurs took care of business at the SBC Center with a pair of blowouts. Manu was on fire in the second win, scoring 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting, including two bombs from beyond the arc. The Sonics, however, evened things up when the series moved to Seattle—not without paying a steep price, though. Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic both went down with injuries, leaving the Sonics undermanned. Manu exploited their weakness in Game 5, exploding for 39 points in 36 minutes. Two nights later, the Spurs won in Seattle to set up a meeting with Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals.

The Suns hoped to run San Antonio out of the gym behind MVP point guard Steve Nash, but Manu and his mates showed they could thrive in an up-tempo style. The Spurs raced to a pair of victories in Phoenix, and then cruised at home in Game 3 to seize a commanding series lead. Manu and Duncan were the catalysts, providing a one-two punch that the Suns simply couldn't match. Though Phoenix broke through for a victory in Game 4, San Antonio finished the job with a convincing 101-95 win in Game 5.

The Spurs faced the Pistons in the Finals, a matchup that was hard to figure on paper. In Manu and Duncan, San Antonio featured the two best players on the floor. But Detroit played excellent team basketball on both ends of the floor, and Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and the Wallace boys—Ben and Rasheed—offered plenty of playoff experience. San Antonio captured the first two games at home, thanks in no small part to Manu. In Game 2, he tallied 27 points on just eight shots from the field, and added seven assists.

Just as quickly, however, the Spurs lost all their momentum. They couldn't throw the ball in the ocean in Games 3 and 4, as the Pistons humiliated them in two lopsided victories. Game 5 was gut-check time, and both clubs responded with a high-energy performance. In a playoff classic, San Antonio prevailed in overtime, 96-95.

Heading home needing just one win to capture their third NBA title in seven years, the Spurs promptly lost Game 6. With the pressure back on, San Antonio looked a little tight to open Game 7, and midway through the third quarter, the contest was up for grabs. But with Manu energizing the crowd, both with his play and his fiery, hand-waving emotion, the Spurs slowly gained control. In a defensive struggle, they won 81-74, and celebrated their most hard-fought championship. Duncan was named series MVP, but Manu just as easily could have claimed the award.

 
  Manu’s emergence gives San Antonio that all-important third “star”—a time-tested recipe for NBA success. Yet in their take-no-prisoners swingman, the Spurs have found something more. He brings valuable dimension to the Parker-Duncan two-man game, capable as he is of involving neither or both when he bolts for the basket. On any given play, Manu may be Plan A, Plan B, Plan C…or Plan 9 from Outer Space.

 
  San Antonio long ago abandoned on the idea of reigning Manu in. He has accomplished everything in basketball he has ever set his mind to, so what’s the point of yelling "No!" from the sideline? His fellow Spurs love the juice he brings to the floor, and the creativity with which he attacks their enemies. To them, Manu is a problem-solver. To the rest of the league, that makes him the last thing the Spurs need: Another problem-creator.

 
  MANU THE PLAYER

 
 

Manu is an intangibles player who’s at his best with money on the line. There is a noticeable lift in his team’s energy level whenever he steps on the floor, and his breakneck style always excites the crowd.

On offense, Manu can score in a variety of ways. He doesn’t hesitate to fire away from 3-point land, and when he’s hot, he’s deadly from this range. His ability to shoot from deep also opens driving lanes for him. Manu goes to the hole as hard as anyone in the league, and he is an excellent finisher. Strong and agile, he draws lots of contact and often finds himself at the free-throw line. Much to the chagrin of NBA opponents, he has perfected his flop with the addition of long hair, which emphasizes his acting talents.

Manu’s court vision is sometimes overlooked. He’s a great passer who likes to dish as much as he likes to swish. This skill keeps opponents off-balance, particularly in crunch-time situations. Manu doesn’t have to take the game-winning shot. He’s just as happy to pass to an open teammate for an easy bucket.

On defense, Manu is a classic opportunist. He has active hands and tremendous instincts, both of which produce lots of steals. He does good work on the boards, too.

Winning is the bottom line for Manu—and he’s done it everywhere he has played. He already can claim an impressive Triple Crown: a Euroleague title, Olympic gold medal and NBA championship.


Manu Ginobili, 2004 SI for Kids
 
 

Manu Ginobili

 
   
 

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