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In praise of the brilliant, baffling Manu Ginobili

Jun 17, 2013, 1:58 PM EDT

Manu Ginobili AP

When I went to San Antonio to write this piece on Gregg Popovich (and, later, this piece on Tim Duncan) I was told, time and again, that the most popular San Antonio Spur in town, by far, is Manu Ginobili. At first, I found it a bit curious. I mean, Ginobili has been a terrific player, no question, but he’s certainly not Tim Duncan — who is the best, well, the best whatever-position-he-plays (big-power-center-forward-postman) in the history of professional basketball.

Manu is an amazing scorer and distributor and shooter, but he does not seem quite as much the force of nature that is Tony Parker, who is flashier and a bit less mercurial and speaks with a cool French accent and was married to Eva Longoria.

But, again and again, people said they loved Manu most of all … and watching him again these last few weeks I think I’ve figured out a reason why. I think there’s something about Manu Ginobili that is easy to recognize in ourselves. In the end,we might not connect with the consistent, almost numbing, every day brilliance of Tim Duncan, every move right out of a coach’s clinic, every game a perfect repeat of the one before. That kind of greatness may leave us wonderstruck but, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is hard to relate to.

MORE: Duncan, man of mystery … and fundamentals

And so it goes with Tony Parker’s blurring quickness — could we ever identify with a player who, at any point, can simply run around LeBron James? He’s so quick, so mind-blowingly quick, that sometimes he skips a video frame. He’s an optical illusion, and when watching him makes one of those moves you might involuntarily gasp, then pause for an instant to let the mind catch up, then explode in a croak that is half cheer, half disbelief. But, can you envision yourself — even with a few extra helpings of talent — making that move yourself?

Ginobili meanwhile — he’s utterly human. He makes preposterous blunders. He dishes no-look passes that blast the mind. He takes ludicrous shots. He makes some of them. He seemingly wins games singlehandedly. He seems to lose games all by himself too. At times, he seems like the gunner who shows up at the gym and takes every shot. At other times, he seems like the one guy on the floor who sees the game clearly, like he’s wearing Terminator goggles.

Obviously, you only have to look at the last two NBA Finals games to see the contrast. In Game 4 against Miami, Ginobili was a rare kind of abysmal. The numbers don’t quite quantify it — he shot 1-for-5, missed all three of his three-pointers, committed four fouls and one turnover. It’s not good, but it doesn’t tell the story. Maybe this does: Minus-22. That was how his team fared against Miami when he was on the floor. They were outscored by 22 points. There was something about Ginobili in Game 4 that seemed almost jinxed. He was like that guy Mayhem in the insurance commercials.

And Game 5? Well, you already know: Brilliant. Amazing. Spectacular. Ginobili started for the first time all season — seriously, Gregg Popovich should be given some sort of basketball knighthood and just wear robes when he’s on the sidelines — and he made eight of 14 shots, scored 24 points, dished 10 assists, added a steal and a couple of rebounds, and yes, this time he was plus-19. The Heat had no idea what to do when he was on the floor.

MORE: Pop — the bully, the buddy, the winner

The extremes are greater now that Ginobili is older and his body is beat up, but really this has always been true of him.  He has always been great and terrible, unstoppable and un-goable. Thirty two times in his career, he scored 30-plus points. One hundred thirty times he has played at least 20 minutes and scored single digits. He’s had nine games with double digit assists, and 10 games with double digit rebounds, and almost exactly as many when he had no rebounds (10) and no assists (13). He takes dives that are sometimes embarrassing, and he also makes no excuses and points at himself when things go bad. He ranges from the best player on the floor to a very good player to an OK player to invisible to car wreck.

And watching this, night after night, I can see how that gets inside you. Just when you think he’s shed the inconsistencies of the past, he has a game that makes you want to poke out your own eyeballs. Just when you wish the Spurs would just get rid of him, he saves a season with some bit of transcendent genius. In a weird way, it’s like the relationship with your kid. One minute, you want to ship them off to boarding school. The next minute, they bring you to a level of joy that never seemed possible.

I think now of a Spurs fan who tweeted me after Game 4. I had cracked wise about how great Dwyane Wade was in that game and how dreadful Ginobili had been. A brilliant reader named Ray Bailey tweeted back:

And so it was. See, that might be the best part of being a fan of a player — when you know them so well, so deeply, that you sense their patterns and feel their pain and know their rhythms. San Antonio certainly treasures Tim Duncan for being so reliably awe-inspiring and San Antonio certainly adores Tony Parker for being a wizard capable of powerful magic.

But you could see how it is something a little bit different with Ginobili. They have lived with him, died with him, screamed at him and blessed his name. He could cost them Game 6 or he could win them Game 6. They know him, maybe, at a deeper level. And at some point, with Manu, there’s really nothing left to do but love the guy.

  1. charlutes - Jun 17, 2013 at 2:06 PM

    Loved the article. I think people, myself included become big fans of Manu because of how much heart he plays with. 0 fear, 100% effort, all the time, no exceptions.

  2. lemfaxx - Jun 17, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    TD – the core, the rebounder, the defense minister, the paint master, the most consistent coyote – the MVP.

    • brookwell2013 - Jun 17, 2013 at 2:12 PM

      If that’s a motion lemfaxx I second it…..TD is the man…………

  3. cowboys8819 - Jun 17, 2013 at 2:45 PM

    Great article! Go Spurs!

  4. txprelude - Jun 17, 2013 at 2:48 PM

    You’re spot on. Having gone to UT and celebrated with Manu in person, he is just one of us -in demeanor. He’s fallible and humble but simultaneously extremely proud and gutsy. He’s at his best when he drives the ball hard and you can see the anguish on his face, the sheer effort and commitment. Duncan and Parker are brilliant and in doing so, almost make it seem too easy. The relatable nature of Manu (as well as just how fun it is to say ‘Ginobilli’) is why I own his jersey.

    Great article and insight.


  5. 4thquartermagic - Jun 17, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    All these positive characteristics of his game are true. However you must also mention that he is a world class flopper.

  6. jbeagles23 - Jun 17, 2013 at 3:02 PM

    I love the heat but watching what Manu does amazes me. I referred to a lot of shots the pacers hit against the heat as just chucking them up. And to a non basketball fan that’s what Manu does but to the nba heads its a skill set I think he’s mastered more than anyone else. He has that euro flair that makes you think how does he do that? And I also love that short interview with him during game 5 when he talked about faking that three just to get a rise out of pop. He plays with heart and passion but also has fun with it.

  7. josephbernardphd - Jun 17, 2013 at 3:35 PM

    Thanks Joe for the great post on Manu. I am a long time Portland Trailblazer fan and a Ginobili fan since first watching him play. I wouldn’t root against Manu if he was playing against Portland in the NBA finals.

    You captured his essence, the everyman on the reckless journey through life. Hero sometimes and other times totally blowing it. I suspect there are many of us who know his journey too well.

  8. klownboy - Jun 17, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    Manu is back, and that’s good to see. He’s a hard worker and team player who looks to be finally coming out of his inexplicable funk.

    So much for my “Heat in 6″ prediction…

  9. edwardemanuelson - Jun 17, 2013 at 4:25 PM

    Great article. Two quality traits come to mind when thinking of Manu : Everyman, and b@lls of steel.

  10. logisticalvoices - Jun 17, 2013 at 4:35 PM

    Manu = Phil Mickelson, but with more championships

  11. jdk123 - Jun 17, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    Starting Manu in game 5 was a BIG risk by Spurs coaching staff – one that payed off handsomely. Manu was struggling scoring with the Spurs second unit, and playing alongside Parker and Duncan allowed less defensive pressure on Manu. I credit him for hitting some shots, but credit Pop for a bold starting lineup change this deep in the Finals. Considering how badly Manu was playing up to this point, that showed a lot of loyalty and trust by Spurs in Manu.

  12. nard100 - Jun 17, 2013 at 5:12 PM

    The only thing that is baffling about Ginobli is how the refs call his style of play. He consistently rams his should into someone until they are shoved out of the way and then takes a jump shot. For most of this series they called a foul. Last night they just looked the other way. It will be interesting to see how it’s called from here on out.

    • scmems07 - Jun 17, 2013 at 5:43 PM

      rams his shoulder into someone until they are shoved out of the way and then takes a jump shot…….hmmmmm, why do i know that style of play…..oh yea, because thats how lebron james plays!!!!!!!!!

      • 2late2matter - Jun 18, 2013 at 12:28 AM

        D-Whine collects a lot of body on his tilt-in shots too to draw fouls.

  13. atahualpaoxford - Jun 17, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    Great article…paying homage to a great basketball player and, as I understand, a good guy and down to earth individual.
    A member of the “Golden Generation” of argentinian players, with the likes of Delfino, Oberto, Scola, Prigioni, Herrmann, Pepe Sanchez, Nocioni and Wolkowyski, among the ones that play or played in the NBA.
    Ginobili was, without a doubt, the leader and best player at a time when the national team was a force to be reckoned with in international basketball.
    I’m quite sure he will only play 1 or 2 more years, tops, in the NBA.
    Then, he will give it a try for the end of his career with his pals in the Argentina League.

    • 2late2matter - Jun 18, 2013 at 12:26 AM

      One thing I’ve noticed in the years of watching Ginobili play is that when you get him angry you have just started World War Z. He then plays three steps above normal with an uncanny accuracy and whirling dervish elevations at the Offensive rim. Possessed is a word I guess could be used. Heat saw this in Game 6.

  14. jbeagles23 - Jun 17, 2013 at 7:02 PM

    Lebron does play like that. However in this series when he has the spurs have moved out of the way. If he would f’in play like that every night they’d win easily

  15. ortizmari27 - Jun 17, 2013 at 10:04 PM

    Manu is so popular I almost named my first born after him,but I named my beloved boxer after him.

  16. savvybynature - Jun 18, 2013 at 1:05 AM

    This is what happens when you let a great player share the court with other great players (and friends).
    People don’t realize how much Manu has sacrificed for winning. Playing with the Gary Neals and Tiago Splitters of the world and ensuring they get their shots and are productive is his main responsibility. Being able to play off of a Tony Parker or feed the ball into a Tim Duncan means more of those great passes will be buckets and that Manu will get the ball in position to succeed.
    If he was a me-first guy, he could have easily averaged 20+ points and 5+ assists and probably made 5 All-Star teams, but he never complained about coming off the bench. As a result, he bought himself an extra couple seasons worth of wear and a chance for a 4th Championship.

  17. kanemoney - Jun 18, 2013 at 2:42 AM

    Ginobili basically became the model for the 6th man that is really a starter. His energy has been so key to the Spurs. With how fundamental the Spurs can be, Ginobili’s craziness and Parker’s driving are so key.

    People always say the Spurs are inside out… Well not quite.

  18. mqcarpenter - Jun 18, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    Great article. I think you are right. Manu is human. Here in SA everyone assumes it is his Hispanic heritage. That is part of it but Manu plays hard and with heart every time. He plays hurt. He plays old. He gives it his all. He has good days an bad days. People love that and it has made him a legend in SA.

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