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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.

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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.

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