Express-News Staff Writer
Danny Ferry has seen Manu Ginobili plow into Shaquille O'Neal, scrape himself off the floor then plow into him again. He watched Danny Fortson, Seattle's human fire hydrant, put Ginobili on his back. Ginobili once had a drive cut short when three different Denver Nuggets clubbed him at the same time.
But the first time Ferry knew the Spurs' frenetic guard was fearless — when he realized no one needed to question the size of Ginobili's Spaldings — came more than three years ago when Ginobili stood his ground against his own coach.
The Spurs were in the midst of a fourth-quarter comeback against Dallas when Ginobili threw a wrap-around pass into the stands. In the locker room after the game, Gregg Popovich screamed at Ginobili, "What did you do that for?"
Ginobili looked at Popovich and shrugged. "It's what I do," he said. "It's who I am."
Ferry and Steve Kerr arched their eyebrows, waiting for their coach to explode. Instead, Popovich, mouth agape, just stared at Ginobili, unsure what to say.
Ginobili has since left much of the league slack-jawed, his performance in Thursday's opening game of the NBA Finals only further inflating the ranks of Manuphiles. Displaying the blend of courage and competitiveness that has won him the respect of his teammates, he scored 22 second-half points to give the Spurs an 84-69 victory over Detroit.
"He's the motor of that team," said Pistons guard Carlos Arroyo. "You can stop a guy from scoring, but you can't stop him from making his teammates better. He showed that last night. He just took over that game."
Ginobili once ran in from above the 3-point line to beat three Pistons to an offensive rebound. He dove into the scorer's table to save the ball off the leg of Arroyo. Once the fourth quarter arrived, he attacked the basket time and again.
The Spurs, emboldened by Ginobili's confidence, scored on eight consecutive possessions.
"They need his swagger," said Ferry, now the Spurs' director of basketball operations. "They need his toughness, his fire. Manu plays with so much of that, that he empowers the group."
Ginobili, Popovich said, is "probably the most competitive person I've ever been around." More than a few people share that opinion. "I could never say this publicly," said one rival Western Conference head coach, "but, given the choice, I would take Manu over Kobe (Bryant)."
Ginobili's fire burned long before he came to the NBA. "He was born like that," said Leandro, the oldest of Ginobili's two brothers. "He's competitive playing cards."
Growing up in the Argentine town of Bahia Blanca — a basketball oasis in the soccer-mad country — Ginobili played for the youth team of the club his father, Jorge, ran. He was reed thin, but also fearless. Reared on Michael Jordan tapes his father's coaching friends brought him from their visits to the United States, he attacked the basket relentlessly, if not also recklessly.
Such bravery led fans to call him cara de piedra, or "stone-faced."
"Ever since he was young, he was always very intense," Jorge said.
Leandro and Ginobili's other brother, Sebastian, also played professionally in Argentina. The first time Ginobili faced his brothers' team, Leandro, seven years his senior, "dominated" him.
"I laugh now," Leandro said. "I did (score) a lot of points. I guarded him well. But the next season, when I played against him again, it was impossible. I couldn't catch him even in a small bathroom.
"Every day, every hour he gets better. In Argentina we say he never 'reach his roof.'"
Regardless of whether Ginobili's talent has yet to peak, he has grown far more comfortable with his role with the Spurs. In the locker room, he speaks when he thinks something needs to be said. His leadership skills are even more evident on the court, where Popovich has increasingly given him the ball in end-of-game situations.
"I just feel way more responsible this year in what the team does," Ginobili said.
That has been evident in each round of the playoffs. Hoping to infuse his reserve unit with a jolt of energy, Popovich moved Ginobili to the bench following the team's opening loss to Denver. He averaged 22.8 points and 6.5 rebounds over the final four games of the series.
During the Spurs' critical Game 5 victory over Seattle, Ginobili scored 39 points on just 15 shots. Two nights later, he helped closed out the Sonics when he drove to the rim as if to shoot. As Seattle center Vitaly Potapenko ran out to cut him off, Ginobili threaded a pass to Tim Duncan, who banked in the winning layup with half a second remaining.
Ginobili also tormented Phoenix in the conference finals. His behind-the-back dribble between Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire — a drive that ended with him banking in a reverse layup with his right hand — at the end of Game 2 ranks as one of the best moves in this season's playoffs.
After Detroit ran off 10 unanswered points to pull within 74-67 with a little more than three minutes remaining Thursday, Ginobili drove for a dunk, buried a 3-pointer and banked in a difficult runner while falling into a row of photographers.
The victory secure, Ginobili took the ball and started to head up court. Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry lagged behind. For a moment, it looked as if they were going to let their teammate take on all five Pistons alone.
"Probably the worst thing we can do is just sit there and watch him play," Duncan said, "but you get mesmerized."
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