July 17, 2005, 1:24AM
Argentina dances with Ginobili
Spurs star has his home country loving this game
By FRAN BLINEBURY
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
ARGENTINE GAME SERIES
• Today: Spurs guard Manu Ginobili has created Beatles-like hysteria in his native country.
• Monday: How Argentina has grown into the best international program in the world.
• Tuesday: Despite great strides, the basketball in South America still isn't as advanced as in Europe.
The tango is macho. The tango is strong. It smells like wine and tastes like death.
— From an old
BAHIA BLANCA, ARGENTINA - This is where Manu Ginobili learned to dance. Not to the sad, soulful melody that has long captivated poets and musicians in his native land. But in free-form, improvisational steps that come from an instinctive, primal rhythm inside his head and are just as seductive.
This is the cold, drafty, red-brick building where he initially felt the beat that moved him this way and that way, first as a skinny young kid, then as a gangly, growing teenager. This is the place where he followed the instruction of his father, Jorge, and the lead of his two older brothers, Sebastian and Leandro, in embracing a common game and extracting a unique style to improbable heights.
Who ever saw him back then and imagined Ginobili would one day launch himself off the hardwood to soar through a picket fence of defenders and dunk with both his left and right hands? Who ever thought a child of this humble place could rise to fame under the bright lights and in front of the roaring sellout crowds of the NBA and its expanding global audience?
Just days after Ginobili won his second championship trophy with the San Antonio Spurs, this was his last tango in a whirlwind tour of celebrity that revealed how much his life has changed. After nearly a week of talk-show appearances, a presidential visit, testimonial dinners and a reunion with Olympic teammates in Buenos Aires, he finally could make the trip — a one-hour flight southwest of the capital city — to reconnect with his roots.
"No matter where I go, these are always my people," Ginobili said. "I am a son of the city."
When NBA officials asked Ginobili to take a leading role in the Basketball Without Borders outreach program to South America, he insisted on a side trip to his hometown.
As his plane touched down, he was greeted by a banner in the color of the Argentine flag hung from the airport building and reading: Felicitaciones Manu! Bienvenidos a Casa!
Congratulations Manu! Welcome home!
The six-mile bus ride into the blue-collar town of 300,000 — about the size of Arlington — became a parade as housewives, schoolchildren, construction workers, bartenders and businessmen lined the streets to wave, and cars honked their horns at every intersection.
Home sweet home
Now, at last, Ginobili was standing at one of the courts inside the Club Bahiense Del Norte, where he learned to play the game, giving basketball instruction, encouragement and a truckload of smiles to a group of roughly 300 orphans who hung on his every movement.
"Olé, olé, olé, olé! ... Ma-nu! Ma-nu! Olé, olé, olé, olé! ... Ma-nu! Ma-nu!"
It is a singsong refrain that has followed him everywhere, from hospital wards to elementary schools to anyplace where the public catches a peek of him poking his head outside. Now he is standing in a gym that has been renamed for him — Estadio Manu Ginobili — and on the brand-new wood floor he paid to install.
"I see the kids, and I see me 15 years ago," Ginobili said. "I fell a lot of times here. I cried over my losses. I was happy for my wins.
"My father (a former club president) didn't make me come here. But he loves the game so much, and, of course, you want to be like your dad. I would spend five hours each day in school and then five or six hours here at the club. A lot of things happened here. Successes and failures. But through it all, I believed."
Could he possibly have believed or envisioned this high road that has delivered Ginobili back home as one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet? He'll be 28 this month, and, in just the past four years, he has been on a rocket ride worthy of NASA.
"Manu has brought Argentina to the world and the world to Argentina's doorstep," said Guillermo Vecchio, a former national team coach who led Argentina in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "Who has done more in basketball?"
Indeed, when the Spurs made Ginobili the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft, he was little more than a sinewy bundle of potential.
But in 2001, while playing for Kinder Bologna in the Italian League, he was named MVP in the European Cup tournament. In 2002, he led Argentina to the silver medal in the World Championships at Indianapolis, losing in the finals to Yugoslavia on a disputed call and along the way becoming the first international squad to defeat a U.S. team made up of NBA players. In 2003, Ginobili won his first NBA title with the Spurs. In 2004, he led Argentina to the Olympic gold medal, again beating the United States en route. Now, in 2005, he played a key role in another Spurs championship, narrowly losing the MVP vote in the NBA Finals to Tim Duncan.
Ginobili's success has been uplifting to a nation that suffered for years under a military dictatorship and is struggling to get back on its feet after the recent economic collapse.
"The country and the people of the country need some nice things to go on in their daily lives," Vecchio said. "Because the economy is down. The safety in the streets is down. A lot of daily things are really, really bad in my country. But now we have Ginobili. It is unbelievable. Everything is 'Manu! Manu! Manu!' I never thought I could come back to my country and everybody is asking me about Ginobili. It's great."
Argentines see themselves in the way he plays: fiercely, passionately and with the all-out heat of the tango.
National sports shift
More than providing national pride, Ginobili is transforming the sports fabric of his country. Soccer is still the primary passion of Argentines, but basketball has slam dunked its way into the headlines. In a nation of 36 million, a recent newspaper poll found that 93 percent of the population recognized Ginobili's name. More than 2 million per night stayed up to watch each game of the NBA Finals, even though games ended after 2 a.m.
According to Horacio Muratore, head of the Argentine basketball federation, 50 percent of all sports coverage in the Buenos Aires newspapers was on Ginobili during the Finals.
The Argentine media remain up in arms over the MVP voting in the Finals, infuriated that Duncan could have received the award over Ginobili.
At one news conference, a reporter asked, "Why does Tony Parker not pass you the ball? To Argentina, he is the Antichrist."
Barely 10 years ago, basketball was a niche sport in Argentina, with a rabid following only in the area around Bahia Blanca, which produced most of the country's talent. Now the clubs are gaining membership all over the country, and younger kids regularly are putting aside their soccer balls to pick up basketballs.
A visit to Hospital Nacional Professor Alejandro Posadas, a facility for the indigent in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, nearly touched off a riot as patients and hospital staff and even police officers swarmed Ginobili, literally pulling and grabbing at him.
"I've been on a detail with Pope John Paul II and never seen anything like this," said one member of the NBA entourage.
Yet even with the crowd surging and the security detail worried about his safety, Ginobili would not leave until he visited the HIV clinic in a separate wing of the hospital. The next day he sat on a bright yellow beanbag chair inside a reading room and computer learning center that the NBA built at Benjamin Zorrilla Escuela No. 4 school with a throng of children sitting at his feet and on his lap.
"Es tu mama una llama?" (Is your mama a llama?) he read from a storybook as the kids giggled.
"From '01 to now, Ginobili has been the main actor," Muratore said. "He has become one of the greatest athletes in Argentine sports. To this moment, there are only five — (Diego) Maradona in soccer, Guillermo Vilas in tennis, Juan Manuel Fangio in Formula One racing, Robert DiVicenzo in golf. Now one more — Ginobili."
Maradona, the hero of Argentina's 1986 World Cup victory, has long been the icon against whom all others are measured.
"Of course," Ginobili said, "I remember going nuts at home with my brothers, jumping all over the place. I was already into basketball. But I loved him and admired him the same way I did with (Michael) Jordan. The difference is that he was representing me with the Argentinian jersey. That changes everything."
Times have changed as well. When Ginobili did a telephone interview on a national TV talk show with Susana Gimenez, described as the "Oprah of Argentina," Maradona was a studio guest who jumped at the chance to talk to Manu.
"When someone of his stature tells you something, it gets you off-guard," Ginobili said. "It's very nice. I did the phone interview with (Maradona) after Game 7. That was quite a compliment. The guy is telling me that he was watching all of the games, that he was talking about me with his daughter, asking me for a jersey and saying he wanted to meet me. Even if you know the guy likes basketball and he likes to watch you, when he tells you, a guy that you admire so much, and you were emotional watching him play, well, it hits you."
Fame comes with a cost
The downside of the change is the personal security of Ginobili's family. Soon after Ginobili signed a new contract with the Spurs last summer for more than $50 million, police intercepted and broke up a plot to kidnap one of his brothers.
"There are some security concerns because of what happened last year," Ginobili said. "Now it is a little more relaxed. The police know where we live and go by often. It's not like we have two bodyguards to go to the supermarket.
"The thing that helps me is my normal life is relaxed. I stay at home with my wife, my parents. It's not like I always go out.
"When I do want to do it, no doubt it's different. For example, I have a wedding of a friend of mine coming up, and they are worried about what might happen. That's one of the things that are awkward.
"But I wouldn't change a moment of my life for anything."
Ginobili changed the profile of his nation on the world's athletic stage, but at home he has altered the lives of his Olympic teammates who live in his reflected glory.
"Before the Olympics, before the World Cup, before Manu and two rings, nobody knew us," said Carlos Delfino, a reserve with the Detroit Pistons. "If we'd go out, people would say, 'Who's the tall guy? Where are you from? Do you play volleyball? Do you swim?' Now everybody knows all of us, and this is a big change.
"Right now, we can't go out with Manu. If Manu goes out, right away there are 100 people around him and more. We tell him, 'Let them follow you.' We send him one way and then go the other way to a restaurant. We laugh."
Dikembe Mutombo has seen it before.
"This is a lot like my trip in October with Yao Ming to China," said the Rockets' free-agent center. "Ginobili has reached that kind of plateau in his own country and all of South America. People here in Argentina see him as something very high, something very symbolic. He is a god."
Ginobili also is the new leading image for the NBA brand in its campaign to knock down national borders and market the game to a worldwide audience. The NBA Finals are televised live in more than 200 countries. The Basketball Without Borders program funds legacy projects in schools, donates basic necessities, promotes the importance of education and uses the camp to raise awareness of social issues, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS. It is now in its fifth year and has expanded to four continents — South America (Argentina), Asia (China), Europe (Italy) and Africa (South Africa).
With 11 more international players taken in the first round of the 2005 draft, that extended reach makes Ginobili — along with Yao — the 21st-century faces of the NBA.
"Even with Yao, there is a little bit of disconnect because he is 7-6 and, traditionally, centers are hard to sell," said Tom George, senior marketing officer of Octagon Sports Marketing of McLean, Va. "Because Manu looks smaller, we can all embrace him.
"Manu has style, looks, the Olympic gold medal, now two rings. He speaks great English. He even has a sexy accent. There's no question that he plays in middle America."
A marketing win-win
When Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, marketing campaigns to make him a national figure never took off.
"There is a greater acceptance now of foreign athletes on the American sports scene," said Don Hinchey, vice president of communications for the Denver-based Bonham Group sports and marketing firm. "The game has gone global. And Manu has an endearing quality. His personality is out there — it's transcendent. I definitely think he has that quality that translates into American acceptance and adulation."
With his hellbent-for-leather style of play, passion for winning, expressiveness on the court yet humble personality, Ginobili speaks for Argentina. During a photo op at the government house in Buenos Aires known as Casa Rosada, president Nestor Kirchner linked arms with Ginobili, Delfino and Andres Nocioni. "If I stand here long enough, maybe I can be a part of them," Kirchner said.
They all want a piece of Ginobili. They hung out of fourth-floor hospital windows to wave at him. They stood behind steel barricades just to catch a glimpse of him getting on and off a bus.
On the Fourth of July, a winter night in the Southern Hemisphere when the temperature dropped into the 30s, a crowd of more than 100 stood outside a seafood restaurant, where the storm shutters were drawn, to provide one more round of fireworks.
When Ginobili finished dinner and finally emerged from the restaurant just after midnight, even he was surprised.
"Olé, olé, olé, olé! ... Ma-nu! Ma-nu!"
The tango, it seems, for Manu Ginobili and Argentina, has just begun.
You know, I've read all of this information in numerous other articles, yet I still don't get tired of reading it.
That's so great that the Houston paper is doing a three part series on Manu and Argentina. Gotta love that TX love.
Reading this lets you know Manu is a very classy act. Argentina should be proud of him, the way he has represented that country around the world. It would be easy for him to get the swelled head, but he has managed to stay humble.
"I´ve learned not to think in the past..." - Walter Herrmann
Yup. Imagine getting a clothes-line from Camelo, smack in the head and body by James, ruffled up by the Wallcae brothers and YET have GOOD things to say about ALL of them at the end of every game.
Sigh! If Ray-ray could be just HALF the man Gino is...
great article, but it is pathetic that the people think of TP as the devil for not passing it to Manu. I guess with Maradona (the coke fiend hand of god), the Argentine people seem to forget what teamwork is really all about. I just hope that most of the Argentine people arent as selfish as the ones mentioned who think TP is the devil.
Its not Manu's Spurs or Duncan's Spurs...its the San Antonio Spurs and it belongs to all Spurs fans worldwide.
about tony i think the hate started in Manu rookie season, because we used to watch Manu being the first option on ofense (Kinder Bologna and Argentina NT). and manu got limited balls from Tony that year, of course it wasent tony's fault.
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