Defining Manu

If you read all of today's game stories, no one seems to do a great job of making clear what it is that makes San Antonio's Manu Ginobili--the man of the hour--so good. Possibly the best write-up of his masterful performance last night is here. And Steve Kerr makes a perfectly true observation:

He has an amazing knack for shifting directions and speeds while going full bore down the lane, then somehow finishing the play or passing to someone else for a bucket.

(But it's hard to know, based on those stories, how to incorporate Manu's skills into your own game, you know what I mean? Do they have drills to teach "knack?")

I took my own crack at writing about Manu two years ago for Inside Stuff magazine. You can read that here:A Full Bag of Tricks
by Henry Abbott

It is the fourth quarter of game five of the NBA Finals between the New Jersey Nets and the San Antonio Spurs. I am sitting in section 117 of New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena getting ready to interview players for this article in the locker room after the game ends. The guy sitting next to me, meanwhile, is getting ready to go insane.
He keeps yelling the same thing. He has been yelling it all night. He yells it when Manu, the Spurs 6-6 rookie guard from Argentina, has the ball and he wants him to shoot it. He yells it when Manu is open and he wants other Spurs to pass it. He even yells it when Manu is on the bench and he wants Coach Popovich to put him in.
Now, it's the fourth quarter and the Nets are making their last stand. The series is in the balance, until Manu picks off a pass and knocks the ball into the wide-open court, with nothing but hardwood between him and the basket. The man sitting next to me is called Fernando Iglesias, and he has flown all the way here from Manu's hometown of Bahia Blanca, Argentina to cheer for his favorite player and you'd better believe he's yelling now.
"MANU-MANU-MANU!" Manu flushes the ball and, more or less, the Nets' chances of winning the 2003 title. Fernando leaps from his chair, both fists high in the air. Nets fans give him dirty looks.
Grinning, Iglesias sits down and tells me his secret: "I don't care anything about the Spurs!" he says. "I just love Manu."
You don't say.

In the locker room, the swarm1 of reporters around Manu is enormous and excited, even though he is a rookie reserve who has yet to average even 10 points, four rebounds, three assists or two steals per game. Almost all of the journalists are from Argentina, a country with a bad economy and a wicked case of Manu fever. He was recently named the nation's finest athlete. All over the country people are crowding into bars at all hours of the night to see Argentina's best-ever basketball player ever competing on television.
The NBA gave media credentials to ten journalists from Argentina to cover the finals. They are all here at his locker, and his relationship with them is close. He trusts them and lets them see things like him opening a little love note from a fan someone slips him before a game. He even asks them questions. After game six, when Manu will become a champion, many of these same reporters will hug and kiss Manu, which is something you just don't see a lot in the U.S.A.
Manu answers three times as many questions as other players because his fans speak three languages. He grew up speaking Spanish in Argentina, found the spotlight speaking Italian playing in Italy (where he won basically every MVP and Championship available2) and now he speaks excellent if slightly clunky English.
As he is from Argentina, he has to answer questions sometimes about soccer. His country's team in the distinctive baby-blue and white stripes has perhaps the most passionate following in the world and they have managed to win a quarter of the last eight World Cup tournaments. He must have felt like a little bit of an outcast playing hoops in that culture, you would think.
When a North American reporter asks him about this, the Argentine reporters roll their eyes.
This gringo, they seem to be saying, does not know about Bahia Blanca.
To reply, Manu first has to clear the air. "I never even think of playing soccer."
Then, after a pause he explains. "In Argentina, it sounds crazy, I think there are more guys playing for a team basketball than soccer. My city was very basketball-minded so I was born playing basketball and I didn't like playing soccer that much." Besides, he wasn't exactly from a soccer family his father was a great amateur basketball player and his two brothers are also professional players.
Bahia Blanca it turns out has always been the epicenter of Argentine basketball.3 Now, thanks to Manu, the whole country is starting to catch on. "As far as I heard," he says humbly, "this year it has gained a lot of popularity, with a lot of people watching a lot of games."
The player who the Spurs brilliantly plucked with the next-to-last pick in the second round of the 1999 draft has given fans plenty to cheer now that he is finally in the League. After seeing Manu's shockingly complete game up close, Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo simply declares "Manu's going to be an All-Star before he's done. He just has to get familiar with all the players in the league and the officials the way they call things. He's the whole package. He's going to be a great player."
Carlesimo's colleague Mike Brown points out that Manu was injured much of his rookie year. "He came in with the ankle injury that he suffered at the World Basketball Championships4 and we kept trying to insert him in the lineup and play him and it was a bad sprain. He didn't complain, he just kept playing. But it set him back. Finally we got together as a staff even though he was cleared to play medically we just said hey Manu, you're going to sit down. You're not going to do anything for about a week and a half. And he literally did not do anything. No rehab. No practice. No games."
He came back on December 20. "Ever since that point," says Brown, "he has been great." Not only has he had amazing games consider the 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds and five steals in a regular season game against the Nets but he has also shown that he will not spaz. In the words of his veteran teammate Steve Smith: "Manu does not get rattled."
Manu knows it. Popovich knows it, too. That's why in the waning seconds of game four with the Nets up three points, the coach drew up a play for Ginobili to shoot from downtown. NBA teams almost never call timeouts to get rookies the ball. In the Finals, it happens about once a decade.
Manu handled it beautifully, too. The Spurs worked the ball to Manu on the left shoulder, where the speedy Richard Jefferson was chasing him. "I saw Jefferson flying and he can jump, so I faked and went to my left. I think it was the right move, my coaches told me it was the right move," he remembers.
After one dribble, he was wide open, and launched. "I was thinking I was going to make it. I think I took my shot really calm. It's not easy to take the fake." Like more than 50% of shots in basketball, this one did not go in. But it did help to prove that Manu has poise, even in the Finals, and he knows it. "I think I did good," he says, "and it just fell short, that's it. I am really happy that Pop trusts me to give me that shot." You get the feeling it'll happen again.
In the meantime, he'll keep improving his explosive, multi-faceted and unpredictable game that it is hard to describe. "His style is a mixture of New York City ball, European ball, Argentine ball and Chinese ball, maybe," says Brown with a smile. "We try not to coach him too much, because every game we learn something new and we don't want to tell him no, don't do that, when he probably really knows how to do that. Every game, you see something that you just imagine there's no way a human can do that, especially a guy in his first year in the league."
I ask Manu to help me describe his game. Is he similar to any other NBA players, past or present? He says he doesn't like comparisons. An Argentine journalist suggests he is like a combination of Michael Cooper the lanky stopper on the great 1980's Lakers, and Vinnie Johnson the explosive backup guard on the Pistons of the early 1990's. A couple of lockers over, Steve Smith says he is reminded of the European import of a decade ago, Sarunas Marciulionis, who was also a hard-driving leftie, but the analogy isn't perfect.
There is another name on everyone's mind, and no one wants to say it, because it is not time yet. When you talk about 6-6 guards with great athleticism and defense to go with explosive creativity as an inside/outside scorer, the Michael Jordan comparison is simply inevitable.
Manu sort of hints at it. "I watched the NBA a lot growing up," he says, "I was a big fan, especially of the Bulls in the early 90's. There were a lot of people I really admired and that I liked watching, but not that I tried to compare myself or emulate or nothing like that. It's kind of hard when you look at Jordan or those kind of players. You just try to practice a lot and do what you can do with your body."
"You don't want to compare him to Michael Jordan yet," says Brown, "because he hasn't shown that type of ability to lead a team and be a catalyst for a team that wins championships. But for us, he does a lot of things no one else does."
Can Brown think of a better comparison?
"That's a tough one," he says. "I'd have to think about that."
Manu, Manu, Manu.

1 At the next locker, little Speedy Claxton has a hard time just getting dressed.
2 He was the Italian League MVP in 2000-01 and 2001-02 and was the 2001 Euroleague Finals MVP.
3 There's even a picture of a hoopster on the city's website.
4 Where Manu's Argentina team won silver and became the first squad ever to beat Team USA when it was loaded with NBA talent.