By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

SAN ANTONIO – There is a 27-step walk to the podium from the locker room. He has made the walk before, but never under these circumstances. Most NBA players will tell you that they really don't pay attention to that walk.

Most NBA players don't even know they're lying.

Manu Ginobili
The Finals are just the latest stage for Manu to star in.

But most players who excel in Game 1 of an NBA Finals don't get stopped at step 24. Most don't get pulled to the side and tossed up against a white brick wall, under an exit sign where the lights of cameras and hands connected to tape recorders have swarmed. Most don't have to stop to speak to the Spanish-language media before they present themselves to the rest of the world.

The podium at the Finals is reserved for only the chosen few. And when players make that walk to it, most know what time it is.

Manu Ginobili stayed against the wall for less than 10 minutes. Water still dripping from his hair. Gatorade bottle lodged between two fingers. Carmel slacks creased. Patterned beige shirt opened at the neck. Face shaved from a day ago. He answered all of the questions in his native language, with no issues. And after he saw Rip Hamilton walk by, he looked at Spurs media guru Tom James. He knew his time had come.

*****

A part of me feels partly responsible for this.

In 2002, after the third game of the World Championships in Indianapolis, I ran around the arena asking anyone I could find from Argentina how to say something in Spanish. The word I wanted can't be printed, not here, but it starts with "mother," if that helps any. In context, I meant that the man I'd just watched on the court that day had played like one.

The story I wrote ran in "Slam" a month later. Ginobili was only just then beginning to make his presence felt in the consciousness of the American basketball public.

I remember walking back to the hotel in Indianapolis with Gregg Popovich, and asking him, "Who is the cat running guard with Pepe Sanchez? I need to tell his story."

Pop had this smile on his face, like he knew something.

"He's good, isn't he?" is all Pop would say. Knowing that he knew all about the kid.

He'd drafted him three years earlier.

And even though Ginobili won a ring with Pop and the Spurs in 2003, it's different this time. Now, what Pop knew, the world knows. And maybe it's too early to put this out there like this, but Manu Ginobili quite possibly has just become the most important basketball player in the world, at least until the end of this series.

The player who was voted the MVP of the "true" world championship in Greece last summer – and who will not be the MVP here because if San Antonio wins, T.D.'s got it locked – Ginobili is the one who can end the argument that Tim Duncan couldn't win a championship without David Robinson.

There will never be another "50" in San An. But if Ginobili keeps playing like the best international player with no NCAA experience ever to join the NBA, the statement will change to this: Tim Duncan got only two rings with David Robinson. Ginobili was with him for all the rest.

Something no one would believe – not even Popovich – three years ago.

*****

Manu Ginobili
Note to Detroit -- some white men can jump.

You will read over the next couple of days about how Ginobili made it happen in the second half. How he took over the game in the final 24 minutes. How he went Villanova (9-for-10) from the field.

Read Marc Stein's piece. Read David DuPree. Read Mike Wise. All will tell you the real, the truth, the facts. All will say Manu made the difference in the second half. All will be blinded by the stats.

Some people don't think basketball games are won in the first quarter. They don't believe a team can be losing even if it has the lead.

This is how you must read Emanuel David Ginobili.

He had zeroes across the board until 1:35 was left in the first quarter. No points, no rebounds, nada. The Spurs were down 20-11. It looked as "Bleek" as Denzel in a Spike Lee joint.

Then Rip gave him a shot to the chest.

Angry, Ginobili went downcourt, made a back cut under the basket, used a pick from Duncan, got the ball at the elbow, jab-stepped to freeze Tayshaun, then popped that thang from 15 feet. He then ran downcourt, got posted in the lane, rebounded the Pistons shot and started a fast break going the other way. The Spurs scored.

Then, the next play down, he scored again.

His responsibility for six points (his four in this stretch were his only four of the half) in 90 seconds saved the Spurs. The difference in being down by nine and being down by three at the end of the first quarter is huge, but it got lost when he went D-Wade in the second half.

The other 22 he dropped were significant, but nothing like the timing of the first four. (He would do the same thing at the end of the third quarter, scoring seven in the final 1:36 of the period, grabbing three rebounds, giving the Spurs a 55-51 lead.) He said at the podium after Thursday's shootaround that it's the "little" things he must do. The way he treated the end of the first quarter like it was the end of the game. The things that sometimes go unrecognized by the human eye.

It seemed as if the lane closed up on him in the first half. Quicker than it had before, faster than it had against any other team in these playoffs.

Maybe during the postseason, when every category in his statistical makeup has gone up, he has exposed himself, letting the world know how he likes to ball, giving geniuses who are mentors to his own coach glimpses of how to stop him.

"I realize when I went to the bench [in the first half]," he said afterward, "that I was not seeing what was going on, too much thinking about [trying to] finish."

Too much trying to do too much in the one game that was, to him, just as big as the gold medal game he played for his country in the Olympics.

Then, at that 1:36 mark in Quarter Three, he scored on a layup. As the ball went through the hoop, Al Pacino appeared on the JumboTron in a scene from "Scent Of A Woman," saying, "I'm just getting warmed up!"

Only Manu, the skinny kid who has been speaking English since he was 8 years old and told his mother he was going to be in the NBA one day, had an idea how true that statement was.

*****

He was supposed to be up late the night before. For some reason, Manu Ginobili had his priorities twisted.

Manu Ginobili
It's nothing but smiles when Manu's at the mike.

In Buenos Aires, "his people" waited in lines 3½ miles long to watch Argentina play Brazil for a possible berth in the World Cup. Playing in the NBA Finals is big, but what was happening in Manu's hometown was bigger than life.

He says, "I missed it!" when asked whether he caught the 3 a.m. broadcast. Looking almost as if he'd committed a sin by placing basketball over futbol in his life.

Argentina 3, Brazil 1.

"But I heard when I woke up."

Thank goodness they didn't lose. Thank goodness for TiVo.

He said two things on that podium Thursday night that gave everyone a glimpse into who he really is, who he has really become. In talking about how his game and his role on the team have evolved, he said, "Now I know that even if I don't play well in the beginning, I'm going to be on the court [in the end]; and probably in the fourth quarter, I'm probably going to have the ball in my hands."

Then something that digs much deeper into his being: "I don't need 20 points to feel good about myself."

Those 10 words sunk in. Around the room, you could sense how they resonated. It was as if he made the "I" in team sound unselfish. I leaned over to Boston radio host Willie Maye and whispered, "I wonder if he felt like committing suicide after putting 48 on the Suns earlier this year?"

I didn't want Ginobili to hear it. I didn't want to ruin his moment.

He exited the SBC Center last night with a new confidence and a small crowd behind him. His walk, very loose. It gives away signals about how he plays. And how he will continue to play.

There's a silver ring that caresses a finger on his other hand. As he walks, every now and then, he tweaks it. It is, as far as I can see, the only piece of jewelry on his body. It must have meaning.

There are no tats, no ice, no Mauri gators or Adrien Brody-marketed suits. Nothing but what God gave him.

But his style is being accepted with the same degree as his style of play is. Moms who kept their sons in George Lopez low cuts are now letting their kids roam around SA tucking their hair behind their ears.

Hero-worshipping in America is nothing new. It's only new to him.

If only they could duplicate the bald spot.

The town is slowly becoming his – and he might not even know it.

Lights, camera, Manu. He stays unfazed.

A media director for another NBA team admitted in the war room, "He's become my new favorite player." No one disagreed. All justified by an international basketball star who with one 26-point, nine-rebound game, did what all the great ones do when it becomes June: Take over games. Self-impose wins.

One down, three to go.

They say the NBA Finals are where legends are born. Could it be that in Game 1, we just witnessed the birth of another one?

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.


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