It's practically a party on the far side of the locker room. Reporters are filling up their notebooks and recorders at the quote machine, a.k.a. steve kerr. A few feet away, Tim Duncan laughs as he holds stephen Jackson in a headlock. Jackson's face is squeezed like a sock puppet, but he appears to be laughing too. Malik rose is next to Jackson but turned the other way, offering to sell David robinson a computer patch for "eleventy-million dollars." Smiles all around.
But not on this side of the room. Emanuel Ginobili is a Spurs rookie whose closest teammate, Argentina backcourt mate Pepe Sanchez, is 1,500 miles away in Detroit. Manu sits in his chair, back to the room, staring silently at his sprained right ankle, a souvenir from last summer's world Championships. This is the ankle that has cost him his starting job after five games. the same ankle that has robbed him of the chance to show what he can really do, leaving him feeling that he doesn't have the right to joke around with the rest of the Spurs.
His English is nearly as good as his spanish and Italian, but he hasn't told his teammates about how high he jumped when he found a scorpion in his bathroom in San Antonio or how his girlfriend, Mani, screamed upon finding a Texassize centipede in the bedroom. He's not about to curse his luck, since all this is beyond his childhood dreams, but his south american blood pounds with the same nagging thought he whispered to trainer will sevening after his teammates' shock when he soared waayyyy above the rim to flush a missed shot: "They don't know what i can do. they just don't know."
He's tried to show them, despite the ankle, limited minutes and the spurs' ultraconservative offense. the result: a few highlight moves, a few forced or flashy passes that become turnovers, a few startling steals and blocked shots, a few costly gambles that leave the spurs D exposed. Throw in a few three-pointers that find the mark and a few better suited to the shorter international arc, and it's not hard to understand why teammates see him as a talented but inconsistent rookie. To them, Ginobili is a long shot with a long way to go.
Which is a long way from how Manu sees himself: the answer to the spurs' prayers. It's the opening minutes of Argentina's game against the U.S. team at the World Championships in Indianapolis. The NBA players are looking to extend their international roll to 59-0, but the buzz is all about the 6'6" Ginobili. He has lived up to his best-player-in-europe status against China and new Zealand-beating the entire kiwi squad on one drive-but this is the first time anyone is seeing him against nba players. All doubts are erased with his first two drives to the basket. after hitting a runner over Michael Finley, he scores over Ben Wallace, whose block attempt catches nothing but air. a chill runs through the entire u.s. squad-this guy just waxed its two best defenders and didn't even stop to celebrate. After falling behind by as much as 20, the U.S. fights back late in the third quarter. But then Manu hits another runner just before the buzzer, cutting the legs out from under the U.S. rally. One quarter later, the NBA players are saddled with their first-ever international loss.
spurs chairman and Ceo Peter holt, getting his first live look at Ginobili, whispers, "i don't care who you are, you have to like that. wow."
Pistons coach rick Carlisle is in town to sign sanchez as a backup point guard, but it's Ginobili who catches his attention. Carlisle worked with both arvydas sabonis and Drazen Petrovic in their early nba years, and he sees something unique in Manu-a foreign-born player who can not only score but also defend against the league's topflight 2-guards. "Ginobili is a different species," Carlisle says. "He's the first international player who brings athletic explosiveness to the equation. He can attack the rim, but what strikes me is that he's such a great defensive player."
Not too long ago, no one, least of all Manu, could have imagined that assessment. Ginobili grew up four hours outside of Buenos Aires in Bahia Blanca, argentina's answer to indiana. the Ginobilis' modest two-bedroom house stands a block from Bahiense Del Norte, one of the town's three basketball clubs. Manu's father, Jorge, was the manager, and his older brothers, sebastian and leandro, were once the club's stars. Five and seven years older respectively, they overshadowed Manu, who at age 17 still resembled 5'5" earl boykins in height, weight and aerial ability.
"I never doubted his skills or his heart, but his body wasn't there," says Sanchez, who has known Manu since they were 12. The two are building houses within shouting distance of each other in bahia blanca. "he was so small you couldn't see him on the court. Growing up, no one gave either of us a shot."
Although the Ginobili brothers shared a room plastered with Michael Jordan posters, none of them grew up thinking they'd ever play against him. nba games weren't televised in Bahia Blanca, and the only highlights they saw were when someone's American relative sent an NBA Fantastic Finishes tape. Manu's secondbiggest dream was to play in europe. his first: to stand taller than an end table. He was so small his first coach told him to never venture inside the three-point arc, for fear he'd get hurt. but both of his brothers rose to 6'3" after late growth spurts, so he'd religiously line up next to the fridge and keep track with marks on the ceramic- tiled wall. "i was desperate," he says. "Finally, i saw a little bit of improvement and got excited."
Not only did he sprout 10 inches in two years, suddenly he could soar. Sanchez barely recognized him after a year away playing for a first-division team: "I'm the guy coming back from the first division, but he's the one scoring 50 points and dunking everything. I couldn't believe it."
The leading scorer for estudiante of the argentinian league, Manu caught the eye of European scouts. He signed with reggio Calabria in 1998, averaged 16.9 points a game and attracted the attention of the spurs, who figured he was worth taking a flyer on with the penultimate pick of the second round-no. 57-in the '99 draft. "he was just a young skinny guy who looked like a winner," says coach Gregg Popovich. "We didn't know he was going to be as good as he is."
They found out soon enough. Ginobili was the Italian League Player of the Year the following season, and in his two years after signing with kinder bologna, the lakers of italy, he won the slam dunk title, was league MVP twice and MVP of the Euroleague Finals when kinder won the title in 2001. it was there he learned about playing under the pressure of big expectations. "It's a different thing when you play on a team that has to win, that doesn't consider it a good year unless you win the championship," he says. "Without playing in Europe, I'd never have made it here."
By the time Manu was finishing his second season with kinder, the Spurs were revising their plans. They now saw the 25-year-old Ginobili as their future shooting guard, which is why they traded 27-year-old Derek anderson to Portland for 31-year-old steve Smith two summers ago. their faith in Manu prompted them to send another second-round pick, 2-guard Gordan Giricek (40th in '99 by Dallas), to Memphis. in the short term, Giricek's long-range shooting touch might have been a better fit for san antonio's dump-it-to-Duncan-and-everyone-else-spot-up offense. but imagine Finley or Cuttino Mobley paired with Duncan, and you know why the spurs are looking first to upgrade at point guard (Jason kidd) or in the post (Michael olowokandi or elton brand) with the $26.5 million they expect to have to spend on free agents next summer.
"Gordan is going to score, but he's not going to do all the other things," Popovich says. "Manu makes everybody better. he'll take a charge with three fouls. He can play team D, individual D, shoot it, pass it, drive it. All he has to do is gain his confidence in this league for all that to come out."
That could take some time. Early in the second quarter of Argentina's World Championships semi final against Germany, Ginobili hoisted a three-pointer and landed on Dirk nowitzki's foot. the sickening pop Manu heard was two ligaments on the outside of his right ankle stretching too far. His nine points in 15 minutes helped argentina advance to the next afternoon's title game against Yugoslavia. but when a few spurs tuned in to the Finals, all they saw was Ginobili hobbling around for 12 scoreless minutes in an overtime loss.
They saw even less when he arrived at training camp one and a half weeks later. He hadn't received any professional treatment for his ankle, leaving him unable to practice when he reported. "It looked like an elephant's foot," he says. So he sat out the first two weeks-vital time for any rookie learning a new system, but doubly so for a foreigner learning new terminology and rules. Popovich estimates he's playing only at about 70%. The spurs considered giving him another two weeks off, but team doctors said it would take two months for the ankle to heal and that Ginobili won't do any further damage by playing on it.
So he keeps going. a sprained right ankle is troublesome for a lefty like Manu, since that's the foot he pushes off to drive or jump or fire from long range. He normally warms up with a dunk exhibition, but now he's relegated to gingerly lofting jumpers. while getting ready to face the blazers in his last start, he leaned the wrong way to catch a pass and had to limp over to the sideline, wait for the pain to subside, stretch and begin again.
Even hobbled, he plays with the desperation of a well, a late second-round pick. Manu's six points and four rebounds in a 22-minute performance against the timberwolves on nov. 11 were lost next to kerr's 17 points off the bench and David robinson's 19 rebounds in the 91-75 rout. But the box score couldn't show the handful of passes Ginobili deflected out of bounds or off course, forcing the T-wolves to reset their offense with a soon-to-expire shot clock. or the jump ball he created by tying up Marc Jackson. Or the way he crashed the offensive glass to keep alive a ball for robinson to rebound and kick to Kerr.
No assists are awarded for sliding over to prevent Troy Hudson from going around tony Parker, or feeding bruce bowen with a perfect fastbreak bounce pass that results in free throws for bowen. nor is extra credit given for blocking anthony Peeler's jumper and then being the first to the subsequent loose ball. but it was why one savvy spurs fan at floor level kept bellowing only one name-"Gi-noooooo-bili!"-in obvious appreciation.
Not that Ginobili is all grit and hustle. he is a showman as well, whipping a no-look, behindthe- back bounce pass that mesmerizes kevin Garnett and provides Duncan with an easy eightfoot jump hook. And his around-the-waist ball fake to go by hudson for a layup already assures him a place on the league's season highlight reel.
Two nights earlier, though, scottie Pippen took him apart in a loss to the blazers, and a few days later, he struggled against richard Jefferson in a loss to the nets. Ginobili's been around enough locker rooms to know his teammates aren't sold on what he can do. Duncan says he's seen "flashes" but compared him to the slashing, freelancing scorer Jackson, the spurs' journeyman small forward. Kerr complimented Manu's fearlessness but says he's still figuring out the nba and where he fits in it.
"It's important to get them to trust me," Ginobili says. "When that happens, you can feel it on the court. they give you the ball in important situations. I'm used to that. But I don't even trust myself right now. that's what has me worried."
Which is why he's the last one off the floor every practice, with most of his extra time spent adjusting to the deeper NBA three-point line. "He misses two shots and it's ai-yi-yi!" Says brett brown, the spurs' first-year player development director who has made Manu his pet project. "He's hard on himself. he feels he has to deliver now. But whenever he's had to take a shot at the end of practice that might mean his teammates would have to run extra sprints, he's never missed."
It's late morning in San Antonio and stomachs are growling on the SBC Center court. Spurs rookies are required to bring the team three dozen doughnuts-glazed, chocolate glazed, raspberry-to every home-game morning shootaround. After coming through for the team's first five games, Manu mistakenly thought it was fellow rookie Devin Brown's turn.
At Duncan's behest, the players heaved the practice balls into the stands for Ginobili to collect as punishment. "When Tim told everybody to get a ball and circle up, I thought they were going to throw them at me," Ginobili says. "But I deserved it. I was hungry too."
Duncan and the rest of the Spurs quickly dismissed the transgression, but Ginobili took it seriously. He's not likely to take anything lightly until he's proved what he can do. Once that happens, though, the Spurs best watch out. "For sure they don't know him," Sanchez says. "He's a nonstop goof guy. He'll walk by and grab my nose, then the next time slap me on the head. Or you'll be watching TV and he'll walk in, turn it off and then walk out. On the national team, if someone was missing a shoe, you knew he had it. He probably just doesn't feel like he can do those things yet."
A natural cutup and a natural scorer. Wait 'til the Spurs find both, sitting quietly on the other side of the locker room.