For the fifth year in a row, the San Antonio Spurs roster was voted No. 1 in all of sports in the Ultimate Standings. That's in part thanks to Manu Ginobili, a relentlessly hard-working sixth man who wears his emotions on his jersey, a four-time NBA champion who communicates in three languages with his 3.1 million Twitter followers. Ginobili epitomizes all that his team gives back in return for the time, money and emotion that fans invest in the Spurs. And he is intensely interested in that bond: Before our interview, he asked how we conducted the surveys for our franchise rankings, and how many responses we got, and whether our equations had changed over time. Only then did we get personal about his connection to his fans and his many communities.
Peter Keating: You are a player with whom many NBA fans feel a strong affiliation, from Lady Gaga to the guy who shaved your face into the back of his head. When did that begin?
Manu Ginobili: I think it started in my first season. Maybe coming from a Latin country helped my first approach to the fans, and my type of game was something sort of different from the usual Spurs player. The way I played, the way my body was all over the place, not thinking about being careful for the next game or anything like that, I think fans liked it. So I think that combination helped me out at the beginning. Then it started to develop, and it exploded in my third season, with a championship, and playing much better, [having a] bigger influence in the game and more playing time, more fancy plays.
PK: You mentioned your heritage. Have you always drawn fans from Argentina to games in cities around the U.S.?
MG: Well, the Argentinians are very attached to their athletes, and you know, there are some cities with a big Argentinean community. Miami is the main one for sure, Orlando, Houston, Denver. Sacramento in the winter -- we got a lot of Argentinians going to ski in Lake Tahoe. Certain times of the year, there are a lot of Argentinians with flags and all that. After 13 years in the league I've gotten used to it, but some teammates that I have, when it's their first time playing with me, they can't believe that what happens when we are on the road.
PK: You have said that the diversity of the Spurs' roster has actually brought the team together. How so?
MG: Well, when I got here, Tony [Parker] was already with the Spurs, and he spoke French. From that year and after, we have had Slovenians, Australians, Turkish, Italians, Brazilians -- now we even have coaches speaking in different languages on the court. So we all feel attached to each other, because we have been through different and at the same time similar situations. When I got to the league, nobody knew me. But the fact that Tony was here, and he saw me playing in Final Fours in Euro competition and with [my] national team, it helped me out. I knew that the point guard knew who I was, and knew what I could give, and what I've been through. And the same happened when Rasho Nesterovic came the following year, or Hedo Turkoglu or Marco Belinelli or Tiago Splitter. I knew them all, I knew their backgrounds, we had friends in common, we always had people who played with me and played with Tiago, or whoever. We get closer relationships because we know our backgrounds. And when you come from overseas to the States, it's completely different -- the game, the teammates, the bench, the locker room, everything. So it's great to have somebody you can relate to.
PK: Tell me a little bit about what's distinctive about playing in a market as small as San Antonio.
"I understand that what happens here, it's not the typical connection with fans."
MG: You know, many times we get to interact with the fans who are closest to the court, who are the wealthiest, who pays the most for tickets. But then we've got situations in which you're on the street, you're at the Riverwalk, you go in a parade, and you hear some crazy stories about fans who can't really go to the games. Or who have been to games maybe three times in 20 years, but their family rooms are packed with pictures, with banners, with pieces of newspaper and stuff. And they send me pictures sometimes. Those are the guys who can barely go to the game. So you know that your fan base is very wide, and there's a lot of people that sometimes can't afford to go to the games, but they really support you, they're really proud of what you accomplished on and off the court. It's great to have that type of interaction, and yeah, I understand that what happens here, it's not the typical connection with fans.
PK: You really seem to carry a feeling of responsibility for the fans you're playing for.
MG: I don't know, I just go to a game and I know that there might be people there are going for the first time, or maybe the last time, or maybe they're making a big commitment and effort to be there. Sometimes we kind of forget the effort they might be going through to watch you play ball. So once you are in that environment and they're asking for an autograph or a picture or something, you just like to make a good impact. Be a nice fellow citizen.
PK: Your ongoing interaction with fans through social media has generated a pretty huge following. How do you find the time to stay so involved?
MG: Well, first of all, I have a lot of followers because I'm Argentinean and I have a big fan base over there, and then played four years in Italy, and then in America. So I've been around. And I started to give different sides of what being a NBA player is. I'm not only talking about how this game went, or what a great effort, I show fans we might be interested in different things. Sometimes you could be tired, sometimes [you could go] to see a movie, whatever. But show them that we are not just an orange sphere, dribbling it all over the place. We have various people, we are interested in doing different things, and we have highs and we have lows. I don't consider myself that involved, maybe one tweet a day. But during the season I try to share a little more, especially on the road, to get the fans a different view of what the players have been doing.
PK:You signed a new two-year deal over the summer. Was there one factor in particular that made you want to come back?
MG: It gets tougher and tougher to make that decision but, first of all, I wasn't so sure that I wanted to stop doing what I've been doing for about 20 years now. And I thought, during the couple of months that I took off after our elimination, I still have fire in me, some fuel in the tank. You make a decision that important, to stop doing what you have been doing for most of your life, you have to be pretty sure about it, because there is no coming back. Then, of course, I'm in the best imaginable situation for an athlete to be in: the same franchise for so many years, a franchise that you admire, respect, feel comfortable playing with. It's very, very hard to see a better situation than the one I am in. My family is very comfortable in the city. And I had a couple conversations with Tim [Duncan] and Pop [Gregg Popovich], and feeling wanted and feeling needed, it's always important, too. I didn't want them just to say, "OK, because this guy been here for 13 years, let's just give him two more years because, just because." I saw that they still need me, that I still can contribute.
PK: The fans have responded so strongly for you and the Spurs -- the team has sold out its tickets for the first time, even after a season when you didn't win a championship. Do you think that love continues after your core group eventually departs?
MG: I think so. You know Tony is going to be around longer than Tim and me. Kawhi [Leonard] has been showing that he has a lot of potential, and the fans love him ... then now with the addition of LaMarcus [Aldridge] is one of the main reasons why we sold out, too -- not me, at 38. For sure, I'll always trust the decisions made by the front office about how to make this team as good as possible, and as committed as possible, and to keep that bond between fans and players going. They have a great thing going, and I think they have the expertise, too, after this many years of doing it. So I think it can really keep going. I'm not completely sure about what I want to do [after I retire]. Forever is a very wide word, but I'll be connected to the Spurs, if not contractually at least emotionally. I don't know if I'm going to have an actual job, I don't know what is going to happen. But for sure, I am going to be connected in some ways.