Ginobili faces uncertain future
SAN ANTONIO -- To this day, Pepe Sanchez isn't quite sure how his friend did it.
They were schoolboys in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, one of the nation's only cities where basketball was a real sport, and not what you turned to if soccer didn't pan out. And only one of them seemed to have the talent to go anywhere.
Sanchez's friend, a skinny left-handed guard named Emanuel Ginobili, had good handles and a knack for getting to the basket. But he was far too small and too weak to be considered much of a prospect.
"He was little, he was skinny. He didn't look like he was going to grow," Sanchez said. "You should see the tapes we have of those days. I'm sure he was praying to be 6 feet tall. There's no way you would've thought he'd play professional basketball."
But there was this one thing that stood out. The one thing Sanchez looks back on now and thinks he should've given more credit to.
"When he would drive to the basket, all the time he'd get knocked to the ground," Sanchez said. "But he would always stand up and do it again. I would tell my dad when we'd watch his games, 'He has this special thing where he doesn't back down. If he can grow a little bit, he's going to be fine.'"
Sanchez ended up leaving Argentina to play college ball at Temple, and later had a brief career in the NBA with the 76ers and Atlanta Hawks. His greatest successes came overseas in Greece and Spain, and internationally, where he was the point guard on Argentina's 2004 Olympic gold medal winning team.
Ginobili, well, he took off in a different way. When Argentina upset the United States in the 2004 Olympics, Ginobili became just the second player in history to win an NBA title, an Olympic gold medal and a Euroleague title. Bill Bradley is the other.
"I think in his mind, there was no doubt. He knew what we didn't," Sanchez said. "His goal all along was to play in the NBA and to be a basketball star. That's why I think for him it's not strange what happened to him. For us, it's very strange because we didn't know."
As he stood on the practice court at the AT&T Center on Saturday afternoon for what could end up being the final time, Ginobili faced a fresh round of doubts. Not about his ability to play in the NBA, but about his ability to stay and be the kind of player he has been in what will indubitably end as a Hall of Fame career.
He's been uncharacteristically ineffective in these NBA Finals, averaging only 7.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting. In the Spurs' 109-93 loss to the Heat in Game 4, he scored just five points on 1-for-5 shooting and had his teammates and coaches imploring him to be more aggressive.
He admitted as such in a candid interview Saturday in which he acknowledged that he's considered retirement at times this season, and will think about it again this summer once he finishes the final year of a three-year, $39 million contract.
"All season long I kind of knew that I was going to play one or two more years," Ginobili said. "But when you are 36 -- I'm going to be 36 pretty soon -- everything is a day-by-day basis. Once the season finishes and I see how I feel, I can't imagine me not playing at least one more year here, but time will tell. We'll see."
This season has been particularly trying as Ginobili played in just 69 games, mostly due to a troublesome hamstring injury. "For three quarters of the season it was the physical part," Ginobili said. "I'd say, 'No, I can't deal with this anymore. I'm tired of rehab and trying to be in shape all the time.'
"At this point I'm fine physically so you are a little more optimistic. But it's been 18 years doing this. You kind of get tired and you want to enjoy a little more time at home sometimes. You go back to Argentina to see your people, and you think about it. I'm going to have time for that, too."
You can hear the maturity in his voice just as deeply as the passion and competitive spirit that's always set him apart.
If his body is betraying him -- this time because of age, not size -- he will not use that as an excuse.
"My body is not the issue here," Ginobili insisted after Game 4. "If I'm not playing good, it's just because I'm not playing good, not because my body is limiting me."
You won't find many in San Antonio who are ready to count Ginobili out. Not now, even as he struggles, and not ever.
They've seen too much and know him too well. He's one of the best clutch players in the NBA -- one season shooting a ridiculous 57.4 percent from the field at the end of close games.
"He plays every play like it's the last play on Earth," Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland said. "But that's Manu being Manu. You can't curb his enthusiasm. We've always been in awe of how hard he plays."
They've also talked to him about maybe trying to save his body a little bit, to both prolong his career and ensure that he's healthy when the Spurs need him the most. The conversations didn't get very far.
"We might have talked to him at times about cooling it a little," said former assistant P.J. Carlesimo. "I'd put it maybe a different way, just tell him not to do some of the silly passes or gambles that he does. [Coach Gregg Popovich] may have talked to him about trying to save his body a little bit. But like most things you talk to Manu about, it's going in one ear and out the other."
The reason this all has worked so well, though, is that the Spurs never freaked out when Ginobili followed his instincts. They tried to guide him, not corral him.
"Pop is the kind of guy who is comfortable giving guys rein," Carlesimo said. "You didn't have to do that with Tim [Duncan], but with both Tony [Parker] and Manu, it's really been good for them that Pop lets them be who they are.
"Manu has been nuts from the first practice on the first day. He's fearless. That's why he's going to do some things that you're not going to want him to do, but he's also going to do some things that nobody else is capable of doing."
It's a special thing, this run the Spurs have going. These 11 years together with Popovich, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are unique in a league in which 12 teams have already fired coaches this offseason.
They talk about it some, but like most good marriages, the best stuff is the stuff you don't need to talk about. The understandings, the little looks and nods that communicate everything but can't be translated into words anyone else can understand.
"Three players playing together for such a long time is not common," Ginobili said in an interview with ESPN's Colleen Dominguez earlier this season. "We understand each other, we know each other so well, we don't need to say much ... when we play. We just ... with looks, and body language, we know what our players are going through and it really helps."
So when Parker and Duncan were asked the other night why Ginobili has been so off in this series, neither had to say much. "I think he's just trying to be incredibly unselfish right now," Duncan said. "We need him to be a little more aggressive -- be a little more selfish, maybe -- and hopefully we can find a way to get him to do that."
It wasn't advice as much as it was permission. Permission to be all things Manu: aggressive, a little reckless, a lot more creative, a bit wild and completely fearless.
Enough coloring within the lines.
If Sanchez is being generous, there were at least 15 players in Bahia Blanca who were better than Ginobili growing up.
He didn't even make the state team as a teenager. The city team they played together on never won anything.
But one summer, something changed. Something Sanchez still can't explain.
"We played with the city team like in April," Sanchez said. "Then like in July he came to play for the state team and they didn't pick him.
"But when we came back from the tournament, let's say in October, he was so good that the coach who coached the state team went in the newspaper and apologized for not taking him. So imagine how big that leap was? Manu probably won't remember that. But I do. I still can't believe it."
He's smiling as he retells the story. He either can't remember the name of the coach who didn't pick Ginobili for the state team, or doesn't want to tell me. That coach is not the only one who doubted Ginobili. He's just a reminder of what can happen when you do.