SAN ANTONIO -- Until right around 2003 or so, there was no documented proof that a human willingly traveled from Buenos Aires direct to San Antonio to seek a place of worship because, why would anyone do that, given the noticeable lack of historical or religious linkage between the cultures? One is a sensuous city in South America, robust and rife with all the urban charms and evils. The other is flat South Texas, magnetized by a muddy creek in the middle of town, buoyed by the military and flavored by Tex-Mex. Not only are they not sister cities, they’re not even distant cousins.
Yet, slowly and then consistently, people flocked by the dozens over the last dozen years, taking the pilgrimage up north and through customs to seek salvation, to see their very own "Basquetbol Jesus", up close and personal. They came to cheer the between-the-legs passes, the funky jumper with the crooked left elbow and the layups delivered by contorting body limbs. These trips have intensified the last few months because, as he acknowledged somewhat wistfully the other day: “A lot of fans are seeing that the window of opportunity to see me play is closing. They know it’s almost here.”
And so, just last week, a group of 60 Argentines shelled out thousands for airfare, rooms, chow and tickets to a pair of San Antonio Spurs games. They were forced to take connecting flights through Miami and a member of the group estimated that maybe five were well-off financially. The others were your typical worker bees, so this was quite a financial commitment to satisfy an emotional investment.
All came to the games wearing the beloved powder blue striped basketball jerseys of the Argentine national team, bearing his uniform number, and brought along the national flag to drape themselves in, because this is how folks from the homeland greet [shouting now with Spanish accent] Manu, Manu, Manu!
"He’s one of the best competitors this game has ever seen."
Yes, first name-only basis, please. Manu has earned it, and besides, in South America, athletic heroes are honorably stripped of their surnames once they’ve thrilled millions and made grown men sniffle. He is just Manu, uniting two basketball fan bases, the centerpiece of the friendly tug-of-war between two nationalities fighting for his affections.
'A beautiful player to watch'
When the gang from Buenos Aries sees him during pre-game warmups, the flag starts flapping excitedly and each and every arm reaches out, to touch him, to prepare for the hug that eventually arrives. Manu is refreshingly polite and in an era of distant and sometimes spoiled athletes, he is a man of the people -- someone who forgets he is internationally famous. The selfies, autographs and especially the pecks on both cheeks are delivered so smoothly and naturally that you can see why they traveled far to see him. They knew he would not forget them, just as they will never forget him.
Then comes a humbling experience for the Argentines: Their shrieks are eventually drowned out by The American fans in a sea of black Spurs T-shirts when Manu swishes a 30-footer to beat the shot clock against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thus, a nasty little secret is revealed. During this Spurs’ era of NBA success that’s now grayer than coach Gregg Popovich’s beard, Manu was and perhaps still is the most popular of Spurs; this is based unscientifically on the decibel level inside AT&T Arena when he flashes some of his signature swashbuckle on the court.
“A beautiful player to watch,” said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who was Manu’s teammate for one season. “His ability to perform and entertain and stay effective for so long comes from being smart and knowing what to do and when to do it.”
Understand: Manu is not Tim Duncan or David Robinson, the twin foundations that made this 20-year run of Spurs excellence possible. But don’t get it twisted, either.
“He’s going to the Hall of Fame,” said Popovich. “First ballot.”
Twice an All-Star, he and Bill Bradley are the only players to win European, Olympic and (four) NBA titles. He carved a knack for elevating himself in big games and moments: Both Euro wins, the 2004 Olympic semis against Team USA, the NBA playoffs from 2005-11 when he averaged nearly 20 points a game. He’s part of the second wave of foreign-born players that helped change the league, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Marc and Pau Gasol. He made his trademark on being a versatile swingman, bringing a blue collar for defense (defying the European stereotype) and controlled recklessness with the ball. Plus, of course, he’s perhaps the best sixth man of this generation.
Manu is now 39, body squeaky from years of pounding the wooden pavement while repping Argentina and also the Spurs in 15 NBA seasons. If you combine his NBA playoff games with his international basketball games it’s like five additional NBA seasons. He hasn’t yet said anything about retiring once the Spurs are done this season, although he drops hints with a smile and his eyes are darting and evasive, the telltale signs that he’s keeping a big secret.
He’ll ask himself all the necessary questions first: Is it time to spend more time with the boys? (He has three.) Do I really want to drag these tendons through another 82-plus games and chase Westbrook around the floor? Do the Spurs really want me back?
At some point he’ll pull Popovich aside and give the emotional speech that everyone knows is coming, and wouldn’t you like to be the fly on the locker room wall when the gruff coach then orders Manu, as only he can, to have his ass at training camp next fall, pronto?
“I might decide I won’t let him leave,” Popovich said dryly the other day. “I don’t want him to ever retire. I’m going to squeeze every drop of juice I can from him. Use him like a bar of soap until there’s nothing left, for his family or anyone else.”
An unlikely success story in NBA
Manu did not see this coming. The career, not the impending retirement.
Much like his style of play, Manu’s NBA years have been, and still are, what you’d call unorthodox. He was the 57th pick in the 1999 Draft, the next-to-last selection, wedged among the rest of the dreamers. Since they were coming off a championship that summer and had no room for a rookie that they didn’t know too much about -- Popovich barely heard of him — they stashed him in Europe.
He subsequently blew up and won Italian League MVP twice, proof that the Spurs are both good and fortunate. As an assistant with Team USA in 2002 for the FIBA Worlds, Popovich saw Manu for the first time. Manu helped Argentina beat tournament MVP Dirk in the semis before losing to Yugoslavia in the title game to take silver. Manu and Peja Stojakovic were named the guards on the All-Tourney team. Popovich had to sit down and compose himself: My goodness, he’s …good.
Still: Manu was 25 years old as a rookie and the Spurs were deep and humming along.
“I came here with a lot of doubts,” he said. “A lot was not expected of me. It was a very unsure time. I was coming from a completely different background. I was confident but still knowing that I was arriving to a premier, elite team and not knowing exactly what my role was going to be.”
These dark moments were not totally foreign to Manu. As a young boy he was the runt of a great basketball family. His father, Jorge, was one of the all-time Argentine coaches from Bahia Blanca, the Rucker Park of Argentina. His older brothers were good enough to play professionally. Manu was a late bloomer who tagged along, aiming to please, struggling to fit in initially but simply worked his rear off to become ingrained into the Argentine basketball culture once he reached his late teens.
He was quirky, to say the least. He moved funny, then and now. He is 6-foot-6 and never especially blessed with any meaningful physical gift — not imposing, not intimidating, no neck-snapping quickness. He made do with a game that defied comparison or definition or category. There was no Manu before Manu and we might not see another like Manu after Manu.
“He’s one of the best competitors this game has ever seen,” said Popovich, “and he has done it with class. That’s who he is.”
Manu was Steve Smith’s backup as a rookie. Smith was nearing the end of a fine career and Popovich, who respects those who put in the work, wasn’t pushing Manu along. Plus, the rookie was having some transitional issues initially as the NBA game was much more physical than what he experienced in Europe.
“He was coming off multiple seasons of dominating the Euroleague but when he didn’t have that same success immediately in the NBA, he struggled with it,” said Malik Rose, his former teammate. “To make matters worse, Manu was extremely hard on himself. If he didn’t succeed at something, or made a mistake, he was either going to get it right or kill himself trying to.”
What endeared Manu to the Spurs was his willingness to sacrifice, which is the buzzword that defines the organization. Manu never made a big stink over minutes and not being a starter. With the exception of three seasons, he was a sixth man, and a true sixth man, too. Only twice did Manu average 30 minutes a game. He’s averaging 25.8 minutes per game for his career. And despite those somewhat limited minutes he’s at 14 points, four rebounds and four assists lifetime.
Before this, Manu had to prove himself to the Spurs first. Again: They knew virtually nothing about him, and he came to a championship-tested team. Besides, American born-and-raised players tend to view Euros somewhat skeptically. Rose noted how Bruce Bowen took it upon himself to get Manu ready for the NBA rigors, as only Bowen could.
“He took a daily beating from Bruce in practice,” said Rose, who then joked: “Anybody that could play through relentless fouling is definitely tough.”
Quick learner finds way in league
Manu improved rapidly once spring arrived and made second-team All-Rookie. By the playoffs, Manu felt comfortable, and earned one fan in particular when the Spurs beat the Lakers in six.
“Who is this guy?” remembered Kobe Bryant at the time. “He shocked the hell out of me with his competitiveness. And I had to put up with that for the next decade.”
About that trademark creativity with the basketball: Manu isn’t sure where it came from, how he got it. His father was a fundamentalist, and European ball also stresses the basics: shooting, passing, etc. As a boy, Manu grew up watching the NBA in the early ‘90s and certainly was influenced by the flair of Jordan and others of that era. But he mimicked no one in particular, other than maybe his basketball-playing brothers.
“The plain truth is I just like what I do,” he said.
He does bring a soccer background, and so the flashy Argentine influences come to mind, mainly the great Maradona. Otherwise, the Euro-step moves and flying layups seemingly come natural, if by instinct.
Ray Charles once said: Let it do what it do. And so, Manu’s ability to thrill has been -- over the years -- the refreshing change-of-pace for the otherwise straight-arrow Spurs. If they were accused of being vanilla ice cream during his career, he brought sprinkles.
“I used to marvel at how Manu could do virtually anything,” Rose said. “He used to mess around after practices kicking the basketballs like soccer balls. He’d stand at the free throw line on one end of the court and kick basketballs in the basket at the other end of the floor. It was amazing. he would do it repeatedly and make several. Guys on the team all tried to duplicate it and it was a disaster. I think three interns are still recuperating from injuries sustained.”
"The plain truth is I just like what I do."
If Manu could be put to music, it would be Johnny Rotten chopping it up with Sam Cooke. Yes, all over the place, a concoction both irresistible and strange. Manu attacks the basket with long and loopy strides, legs scissor-kicking for effect. Manu throws pinpoint behind-the-back passes, sometimes after he crosses mid-court, risking the rage of Popovich. Manu slides through screens and defenders by running with a lean.
And that jumper: Manu’s left elbow is bent at a 45-degree angle and points toward the scorer’s table instead of the rim.
And it all worked.
Rose said: “What amazed me is he had the guts to try those things. His coach was Gregg Popovich, a man known to bench you and forget about you if you messed up bad enough. To try some of the things Manu did, knowing the consequences that were sure to follow if he failed, was nothing less than unmitigated fearlessness.”
'He made many people proud'
Some star players don’t age gracefully and, truth be told, embarrass themselves as they age. That’s not exactly Manu. He remains sneaky productive in spurts and an asset in the locker room. Popovich will still put him on the floor in sticky moments, comfortable that Manu will more likely than not make the right decisions, knowing that Manu, if needed, will take the last shot with confidence.
“He’s going to continue to make plays that astound,” said Popovich. “He won’t make those plays as often as he used to, but he will make them because his spirit’s so huge.”
Manu fit the Spurs for one other reason: He, like Duncan, never stuck them up for big money. He spent his prime years playing either at or below market value for someone with his talent, in order for the Spurs to keep a competitive team. The most Manu ever made is $14 million, and that’s this season, when he’s clearly slowing down. When he decided last summer, as a free agent, to keep playing, the Sixers and their coach, Brett Brown, a former Spurs assistant, thought Manu would be a good influence on a young club. So Manu had some leverage on the market.
There were controversial rumblings that the Spurs were being hard negotiators with Manu, but one source said on the contrary, that Manu’s ace was Popovich. The coach values loyalty and sacrifice and returns favor when the franchise’s most important players reach their twilight. That’s why Popovich made a point of resting them, to prolong their careers, which also meant another contract. Popovich won’t toss his aging vets overboard; there’s no history of that. They’ve meant too much to him and the organization and those five championships. He didn’t do that with Duncan, he isn’t with Manu, he won’t with Tony Parker. He’ll let them shrivel and decide when to retire and stop getting paid. It’s only fair, and it’s only right.
He will be forever adored by Argentina for the 2004 Olympic victory, with Argentina becoming the first team other than the US to win gold in 16 years. The massive buzzer-beater in the opener against Serbia and Montenegro, followed up weeks later by 29 points against the beleaguered Americans in the semis, then winning MVP in the championship. Back home, it was celebrated almost like a World Cup title. Almost.
“I have been blessed to be with the Spurs and my Argentina teammates for so long,” he said. “The culture and the situations were a bit different but team goals were the same in each case. Not a bunch of guys worried about stats. Just guys worried about competition.”
Just as well, Manu is Argentina’s clean sporting hero. The locals, often left broken-hearted by the occasional soiled soccer star, love him for that. There’s no scandal attached to his good name, no tabloid lifestyle, no temper tantrums or ejections, no “Do you know who I am?” moments of ego.
Fabian Garcia, a Buenos Aries journalist, said: “Manu has never embarrassed us. It is not in his makeup. He makes many people proud.”
Well, that was evident last week when the Argentines made their pilgrimage and temporarily turned Texas into Carnival for Manu. It was hard to tell who enjoyed it more, the visitors or the subject of their affections.
“A special week,” Manu called it. “A special year. It is great to see the spirit, the excitement of these people, some of whom are coming to an NBA game for the first time. It takes a huge effort for them to be here. It is an honor, privilege for me to host them.
“I am of course thankful for everything.”
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