Who inspired Manu? The answer begins in Bahia Blanca
Steve Smith, the former Spur, recently counted down his Top 10 plays of the season (so far) below the rim. Only one player makes two appearances in the NBA TV video. It's not LeBron. It's not Kobe. It's Manu Ginobili.
In a sequence against New Orleans, Ginobili drives to his right, away from the basket. Then he shakes Emeka Okafor with a wicked crossover, slices left, soars toward the rim, twists his body, raises his left arm and finishes with a reverse layup.
In a sequence against Minnesota, Ginobili chases an errant pass and catches it with one hand. Then, as he stumbles out of bounds, Manu flings the ball behind his back into the hands of DeJuan Blair for an assist, a play ESPN calls the best of the last 10 years.
That's Manu at his manic best – creating plays that prompt even some peers to ask: How'd he do that? A better question might be: From whom did he get those fearless, out-of-this-world moves, the kind that enable him to dunk on Yao and whirl past Kobe?
June 30, 1999 – Selected by the San Antonio Spurs with 57th overall selection in the 1999 NBA Draft.
October 29, 2002 – Makes Spurs debut with 7 points and 3 assists as San Antonio defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 87-82.
December 8, 2003 – Scores 14 straight 4th quarter points to turn a 75-74 Chicago lead (with 5:05 left in the game) into and 88-78 Spurs lead (with 2:20 left).
January 21, 2005 – Scored a career-high 48 points, along with 6 assists in the Spurs 128-123 overtime victory at Phoenix.
February 20, 2005 – Joins teammate Tim Duncan at the 2005 NBA All-Star Game in Denver. Scored 8 points and grabbed 3 boards in 22 minutes.
June 23, 2005 – Averages playoff career highs with 20.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists as San Antonio captures its third NBA title in a thrilling seven-game series over Detroit.
February 21, 2007 – Set a franchise record by scoring 24 consecutive points in the second quarter at Atlanta. Finished the game with a game-high 40 points.
April 21, 2008 – Wins the Sixth Man of the Year Award and named to the All-NBA Third Team after averaging 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 74 games.
January 29, 2009 – Set a new Spurs franchise record for free throws made by going a perfect 18-of-18 from the line in San Antonio's 114-104 win over Phoenix.
Ginobili Notes: He and Bill Bradley are the only two players to win an Olympic gold medal, an NBA Championship and a Euroleague Championship … signed with the Spurs on 7/18/02 … re-signed with San Antonio on 7/15/04 … is the Spurs all-time leader in 3PT-FG made and attempted … among Spurs all-time leaders ranks: fifth in steals, seventh in points, fifth in FT made and seventh in FT percentage … in Spurs playoff history ranks fifth in games, fourth in points, first in 3PT-FG made, third in rebounds, fourth in assists and second in steals … in 2004 was named Argentina's Athlete of the Decade by TyC Sports (Argentina's version of ESPN) … a three-time winner of Clarin's Premio Consagracion de Oro award (2002, 2004 and 2005) … the annual award recognizes Argentina's athlete of the year … named Fox Sports Espanol's Latin American Basketball Player of the Year three times (2003, 2004 and 2005).
"All that stuff is just about watching games as a kid," says former teammate Bruce Bowen. "He's taken things he's seen and incorporated them on the floor."
It wouldn't be accurate to say Ginobili was born with a ball in his hand. But he's been cradling one for as long as he can remember. It was once reported that Jorge Ginobili taught his son to dribble between chairs when the kid was 2-years-old. Manu says that's not true.
"I was three," he says. "And it was my coach – not my father – who taught me."
No, Manu didn't have a personal trainer in pre-school. But in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, he had a father who'd been a point guard and ran a basketball club, Bahiense del Norte. He had two older brothers – Sebastian and Leandro – who were budding stars. And he had a house full of coaches who often stopped by to eat, hang out and talk hoops with the family.
One coach, Oscar Sanchez, taught 3-year-old Manu to dribble with his head up and his free arm bent at the elbow to protect the ball. "He made me dribble balls around the house," Manu says. "He coached me in the kitchen."
Another coach never trained Leandro and Sebastian without bringing an extra ball for their baby brother. "My brothers were five and seven years older than me," Manu says. "I wanted to be like them. Every time they were on the court, I was following them around or keeping their stats."
As a boy in soccer mad Argentina, Manu studied the basketball moves of Sebastian, an exceptional passer, and Leandro, a lights-out shooter. Manu also studied Juan Alberto Espil, an off guard who led Argentina to the gold medal at the 1995 Pan American Games.
"I used to watch him play in Bahia Blanca," Manu recalls. "He was a pure shooter. But he also played well without the ball."
Young Manu became a fine student of the game. But no one considered him an elite prospect. At 15, he failed to make the local All-Star team. Though he loved to attack the rim, Manu was too small to get noticed. But then he began to grow. By the time he sprouted to 6-foot-6 and turned pro, his drives had become ferocious, unpredictable, artistic. Fans thundered their approval. His mother, Raquel, looked away.
"She'd say, 'Don't dunk. Stay out of the paint. Why don't you just shoot threes,'" Manu says. "She was afraid I'd get hit by one of the big fellas."
Manu kept driving and joined a team with his middle brother. "When we played together," Sebastian says, "I realized that he was different, that he could do things on the court physically, with and without the ball."
Later, Manu found inspiration in Italy. He incorporated moves from Sasha Danilovic. Other moves Manu simply made up. That wrap-the-ball-around-the-waist trick he likes to spring in the paint -- Manu didn't get it from his brothers or anyone in Europe. He got it out of necessity. "People were slapping at the ball," he says. "And I had to protect it as I took it to the rim."
Back in Bahia Blanca, Raquel Ginobili still can't bear to watch. When Manu's on TV, she'll read a book or disappear into another room. If Manu's not diving headlong for a ball into a row of cameras, he's throwing his body into a thicket of elbows and knees. They don't call him El Contusion for nothing. "To this day," Manu says, "she can't handle it."
At 32, Manu remains a SportsCenter staple, a diving, driving, dunking wonder who creates magic on the fly. Some of it comes from the family tree in Bahia Blanca. Some comes from nowhere in mid-air.
Once, all Sebastian could see was a pesky, little tag-along brother. Today, he sees an artist who moves with on-the-spot, spontaneity, like riffs of improvisational jazz.