A Familiar Face from Bahia Blanca

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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Alejandro Montecchia

The broadcaster could pass for a brother. The long, bent nose. The outline of the mouth. The penetrating eyes. The chin. Yes, the gentleman standing in front of a TV camera looks like a blood relative of a star on the AT&T Center court.

Alejandro Montecchia laughs knowingly. Back in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, even the town folk mistake him for Manu Ginobili.

“They confuse us many times,” says Montecchia, a commentator for ESPN Deportes. “It’s funny because he has a big nose and I look like him.”

He pauses. “But I’m better looking.”

Montecchia and Ginobili share more than similar features. As kids, they shared the same gym in the same neighborhood. As young men, they shared an Olympic moment, winning gold in Greece. No, they were not separated at birth. But they did grow up five blocks apart.

In Bahia Blanca, Montecchia, 42, spent considerable time at the Ginobili house, mostly with Manu’s older brothers, Sebastian and Leandro. The boys played at a nearby gym for a club coached by Jorge Ginobili, the brother’s father. Little Manu often tagged along.

“He was always a pain, always making jokes,” says Montecchia, a fine point guard in his day. “Sometimes you’d want to say, “Stop, Manu. Stop.’ But now he’s great. I love him like a brother.”

The storm of adolescence changes the body and shapes the future. It is the wind that peels back unrealized potential to reveal the talent beneath. Bahia Blanca knew pre-teen Manu as an undersized boy of unremarkable skill. Even at 15, he failed to make the local All-Star team. “He was just a normal player,” Montecchia says.

When the storm hit, Montecchia could not believe his eyes. On one visit home from Argentina’s national team, he beheld a familiar face in flight, 16 and growing fast, hands above the rim. “I was in shock,” Montecchia says. “He was dunking. I said, ‘What happened here?’”

That was the beginning, the genesis of explosive growth in height and game. “He started to dominate,” Montecchia says.

Years later, Montecchia, the 6-foot-0 point guard, began assisting Manu, the 6-6 shooting guard, on Reggio Calabria in Italy. Later, they formed a potent combination on the Argentinian national team as well, most memorably in Athens 10 years ago

In the Olympic gold medal game against Italy, Montecchia came off the bench to score 17 points in 17 minutes. With Argentina leading, 61-59, in the fourth, Montecchia sank a three-pointer. The basket sparked a 12-1 run, which sealed the victory.

“It was like a movie,” Montecchia says.

Five years later, after recovering from a torn achilles and resuming his career in South America, Montecchia retired. He could still play, he said, but it was time to settle down with his family and enjoy a favorite pastime: fishing

Now here he is at the NBA Finals, providing analysis for a Latin American television audience. Will he interview his former teammate?

“No, no, no,” Montecchia says. “I don’t want to. He’s my friend. I’m not a journalist. I’m here to comment for ESPN Deportes.”

The years run together. They were neighbors once upon a time, then gym rats. They became teammates and roommates and Olympic champions. Montecchia’s retirement in 2009 did not pull them apart. It may have drawn them closer.

“We go on vacations together,” Montecchia says.

Between Finals games, Montecchia says, he will stop by his good friend’s house. They will share a meal, tell stories, catch up. When he returns to the court, he knows someone will ask: Hey, is that guy Manu’s brother?