Playing Alongside His Idol

Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli

Long ago, on a basketball court far away, Marco Belinelli remembers awe and anxiety, a stew of emotions coursing through a body so lean it looked like skin stretched over bone.

Sitting on the bench, all of 15-years-old, Belinelli was about to make his professional debut in Italy. He doesn’t remember the name of the opponent or the arena in which he played. He didn’t know what to think except to hope he wouldn’t mess up.

His team, Virtus Bologna, an Italian League powerhouse, featured three future NBA players. One of them, Marko Jaric, stood 6-foot-7. Another, Manu Ginobili, stood 6-6. Then there was scrawny Belinelli, 6-foot-1 and still growing.

He played two, maybe three minutes. That’s it. Almost as soon as he stepped on the floor, a teammate passed him the ball. Belinelli took it behind the arc, lofted a shot and watched it spin toward the rim.

“I don’t remember who passed me the ball,” Belinelli said, “but I scored. It was amazing.”

First attempt of his pro career, and he sinks a three. Aside from that basket, Belinelli cannot remember any personal game highlights from that season 11 years ago. But he does remember the daily wonder of watching Ginobili create and finish impossible shots.

At the time, Belinelli followed the NBA on television in Bologna. When Belinelli attended practice, he would get a better show. “Manu Ginobili,” he says, “was my idol.”

More than a decade later, Belinelli and Ginobili exchanged tweets in Italian. The former announced he had signed a two-year contract with the Spurs. The latter offered hearty congratulations. Then they exchanged greetings by phone in Italian.

Belinelli did not attempt to hide his excitement when he arrived at the Spurs practice facility on media day in September.

“We played together when I was 15 and 16,” Belinelli said of Ginobili, “and now we’re going to play again on the same NBA team with one of the best jerseys in the world, and we’re going to try to win something together. So it’s a little bit crazy.”

How often does a kid grow up to play with his idol in the NBA? How often do the kid and the idol speak a language understood by almost no one else on the team?

The connection Belinelli and Ginobili made in Italy, one between teen and European star, carried over the years and overseas to San Antonio. Belinelli, now a 6-5 shooting guard, and Ginobili have played well together in the preseason, the veteran instructing the newcomer on court in Italian. In five preseason games, Ginobili made 55.6 percent of his three-point attempts, Belinelli 50 percent.

“When I was little,” Belinelli said, “I wanted to be just like him.”

The Ginobili of 2001-02 entertained Italy as he would the U.S.: bouncing passes between a defender’s legs, soaring to the rim, making ridiculous shots. At times, young Belinelli wondered what he was doing on the same court with a two-time Italian League MVP.

What Belinelli didn’t realize was how Ginobili evolved. Slowly. At the same age, 15, Ginobili failed to make the All-Star team in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. At the same age, Ginobili attacked the rim but was too small to get noticed. At the same age, Ginobili played in the shadows of two older brothers, both professionals, who considered him a tag-along pest.

Ten years later, Belinelli saw Ginobili all grown up. “He could do everything,” Belinelli said. “He was the best player in Europe.”

Some teens dream of meeting their idols. Belinelli played alongside one. The kid struggled to fit in. What should he say? How should he act? Ginobili’s team, Virtus Bologna, was the defending Euroleague champion. “I was a little bit nervous, because I was really young and shy about everything,” Belinelli said. “When you are 15 and you start to play with a legend, it’s not easy.”

Belinelli is a veteran of six NBA seasons now, and no longer star struck. And yet, there remains a glimmer of adolescent wonder in the man who is 27.

“To be part of the San Antonio Spurs and to play with Manu, and with great players like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker who have won championships,” Belinelli said, “for me, this is like a dream.”