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Ball Don't Lie

A Buenos Aires bird attack and distracted intern briefly delayed Manu Ginobili’s return to San Antonio

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Manu Ginobili works in a recent practice, assured of his guaranteed deal (Getty Images)

Pitched toward the beginning of a fascinating feature on the San Antonio Spurs’ decades-long reliance on international talent is the story of a team intern nearly scuttling the two-year, $14 million deal the team agreed to with Manu Ginobili last July. It appears that San Antonio just can’t seem to get to players through the U.S. Mail, and prefers sending contracts with a liaison to be signed in person with a Spurs representative on hand. Even if the signee lives in Buenos Aires, and that rep is an intern.

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An intern that can be distracted by Argentinean birds long enough to lose the signed contract, and other personal effects. From the New York Times:

Hours before the Spurs’ intern was to fly home from Buenos Aires, team officials said that he was strafed by a bird in a park. As he tidied up at a fountain, his backpack disappeared. Inside were Ginobili’s signed contract, along with the intern’s passport, cellphone and laptop.

Luckily, an international sports crisis was averted. An assistant traveling to Buenos Aires soon after brought a fresh contract and returned it to Texas without incident.

“No birds got to him,” Sean Marks, the Spurs’ director of basketball operations, said with a laugh. “We were all waiting for Manu’s contract to show up on eBay. It hasn’t yet.”

Ginobili wasn’t rumored to head to any other NBA team outside of the Spurs last summer, which leaves several international squads on the hook for possibly encouraging this bird, and making off with Ginobili’s signed contract. Why they had to take the intern’s laptop along the way is just cruel.

No word on if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, as (rightfully) bilious as ever, later had the intern … y’know. Dealt with.

“Dealt with” in a completely different way than Popovich once dealt with Spurs forward Zarko Paspalj in 1989, while working as a San Antonio assistant coach. We fall back onto the Times’ superb profile for this anecdote:

“Zarko could have had a 47-inch vertical jump and been the best shooter in the world, and it wasn’t going to happen because Sean Elliott was the American who had been drafted,” Popovich said.

It also apparently did not help that Paspalj, a garrulous character, had seldom been asked to play defense in his career and adhered to a training regimen that included copious amounts of pizza and cigarettes.

Popovich believed so strongly in Paspalj that he invited the forward to live with him. And he took Paspalj to a clinic in Boston, where a Russian doctor was supposed to be expert at curing smoking through hypnosis. Alas, the cure remained elusive.

After Popovich picked up Paspalj from the doctor’s office in a taxi, he turned to give the driver directions. He then looked over to see Paspalj lighting up a cigarette.

In Paspalj’s defense, nicotine is a hell of a drug. And pizza is a hell of a pie.

The Spurs should be lauded for their reliance on overseas prospects, but if we can be completely honest the team has only really gamed the system three times in the Tim Duncan era. Still, the machinations were enough to sustain a still-functioning dynasty.

There was the selection of Ginobili near the end of the 1999 NBA draft, and the grasp of Tony Parker late in 2001’s first round. In 2007 the team also earned the rights to center Tiago Splitter, a long-coveted lottery-type prospect, knowing that they could stash the big man for years while waiting out his buyout with the Spanish League. Splitter would not come stateside for another three years.

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Those are three massive upgrades, upgrades that extended Duncan’s career long enough that the Spurs are being counted on to once again represent the Western Conference in next June’s NBA Finals, some 17 years after they selected Duncan in the 1997 NBA draft. It’s true that the team has been dotted with international players throughout all these championship runs, but really it’s those Big Three, alongside Duncan, and a whole lot of intelligent maneuvering from Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford along the way.

Save for the whole part about sending an ornithophobic intern to sign off on Manu Ginobili’s contract. There has to be a fax machine for this sort of thing.

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