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Argentina's star shines bright on court

BEIJING – For months, San Antonio Spurs executives had gone back and forth with Manu Ginobili on the gimpy ankle that gave out to Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference finals. They pleaded with Ginobili to pass on the Olympics. For all the reasons general manager R.C. Buford adores Ginobili – his sense of duty, his competitive heart – this was an instance when rest over national service to Argentina had to be the strong suggestion of the Spurs’ elders.

Before Ginobili left Texas for South America in late June, there was still swelling in that jammed left ankle. Buford and his boss, Gregg Popovich, were troubled. Eventually, they dispatched a trainer to Buenos Aires to supervise Ginobili’s workouts with the national team. Mostly, they begged him to be honest: Please, please don’t risk your future with us. He’s Manu Ginobili. They had to trust him.

“When the president gave him the honor of carrying the flag in the opening ceremonies,” Buford said by phone from San Antonio, “we knew it would be much more difficult in Manu’s heart to stay away. It wasn’t like he needed any pressure to get him to play, though.”

As an NBA executive, Buford felt like he grew up with the Argentina kids. As a young GM, he chased them to every corner of the globe. He saw Ginobili first in the Under-21 World Championships in Melbourne in 1997 and became intrigued with what he called a “wild colt,” who just played with so much passion, so much joy.

The Argentineans were different. It was so easy to see. They were getting such terrific coaching, had such a toughness and tenacity, and soon Argentina turned into the Spurs staff’s favorite stop on the circuit. Luis Scola. Fabricio Oberto. Andres Nocioni. Pepe Sanchez. They cared about winning. They cared about each other. They made Argentina a basketball nation.

Buford had been watching on television in San Antonio when Ginobili blocked a Greece shot on Wednesday and crashed into the photographers’ pit. Ginobili hit his three-pointers and a twisting, turning layup on the way to 24 points, an 80-78 victory and a shot at the United States in the Olympic semifinals on Friday.

Across the world, Buford had to laugh. Against his better judgment, against his hopes for a fifth NBA title in 11 years, Manu Ginobili was where he belonged. Three NBA titles, a Euroleague championship and an Olympic gold medal later, the uneasiness with the wear and tear on his body is forever tempered with the sense that the Spurs GM never gets tired of watching Emanuel David Ginobili with a big game in the air, a basketball in his hands.

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Argentina chose Manu Ginobili to be its flag bearer.
(AFP)

So here comes Argentina, a little short on the bench, a little diminished at guard, to play the Americans for a berth in the gold-medal game Sunday. Ginobili gets Kobe Bryant covering him, and a puncher’s chance for the biggest upset in Olympic basketball history.

“There’s not much of a chance, only a very, very small one,” Ginobili said.

He’s right. A small, small chance. It still brought him back to these Games for Argentina, where he is the tournament’s only player scoring 20 points a game. For all the epic talents on the American roster, there isn’t a player in these Games with more big baskets and big plays on the global stage. The way Team USA’s players see it, Ginobili is one of them. He’s one of the world’s best 15 players, something that gets lost in the shadow of teammates Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

And for one shot, one play, one crafty crisscrossed stride to the rim, a smart basketball mind would take Manu over Kobe, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Ginobili never does it alone for Argentina, but his burden is different than with the Spurs.

“He’s one of the top players in the NBA, and if you ask me, he’s even better for them because he’s ‘the man’ on that team,’” Deron Williams said.

Argentina beat the United States in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis – the first time NBA players had lost an international game – and again on the way to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Now, the basketball world has tilted again. The U.S. has learned its lessons and returned with a vengeance. It’s destroying everyone in these Games, and privately, Argentina has been the country that Team USA’s players respects the most. They know Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto of the Spurs and Luis Scola of the Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls’ Andres Nocioni.

“These guys are probably the toughest competitors in the Olympics,” Williams said.

For all the toughness and tenacity, Ginobili gives Argentina its soul, its buoy. As a young boy in Bahia Blanca, he incorporated the style and substance of soccer legend Diego Maradona into basketball, molding a game of fundamentals and flair that is uniquely Argentine.

When Channel 9 was done showing soccer on Sunday nights, Ginobili stayed up until midnight to watch the most mesmerizing 30 minutes of television every week. Back in the mid-1980s, an Argentine soccer analyst and basketball fanatic, Adrian Paenza, arranged a meeting with NBA commissioner David Stern in New York. Paenza had come to ask how he could get the NBA on television in Argentina. Desperate to reach the corners of the globe, Stern sold him the rights for a cool $2,000, and soon the league shipped those tapes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to the little station Channel 9 in Buenos Aries.

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Manu Ginobili drives to the basket against Iran.
(NBAE / Getty)

Ginobili was 7 years old when he started watching those NBA tapes with a religious fervor, forever hustling outside to mimic the moves just like the kids in the United States would do. It wouldn’t be long until his passion for basketball melded with his love of nation. He witnessed Maradona win the World Cup for Argentina in 1986, a spirit that never left him.

“I admire him probably the same way I did with (Michael) Jordan,” Ginobili once told Yahoo! Sports’ Johnny Ludden. “But the difference was he was representing me with the Argentine jersey. That changes everything.”

For the Spurs, who had France play Tony Parker with a broke hand and the Netherlands clear Francisco Elson with a broken eye socket, the dynamic of Ginobili’s obligations to Argentina are a complex issue.

These days, only Maradona is considered a greater sporting treasure for Argentina. When Popovich moved Ginobili into the sixth man’s role two years ago, it was met with hysteria back home. The Spurs were flooded with emails and calls demanding Popovich change course. This national team has become so precious to its people – “a generation of players that will be difficult to replicate,” Buford said – and they’re understandably protective of their players.

“It’s probably best that we’re not allowed to make those decisions for players, because obviously national teams present risks not only with injury, but with length of career and cumulative fatigue,” Buford said. “But we’ve also built our program with great respect for national team representation. Pop and (owner) Peter Holt understand it’s what makes our guys great.”

As it stands, Ginobili could be playing his final Olympic basketball game on Friday. For an Argentina core that made basketball matter in a soccer nation, that delivered the 2002 beating that sped the U.S. downward spiral, this semifinal game with Team USA could be something of a goodbye.

Buford remembered walking into the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Indianapolis at the end of the 2002 World Championships and stumbling upon a private room where the Argentina players had gathered for a going-away dinner. There was a Team USA official there too, and he thought: This is everything I want for our floundering American program.

“The U.S. team had limos lined up at the hotel to get them out of town as fast as they could,” Buford said. “You looked in that room, and after a crushing loss when they had gotten screwed in the gold-medal game against Serbia, and they were all there together. Some of them had their kids on their knees. They were just so passionate about competing together, about being together. They didn’t like leaving each other.”

And once more late Wednesday night, in the silence of an empty Wukesong Indoor Basketball Stadium in Beijing, those Argentina fans had stayed long after that thrilling victory over Greece. Down on the floor, the television man interviewed Manu Ginobili and the people screamed, “Manu…Manu…Manu…”

For old times’ sake, here come the Americans for Argentina, and Kobe for Ginobili. Maybe once and for all, here they go again. So, the greatest player in Argentina history raised his arms and clenched a fist, and halfway across the world, R.C. Buford knew the truth: The Spurs never had a chance.

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