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SAN ANTONIO – Sixteen years ago, this was the Manu Ginobili that Spurs general manager R.C. Buford discovered at the World Championships in Australia. The long, wavy hair is gone, the behind-the-back passes that soared into the stands have long been weeded out of his game, but in the winter of his basketball life, the essence of Ginobili had been unchanged in crisis, unrelenting in the uncertainty of his performance.
"There's no backing off with him," Buford said outside the Spurs' locker room late Sunday night. The championship core of these Spurs had all come so far together – the GM, the coach, the three magical stars – and together now they stand at the cusp of the franchise's fifth championship.
There will probably never be another night like this at the AT&T Center, another night when it's Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker playing brilliant basketball with an NBA championship hanging in the balance. Out of his resolve and resourcefulness, out of nowhere, Ginobili had a throwback night – 24 points and 10 assists – and pushed this throwback championship chase to the cusp of completion with a 114-104 Game 5 victory.
"He's going to attack," Buford said, "and that's what's made him – that's what's made Manu … Manu."
As the NBA Finals slipped away, as the public proclaimed his body beaten, his skills eroded, Ginobili felt far more like an albatross than an anchor. Reporters asked him about retirement, and his unfailingly honest, introspective way, confessed that his poor play had caused him to consider the possibility. His scoring had dropped to 7.5 points a game, his shooting percentage below 35 percent. Truth be told, Manu Ginobili was a shell of himself.
"He did seem dejected," Duncan said.
When everyone else was telling Ginobili that they no longer believed in his talent, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich walked over to him before Saturday's practice and told his sixth man something he hadn't told him once this season: You're starting tomorrow.
Whatever happened, Ginobili understand this: He wasn't going down reticent and unsure of himself. Now, he found himself on the floor with Parker, off the ball, and the opportunities opened for him.
Suddenly, Manu was Manu again. The Spurs' Thirtysomething Big Three had been made whole again, and somehow had pushed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to the brink of collapse.
As Ginobili hit jump shots, whisked past the Heat for daring, driving layups and fired perfect passes for layups, the AT&T Center felt far more like a religious revival than a basketball game.
"Ma-nuuuuuuu … " they chanted over and over. "Ma-nuuuuu."
"I needed to feel more important," Ginobili said. "I was angry, disappointed. We are playing in the NBA Finals, we were 2-2, and I felt I still wasn't helping the team that much."
There have been greater Spurs in history, but never someone so beloved. Everywhere you go, there are Ginobili No. 20 jerseys. Turn on the television, and he's speaking English and Spanish in commercials for local businesses. "Since he speaks the language of a lot of the people who live here, it endears him even more," Popovich said.
All those years ago, Buford discovered him at the World Championships as a 20-year-old kid making as many mistakes as spectacular plays. Outside the locker room, Buford laughed, "He's the ultimate 'Oh [expletive] player. Both coaches are saying it when he has the ball."
No one in the NBA has packed so much into his basketball life. He transformed Argentina from a flimsy basketball tradition into an Olympic gold medalist. From those endless summers with the national team – qualifiers, World Championships and Olympics – to his EuroLeague MVP days and now, his 169th NBA playoff game on Sunday night, there isn't a player of his generation who's played so many important games on so many big stages.
Everything finally blended together for these Spurs in Game 5, because Ginobili played his part. His passing and playmaking have made him the cog of the Spurs, the ultimate winning player within a winning system. He's been so fortunate to find two teams that endured, the Spurs and Argentina. On the eve of Game 1, Ginobili and I were talking about that national team, about those once-in-a-lifetime core players – Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and Andres Nocioni – who had a remarkable decade run of global championship success that paralleled the Spurs.
"Here is the thing that's amazing about us all coming along together: we had a player at every position," Ginobili told me. "Some countries, they have a bunch of guys at the same position, but we had a point guard, a shooting guard, a forward, a center. … It was magic, I guess."
For one more night in the AT&T Center, one more championship chase, the sounds tumbling down out of the 18,581 left Ginobili so moved. "It felt great when I heard that," he confessed. Together, they go back to Miami with two chances for a fourth title together and history hangs over everyone now. Duncan's 37 years old, Ginobili's 36 and everyone understands there will probably never be another night like this here, another night when the Big Three played so beautifully with the world watching, with a championship within reach.
They needed Manu Ginobili to be Manu Ginobili and here he had come again, those fearless drives, that step-back jumper on LeBron in the fourth quarter, the din so deafening that it felt like the roof would come crashing down on everyone.
Outside the locker room, Buford remembered that night he watched Ginobili for the first time, far, far away in Melbourne, and ultimately made him a Spur with the 57th pick of the 1999 draft. All these years later, all this fear that genius talent had worn itself out, that the magic was gone, and Duncan and Parker would need to rely upon Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to drive San Antonio to a title, Ginobili made a move on Sunday night, and a shot, and another, and soon the most beloved Spur had them whole again.
"All night, attacking," R.C. Buford said. "His whole career, that's all he's ever done."
Finally, they were all together again – Duncan, Parker and Ginobili – and the most improbable championship of all is 48 minutes away. All that doubt, all the introspection and Manu Ginobili called upon everything that had ever pushed him to Sunday night – all those big games, all those big performances, all the big belief – and Ginobili left them calling his name deep into the San Antonio night, left them calling his name on the kind of night that they'll never see again here.
NBA Finals coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
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