There is a famous old saying that goes, “Victory is a thousand times sweeter when you’re the underdog.” It is not just that the significance is greater, but it also reflects on the much contentious point of someone deserving being deprived of his due. One is an underdog because some savant out there didn’t perceive in him the required paramount iota of excellence or ability, to be considered as a legitimate challenger. Great examples of the same would be what people said about Buster Douglas before his historic knock-out win over Mike Tyson.
Pretty much comparable were the repudiations endowed on the zealous Greek football team in the EURO championships of 2004. I don’t wish to account for such instances, because I certainly am not qualified to do so. The point that I wish to make is that despite everything what the savants and the pundits may condemn or rave about, they do paint a picture of a dark horse. And to the enthusiasts and the passionate fans of the game, nothing compares to the joy of watching the dark horse win. David over Goliath. Nobody cheered for Goliath indeed.
Talking of painting pictures, I still vividly remember the initial dismissive stuff being written about a certain player in the draft of 1999. The player in question was a guard out of Argentina, with Italian roots and from a very well-reputed legion of basketball players. His father was a coach for a local club in Argentina; his two elder brothers had featured in both the Argentine Basketball league and the Spanish Liga Espanola de Baloncesto. Coached by his father, and trained amidst the numerous juvenile scrimmages with his brothers, the long-haired kid dreamed to do nothing more than play like his idol Michael Jordan. The kid is none other than the sorcerous Manu Ginobili.
Manu Ginobili, the 35-year old veteran, who in many ways holds the key to the Spurs possible play-off success campaign. His latest injury had the entire Spurs fraternity worried and fretting, while the savants were convinced that without Ginobili the Spurs surely couldn’t mount a significant post-season run. Well, he did return and he returned a hero. He delivered another vintage play-off performance for the Spurs, knocking down crucial momentum-changing three-pointers in the last two quarters en route to scoring 18 points in 18 minutes while destroying and demolishing any chances of a possible Lakers comeback. By the time the clock ticked over and the inevitable result was established, the whole arena was chanting his name. Tim Duncan did his bit, Tony Parker was also immense, but everyone knew and recognized that Manu had won them the game.
However, the story was far less rosy when Ginobili entered the 1999 NBA draft. The physical standards of the NBA demanded players with extreme hyperbolic athletic ability, and it was assumed that it was almost impossible for any European or South American player to come into the league and get accustomed to such physicality.
Manu had grown up to be as tall as his idol, Michael Jordan, but beyond his height he didn’t share any of Jordan’s physical gifts. He wasn’t the quickest player across 94-feet; his jumpers weren’t pretty and his hang-time was below average NBA standards. He was still an old-school guard who believed and banked on his basketball intelligence to navigate to the hoop and lay the ball in. He was a very sound ball-handler, but lacked the pace to bother the quicker guards in the NBA, and didn’t do much with his off-hand. At 22, one can’t surely complain about his decision making, but even that was a grey area.
The Spurs did select Manu Ginobili, but to predict that the 57th pick of the NBA draft, would one day be a three-time NBA Champion amidst several other honours, one surely has to be shooting too high. Now, it is common knowledge that players picked so low in the draft aren’t expected to feature much in the game, let aside show enough promise to be reckoned with. Plus, this kid was from Argentina, and considering the alien basketball universe in the NBA, one was expecting a definite bust.
Many considered it wise on Ginobili’s part when he chose not to sign with the Spurs in 1999 and decided to play in the Argentine league for the Kinder Bologna. Ginobili had his mind and heart set on the NBA, and was ready to do everything required to develop and grow into the standards that the NBA demands and preaches.
His next three years helped him do just that, as he grew from an ambitious dreamy-eyed kid into maybe the best basketball player in Europe. He helped his team win the 2001 Italian Championship, the 2001 and 2002 Italian Cups and the 2001 Eurolegaue. On an individual level he managed to win the 2001 Lega A MVP , the 2001 Euroleague Final Four MVP, the 2001 FIBA Americas Championship MVP, the 2002 Italian Cup MVP and the 2002 Lega A MVP. The promise was fulfilled and the resume was over-flowing with adulations. Now, he was ready for the NBA.
However, despite everything that Manu had accomplished in Europe, he knew he would never match up to the physical highlight plays that defined the game. He wasn’t going to be anything like Jordan. But, now Manu was too wise to try and be something that was beyond his physical limits. He chose to be effective playing within himself, using his IQ and intelligence to dominate opposition players. He still didn’t have the pretty jumper, but now he had the wizardry to create space and launch his shots. He still couldn’t posterize players, but he could finish with contact. He couldn’t keep up with the faster guards in the league, but had the positional sense and the reading ability to steal the ball from them, force them into bad shots and just out-smart them. And thus came onto the scene the wizard who bamboozled the best of defenses with his ability to knock-down perimeter shots, dribble, penetrate and get to the rim, create plays and play defense. In other words he was doing everything that Jordan did, just that he did it differently.
His passes made it to the highlight reels, not his dunks; he didn’t shoot contested fade-aways because he could always create space and launch an uncontested jumper. He didn’t do the crazy cross-overs and explode to the cup, but used his signature off-balance ludicrous two-step floaters and bankers to score in the paint. Different than Jordan and yes, Jordan was surely greater, but Manu carved a very special niche for himself. If anything he also had this liking for the clutch moments, and maybe like Jordan and the Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant, he had the grit and the confidence to deliver in such moments. He ranks amongst the top 10 players in the league in points per minute during such moments. He also shoots down his free-throws better (unlike a certain LeBron James), and mostly manages to get the ball to the paint rather than taking 20-feet fade-aways (like the legendary Black Mamba does).
He sums it up best in his own words: “I don’t play like this because I want to look pretty; I think people can really see I love the game.”
In his 12th year in the league, Manu has most certainly established himself as the greatest foreign player to have ever played in the NBA. I know some may say that Dirk Nowitzki has been better, because he has been a starter, won the regular season MVP and the Finals MVP, and notched more points and rebounds as the franchise star for the Dallas Mavericks. Many forget that as a basketball player, Manu has been more successful. He has won an Olympic Gold medal with the Argentinean team devoid of any major stars, has been a former FIBA MVP, and was the heart and soul of the Spurs team, a better team than the Mavericks for a better part of the decade.
Was Manu good enough to be a starter in the NBA? Definitely. Could he have at any point of his career do a James Harden and switch teams to be a starter for the bigger pay package? Certainly. But it is this standpoint that defines Ginobili’s legacy. He chose to be a role-player and live under the shadows of a Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, because to him nothing mattered more than winning. He believed he owed it to the fans, his coach and to his teammates. And if we are talking league honours, one may point out that Manu lost the 2005 NBA Finals MVP trophy to Duncan by a single vote.
But being the consummate professional as he is, Manu chose to bask in the spangle rather than have the limelight. Maybe with his talents he could demand more minutes and a bigger role, but he still remains the disciplined pupil, playing out his roles to perfection and coming up big every time the team needs him.
Not so surprisingly the Spurs seem to win every-time Manu plays well. During his latest hamstring injury, the Spurs seemed to have lost all their rhythm, giving up the first seed to the Thunder. Reminiscent of how the team folded in the 2009 NBA play-offs without the fire-power of Ginobili. They lost to a combative and gritty Memphis team, and despite Duncan’s and Parker’s best efforts.
Not so surprisingly with Manu not having trained much before the game against the Lakers many savants were contemplating the possibility of a possible upset. But the way Manu stepped up to the plate killed all those hopes. And if it is this attitude that Manu delivers in the rest of the series, the Lakers can surely give up any hopes of pulling off an upset.