Bigger-than-life Manu Ginobili has Argentina following his every move

Johnny Ludden
Express-News Staff Writer

BAHIA BLANCA, Argentina — Manu Ginobili climbs the steps to the second deck of the tour bus and drops into the seat next to his wife, Marianela. Tired, but still wearing a smile, he kisses her on the cheek, then gently leans his head on her shoulder.

It is a brisk July afternoon, one of those south-of-the-equator winter days, and Ginobili has come home to this port city roughly 400 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. The Spurs' guard has spent the previous hour at Hospital Municipal de Agudos Dr. Leónidas Lucero, distributing gifts to children, posing for photos with staff and visiting one terminally ill patient who asked to be transferred here to meet him. After a quick lunch, Ginobili will conduct a basketball clinic for 300 orphans at his old gym, then head to a local mall for a pep rally in his honor.

The previous four days proved dizzying enough.

After making the 16-hour trip from San Antonio to Buenos Aires, he gave three welcome-home news conferences; attended a cocktail party for the start of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Americas camp; met with Argentina's president and other dignitaries; coached his team of campers; unintentionally inspired a near-riot during a visit to an under-funded hospital; dined at a reunion for Argentina's gold-medal winning Olympic team; dedicated a new reading center at an elementary school; and joined Spurs coach Gregg Popovich at a tango show.

Now, more than 300 of the town's 300,000 citizens have filled the narrow road outside the hospital to see Ginobili off to his next stop. They are singing the same song that has trailed him everywhere, Olé, olé, olé ... Manu, Manu!

As the bus begins to roll, Ginobili presses close to the window and waves to the crowd. One middle-aged man holds up a homemade sign. Written in blue marker on a piece of cardboard, it states the obvious: MANU ES MUY GRANDE.

Yes, Ginobili is big. Bigger than anyone in this fútbol-mad country ever thought a basquet player could become. The same too-skinny teenager who grew up dribbling around chairs in his home has grown into a national hero.

The day after Ginobili met Argentina President Nestor Kirchner, a picture of the two ran in the Buenos Aires Herald underneath the caption, "Who's that next to Ginobili?" Susana Gimenez, the nation's top talk-show host, wanted to book him immediately after the NBA Finals.

ESPN Deportes La Revista, the new Spanish-language version of ESPN The Magazine, chose Ginobili for its inaugural cover after placing him atop its list of the 101 most-influential Latino athletes. One of Argentina's national magazines proclaimed him, simply, "El Nuevo Fenómeno ." The New Phenomenon.

Even Diego Maradona, whose wizardry on the soccer field earned him Argentina's worship, asked Ginobili to autograph a jersey for his daughter.

"He has become one of the greatest athletes in Argentine sports," said Horacio Moratore, head of Argentina's basketball federation. "To this moment, there are only five: Maradona in soccer, Guillermo Vilas in tennis, (Juan Manuel) Fangio in Formula One (racing), Roberto De Vicenzo in golf. Now one more — Ginobili."

Quite a run

The rise of El Nuevo Fenómeno began in 2001, two years after the Spurs used the 57th pick of the NBA Draft on Ginobili, a reedy Argentine guard whose hard, if not also reckless, play in Italy had caught the team's attention.

Unsure whether they would ever see any return from their low-risk investment, the Spurs left Ginobili overseas to develop. After improving under the guidance of Ettore Messina, one of Europe's top coaches, he led Kinder Bologna to the 2001 Euroleague title.

At the world championships the next year, Ginobili helped Argentina become the first country to beat a U.S. team made up of NBA stars. If not for a disputed call at the end of the championship game against Yugoslavia, Argentina likely would have won the gold medal.

As an NBA rookie, Ginobili served as the Spurs' designated energizer off the bench, sparking the team to the 2003 championship. At last summer's Olympics in Athens, he led Argentina to the gold medal, beating Team USA in the semifinals. He won his second NBA title in June, four months after being named an All-Star for the first time, and finished one vote shy from sharing the Finals MVP award with Tim Duncan.

Few players have ever enjoyed a more productive five-year run than Ginobili, and in Argentina, like much of the rest of the planet, everyone loves a winner.

"Manu has brought Argentina to the world and the world to Argentina's doorstep," said Guillermo Vecchio, a former head coach of Argentina's national team. "Who has done more in basketball?"

While soccer remains the sport of choice for most of Argentina, Ginobili's appeal to the masses has less to do with what game he plays than how he plays it. He is fearless and, above all else, passionate, a trait long used to describe his countrymen as a whole.

If there is a lasting image of the Spurs' most recent championship, it just might be that of Ginobili screaming and flailing his arms in excitement as teammate Sean Marks unsuccessfully tries to hold him back moments after Game 7 concluded. Ginobili's long, stringy hair is flying in every direction, joy covering his face.

"I don't play like this because I want to look pretty," Ginobili said last season. "I think people can really see I love the game."

From his one-handed skip passes to the over-the-shoulder, off-the-glass, no-look bank shots he makes look routine, Ginobili has applied the same creative flourish to basketball that Argentines have always brought to their national pastime. (A few critics also argue his alleged flopping was gleaned from soccer playgrounds.)

Ginobili spent most of his time in the gym at the basketball club his father presided over, but, like most of his peers, he grew up watching Maradona, whose celebrity remains the standard by which Argentine athletes are measured. Ginobili remembers jumping off the couch with his brothers, Leandro and Sebastian, when Maradona almost single-handedly won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina. He also frequently watched highlight tapes of Maradona playing for his Italian team in Naples.

"I admire him probably the same way I did with (Michael) Jordan," Ginobili said. "But the difference was he was representing me with the Argentine jersey. That changes everything."

Global appeal

Ginobili's own jersey now hangs next to that of Maradona in storefronts of Buenos Aires' shopping districts. He has done TV commercials for Gatorade that run regularly in Argentina. Less than two weeks after the Finals, he signed an endorsement contract with Argentine cell phone company Movistar.

Ginobili's agent, Herb Rudoy, said he has had conversations with a handful of other companies interested in using him as a spokesman. Though only recently appearing on the U.S. radar, Ginobili had already established himself as a star in Italy in addition to South America.

"We've been pushing that Manu is certainly the only athlete that crosses Anglo, Hispanic and European lines," Rudoy said. "He covers everything — he can do his commercials in three languages. Our pitch is the fact that he appeals to all."

Including more than a few of his peers.

During last season's All-Star weekend, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant called Ginobili his favorite player to watch. Denver coach George Karl recently admitted he, too, is a fan, saying his public criticism of Ginobili during the opening round of the NBA playoffs was only an unsuccessful attempt at rattling him.

Ginobili's nice-guy image and humbleness have enhanced his appeal, perhaps more so in a country that endured Maradona's numerous missteps. Because San Antonio ranks among the NBA's smallest TV markets, marketing analysts think it's a reach to expect him to become a household name in Iowa or Nebraska. But they also say U.S. companies have more reason to value Latino endorsers after a June Census Bureau report estimated Hispanics now account for one-seventh of the U.S. population, making them the country's fastest-growing minority group.

"The average sports fan wouldn't put him in their day-in, day-out top 10, so he might not become the megastar in the United States the way he is in his own country," said Marc Ippolito, senior vice president of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, an Illinois-based firm which pairs companies with celebrity endorsers.

"But he still has the potential to do very well. It makes perfect sense for any league sponsor to want to tap into his stardom."

Much of San Antonio knows Ginobili is "still a Time Warner customer" because the cable provider has prominently featured him on local billboards and in TV commercials the past two years. Nike officials also met with Ginobili in Argentina shortly after the Finals to discuss how his role with the company could expand.

"We want to identify areas where we can grow in Latin America behind him," said Dale Allen, a Nike player relations manager who works with Ginobili. "Basketball is slowly getting accepted there because of Manu's stardom. He's not just an international player anymore. He speaks basketball. He speaks very well for the company, he speaks very well for the NBA, and he speaks very well for the game."

No one needs to tell NBA commissioner David Stern how much Ginobili has helped the league's popularity increase in South America.

More than 20 years ago, Stern sold the league's Argentine TV rights to a soccer analyst for $2,000. This year, Game 7 of the NBA Finals drew a 15.1 household rating in Buenos Aires. When the ratings peaked at 24.7 in the final quarter, almost 800,000 of the city's 3,172,100 TV households were tuned into the broadcast.

"We cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a local player like Manu in the league," said Arturo Nuñez, vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America.

Since the start of the playoffs, the NBA Store has experienced a 41 percent jump from last year in online orders shipped outside the United States — an increase league officials partially attribute to Ginobili's rising popularity.

Of course, those sales also figure to soon slow, given the increasing difficulty in finding a No.20 Spurs uniform in North America. An employee at the Spurs' fan shop in the SBC Center said the store is sold out of Ginobili's authentic Reebok jerseys and likely won't have any in stock until the start of next season. The NBA Store doesn't have a single Ginobili jersey, in any style, available on its Web site.

"I think the major indicator of (Ginobili's impact) is how many kids are out there playing basketball," Nuñez said. "We know if we see a kid with a basketball in his hands, he's going to be a future viewer, he's going to be a purchaser of the gear, he's going to be a participant in the sport. That's the best way we feel to measure our growth."

The fifth Beatle

Ginobili's success has made fans of the young and old. Results of a recent newspaper poll showed 93 percent of Argentines could recognize him.

"My mother watched the NBA Finals, and she doesn't know basketball," said Hernán Sartori, a reporter for Clarin, Argentina's largest daily newspaper. "But she knows Manu."

So, it seems, does everyone else. One NBA official compared Ginobili's five-day goodwill tour here to the Beatles returning to England. Houston center Dikembe Mutombo likened it to visiting China with Yao Ming. A security official assigned to protect Ginobili said he has seen only the pope draw a more fervent following.

TV stations broadcast his public appearances live. His initial visit to the Buenos Aires hospital was almost cut short after the crowd overwhelmed more than 100 police officers, many of whom were trying to get Ginobili's autograph for themselves.

At future stops, steel barricades were used to keep the throngs at bay. In Bahia Blanca, nearly 100 people braved 30-degree temperatures for three hours late one night to see him leave a restaurant. Having heard the crowd chanting for him outside, Ginobili autographed a stack of pictures for his father to distribute.

"Right now, you can't go out with Manu," said Detroit guard Carlos Delfino, who played with Ginobili on Argentina's national team. "If you go out, 100 people follow you. So we tell him to go over there, and then we go a different way."

Ginobili said he's still learning to adjust to the attention.

"The thing that really helps me is my normal life is very relaxed, calm," he said. "I stay at home with my wife, visit my parents. But when I do want to go out, it is different. I have a wedding of my friends, and they are worried about what can happen. Things you never expect to happen, now you have to start thinking about."

Shortly after Ginobili signed his new contract with the Spurs last summer, Argentine authorities foiled a plot to kidnap one of his family members. Though ransom kidnappings have become an increasing problem for celebrities in Latin America — Argentina has only recently begun to recover from the 2001 collapse of its economy — Ginobili said he now feels significantly better about the safety of his parents, who continue to live here.

That willingness to cling to his roots, to embrace his role as an ambassador for Argentina has further endeared El Nuevo Fenómeno to his countrymen.

"We are a special country, and the people need something nice," said Vecchio, the former national team coach. "The economy is down. A lot of things are bad. But now everybody is 'Manu! Manu!' It's unbelievable.

"It's great for basketball. It's great for the country."