Basketball world owes Manu Ginobili and Argentina's national team debt of gratitude

Manu Ginobili of Argentina (Getty Images)
Manu Ginobili of Argentina (Getty Images)

LONDON – Ten years ago, San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford walked into a steak house in Indianapolis, leaned into a private dining room, and witnessed Manu Ginobili and the brokenhearted Argentine silver medalists gathered at a long table for dinner. Children bounced on knees, wives and girlfriends chatted, and the fiber of a 2004 Olympic gold medalist strengthened itself in the aftermath of basketball's '02 world championships.

Argentina had delivered the United States its first loss in the post-Dream Team era, sending a ragged and motley Team USA tumbling toward sixth place and a well-deserved moment of global reckoning. USA Basketball had no system, no soul, no vision. The program had collapsed under the weight of its own neglect and hubris, a sense of entitlement that ultimately met its international match with a relentless band of brothers out of Argentina.

Argentina had long been a good team, but Manu Ginobili's emerging greatness promised to make them champions. He was daring and fearless, alive with a fervor and an innate sense of duty and obligation for the greater good of his basketball teams.

"The American guys had limousines lined up at the team hotel to get out of Indy as soon as they could," Buford said by phone from San Antonio this week. "The way the Argentines played, the passion they had for their national program, the way that they cared about each other, was something that was clearly missing with the U.S. program."

A senior USA Basketball official, Sean Ford, happened to be at the restaurant in July 2002, and the scene of the Argentine team stayed with him. As much as any national team on the planet, Argentina's rise to relevance demanded something closer to a revolution than a response stateside. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski were hired, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were recruited, and truer training camps and feeder systems were installed.

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Make no mistake: Argentina became a blueprint for the United States on its re-ascension to dominance. Yes, talent mattered, but so did culture, and no one has embodied team the way that Argentina has with Ginobili as the best player and leader. Another Spur, Fabricio Oberto, taught Ginobili on the national team, and he's passed it down, too.

Ten years later, Ginobili, 35, is on the cusp of saying goodbye to international basketball, but his legacy is unparalleled in this Olympic basketball tournament. On his way out, he's still averaging the most points, steals, and holding the highest efficiency ranking of these Games. He's still going to the floor and chasing loose balls, a national hero with the spirit to honor that Argentine uniform and flag.

As a young boy, Ginobili watched Maradona win the World Cup for Argentina in '86, but Ginobili turned out to be his country's Michael Jordan.

"It would be a little arrogant if I say that we are a blueprint of the USA Basketball," Ginobili told Yahoo! Sports. "But I think we did a heck of a job for a decade and am incredibly proud of what we've accomplished. And a lot of teams started to maintain a group of players – a core – that played together."

Ginobili was truly one of the children of the NBA's globalization, a young soccer player mesmerized over the flickering images of the Jordan and Magic Johnson highlights broadcast every Sunday night at midnight on Channel 9 in Argentina. Commissioner David Stern sold the rights for $2,000 to an eager basketball and soccer analyst named Adrian Paenza, and those images inspired Ginobili to try it all himself.

"When I was a kid, I didn't even dream of playing in the NBA," Ginobili says. "Nobody ever from Argentina played in the NBA when I was 10. I was watching MJ's tapes and thinking he was from another planet, that he was unreachable, untouchable – the same as Magic and Larry.

"And then I find myself, years later, raising the same trophy as they did."

Three times, Ginobili lifted an NBA championship trophy with the Spurs. He is the only player in history to have won an NBA title, an Olympic gold medal, and a Euroleague championship. That'll probably stand the test of time, too. Across the past decade, the two teams that have most shaped his legacy – the Spurs and Argentina – have been reflections of the culture his presence fosters, a touchstone player and leader that fits into environments and programs with precisely what teams need out of him.

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Argentina had a core of toughness and tenacity, a 30-something team now that includes Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino. Behind them had been Oberto and Pepe Sanchez. They all played in the NBA to different degrees of success, but Ginobili has forever been the game changer.

"He is my hero," Scola says.

"He took on a huge responsibility, and elevated everything there," Kobe Bryant says. "I admire him."

For all the discussion about how the NBA's desire to turn the Olympics into an under-23 tournament will affect the Americans, there's been little perspective on how this rule will impact the rest of the world. This has been a magical generation for the Argentines, and there hasn't been great young talent rising behind them in the country. In some ways, moving to under-23 will make the United States even more dominant in the Games, because these kinds of generational core groups aren't so easily replaced in the Argentinas and Spains.

"If I was 24 right now, I'd be crying in that corner over there," Ginobili says. "[Olympic basketball] has been one of the wonderful experiences of my life, and I wish that every athlete could have the opportunity."

Ginobili has almost always played for Argentina in his summers, and the Spurs understand that it's cost them a cumulative toll on his body. He tore ligaments in his ankle in a medal-round game against the United States in the 2008 Olympics, necessitating surgery. Yet Buford and Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich have always accepted that they've reaped the benefit of all those pressure international games that Ginobili played, reaped all that winning and team building that he brought to the Spurs.

As Buford says, "When we brought him over [in '02], we wanted him to bring that to our program."

Ginobili was wired to care deeply, wired to loyalty, and the continuity of the Spurs' core players and values blended perfectly with the Argentine national's.

"The success of this team is chemistry, compromise," longtime Argentina national coach Julio Lamas says. "They want always after a win, like Athens, is that they want to win again."

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Lamas was talking about the national team, but he could've been describing the Spurs, too. This is the reason that Buford and Popovich, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, will be forever indebted to Ginobili. He was a two-time All-Star, an NBA sixth-man of the year, but most of all, he was the player no one dared take their eyes off, full of flamboyance and ferocity, endless grace and humility.

Yes, Ginobili comes out of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, and Bologna, Italy, of the Euroleague and San Antonio of the NBA. He's won Euroleague championships and Euroleague Final Four MVPs, and elevated Argentina into the global basketball elite. He comes out of the core of a Spurs dynasty that delivered three NBA titles on his watch, and, rest assured, Manu Ginobili deserves to go into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with one of the great collective NBA and international resumes in history.

"He's the poster child for what's good about being part of a team," Buford says.

Ginobili will likely wear his Argentina colors for the final time in these Olympic Games. And for all that everyone wants to talk about the end of the NBA superstar in London as purely a story about Team USA – about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James – the biggest goodbye of all belongs to the three-time Olympian who changed the way the world looked at Argentina basketball, and maybe, too, the way that USA Basketball looked at itself.

As a boy, the NBA stars taught him the game, but as a man, Ginobili and Argentina passed on a refresher on the lessons and values the U.S. national team needed to incorporate again. USA Basketball responded, revolutionized, and Ginobili is forever owed a debt of gratitude. Ten years later, the Team USA gold medal deserves a nod to one of the great basketball givers of this time, Emanuel David Ginobili.

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