WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Here’s what it took to stop San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili from scoring at least 10 points in a game for the first time this season: a hard foul from New Orleans center Emeka Okafor that nearly sent him to the hospital.
“I thought I got run over by a train,” the Spurs guard joked after a 109-84 win over the New Orleans Hornets last weekend. “Okafor was coming from the weak side, and got me in the back. He probably didn’t see me in there. It was hard, but I think I’ll be fine.”
But the native of Bahía Blanca, Argentina, has been more than fine this season in the Lone Star State.
The 6-foot-6, 205-pounder has been one of the Spurs’ most valuable players, a major reason why San Antonio is a league-best 17-3, a half-game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks for first place atop the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Southwest Division.
Ginobili posted just eight points in 23 minutes in the win over the Hornets, marking the first time this season he failed to reach double figures. He’s averaging 20.6 points, five rebounds and 3.7 rebounds per game. He averaged 16.5 points per game last year.
“Manu’s dribble step is hard to defend,” said Los Angeles Clippers guard Rasual Butler recently told reporters. “Once he gets that step on you, you either have to let him lay it up or foul him.”
Most of Manu Ginobili’s points are scored as the result of his slashing style that results in plenty of fouls and free-throw attempts, but also plenty of bruises. In a recent game against the Dallas Mavericks, the 33-year-old scored a season-high 31 points despite playing much of the second half with a cotton swab stuffed up a bloody right nostril that was caused when he was struck from an errant elbow.
“I had to play with cotton in, so my mouth started to get dry, but nothing out of the ordinary; nothing to put an excuse on,” Ginobili told reporters. “Now it’s swollen. So every time I get hit it starts bleeding a little bit. It’s happened before, so now I’m used to it.”
Ginobili also is used to winning. Since coming to San Antonio eight years ago he has won NBA titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007, was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2008 and earned his only All-Star berth in 2005.
And don’t expect Ginobili to leave San Antonio anytime soon after signing a three-year, US$38.8 million this past April. He’ll make US$11.854 million this season.
“It was really hard to picture myself with another colored jersey,” Ginobili told reporters after signing the deal.
His teammates couldn’t envision Ginobili wearing any colors except black and silver.
“We've been through so much together. It's great to have familiar faces around,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan told reporters. “Manu has been great years for now. We look forward to trying to get one more championship under our belt.”
But the Ginobili’s loyalty to the Spurs comes as no surprise. Whether it is spending time with his wife Marianela, his twin boys Dante and Nicola who will turn 1-year-old next May or representing his native country in international competitions, Ginobili is defined as much by his loyalty as his jump shot.
The guard has been arguably the top player from South America in the past decade, leading Argentina to a first-place finish in 2001 and a pair of runner-ups in 2002 and 2003 at the FIBA World Championship. At the Olympics, he led Argentina to gold in Athens in 2004 and bronze in Beijing in 2008.
And if he has it his way, he will retire on top in London in 2012 with gold medal hanging from his neck.
“My aim is to play at the Pre-Olympic tournament in 2011,” he recently told reporters, “and try to earn qualification and then play my last tournament with the boys and with Argentina.”