Manu in the mirror

It’s seven days before Christmas and Manu Ginobili is busy playing Santa. Decked in red kicks, casual jeans, and matching red, silver, and black Spurs gear, Ginobili is flanked by teammates Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner as they bring a little holiday cheer to the Christus Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. A nine-month-old girl named Emily is nestled in Ginobili’s lap, while the Spurs Coyote hands out toys. Kids of all ages, some in wheelchairs and many pulling their own mobile I.V. equipment, take their turns meeting Manu and company. The warm sounds of A Charlie Brown Christmas crackle through a tiny radio and a familiar accent bellows “Hola” and “Feliz Navidad.” After the gifts are handed out Manu reflects on his impending fatherhood for the assembled media.

“She’s three-months-and-a-half pregnant, so it’s still too early,” Ginobili says. “But I know for sure that next year, it’s gonna be a totally different experience. So we are just learning during the pregnancy and trying to understand what’s going on.”

Spurs fans were officially introduced to Ginobili at the start of the 2002-03 regular-season campaign, and were smitten for good when San Antonio ended the hated Lakers dynasty in the playoffs, resulting in Kobe Bryant’s televised tears. Despite averaging only seven points in the regular season and nine in the championship run, Manu displayed a knack for making big plays, absorbing the magnitude of the moment, and displaying passion and fearlessness not usually associated with the Spurs. He followed that up with Olympic Gold in Athens over Tim Duncan and Team USA, and another NBA championship in 2005.

During the 2004 Olympics, many a Spurs fan backed Argentina over the United States, and in the 2005 playoffs Manu averaged 20 points, five boards, and four assists, almost earning Finals co-MVP honors with Duncan. As the accolades continued to pile on, Ginobili, like Duncan, displayed remarkable humility, but more importantly he spoke the language. According to the NBA, in 2009 “Hispanics” made up 57 percent of adult fans at contests in San Anto, with Miami coming in second at 44 percent, followed by Los Angeles with 36 percent. Once you factor in youth and kids, that’s a lot of Raza.

Which brings us to 2010, when the Spurs have yet to offer Ginobili — the team’s most beloved player, who helped to deliver three NBA championships to this city and is now expecting twin boys — a contract extension. One big reason is Manu’s recent propensity for injury, which led to trade talks over the summer. Don’t get it twisted; the Ginobilis are set for life, but watching Manu take the court in another team’s uniform, other than Argentina’s, would be just plain sad and not unprecedented.

On October 24, 1985, Spurs icon George Gervin was traded to the Chicago Bulls for forward David Greenwood. A Hall of Famer and one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, Gervin put San Antonio hoops on the map and today operates three youth centers, a couple of schools, and a technology center in the Alamo City. Gervin was San Antonio’s first superstar, and if the Iceman could be traded, so can Manu.

Once training camp rolled around, the trade talks thankfully died down and despite their inconsistencies, the Spurs appear to be coming together. Much like his team, Ginobili stands at a crossroads financially and philosophically and for better or worse, Manu is the x-factor when it comes to San Antonio’s post-season success. When Derek Fisher sank the infamous .04 shot, it was over Ginobili’s extended hands, and we all know what happened with Dirk Nowitzki at the end of Game 7 in 2006.

As we take the elevator down from the children’s ward, I ask Manu in his native tongue how he feels and what he expects in the coming year.

“Real good,” he replies in Spanish. “I’m just trying to find my basketball rhythm and feel better overall to avoid any more injuries for the rest of the season. I expect us to come together like a great team — improve and improve and improve, to reach a good position for the playoffs and try to win the championship. There is no other objective.” 

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