In praise of the brilliant, baffling Manu Ginobili

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When I went to San Antonio to write this piece on Gregg Popovich (and, later, this piece on Tim Duncan) I was told, time and again, that the most popular San Antonio Spur in town, by far, is Manu Ginobili. At first, I found it a bit curious. I mean, Ginobili has been a terrific player, no question, but he’s certainly not Tim Duncan — who is the best, well, the best whatever-position-he-plays (big-power-center-forward-postman) in the history of professional basketball.

Manu is an amazing scorer and distributor and shooter, but he does not seem quite as much the force of nature that is Tony Parker, who is flashier and a bit less mercurial and speaks with a cool French accent and was married to Eva Longoria.

But, again and again, people said they loved Manu most of all … and watching him again these last few weeks I think I’ve figured out a reason why. I think there’s something about Manu Ginobili that is easy to recognize in ourselves. In the end,we might not connect with the consistent, almost numbing, every day brilliance of Tim Duncan, every move right out of a coach’s clinic, every game a perfect repeat of the one before. That kind of greatness may leave us wonderstruck but, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is hard to relate to.

MORE: Duncan, man of mystery … and fundamentals

And so it goes with Tony Parker’s blurring quickness — could we ever identify with a player who, at any point, can simply run around LeBron James? He’s so quick, so mind-blowingly quick, that sometimes he skips a video frame. He’s an optical illusion, and when watching him makes one of those moves you might involuntarily gasp, then pause for an instant to let the mind catch up, then explode in a croak that is half cheer, half disbelief. But, can you envision yourself — even with a few extra helpings of talent — making that move yourself?

Ginobili meanwhile — he’s utterly human. He makes preposterous blunders. He dishes no-look passes that blast the mind. He takes ludicrous shots. He makes some of them. He seemingly wins games singlehandedly. He seems to lose games all by himself too. At times, he seems like the gunner who shows up at the gym and takes every shot. At other times, he seems like the one guy on the floor who sees the game clearly, like he’s wearing Terminator goggles.

Obviously, you only have to look at the last two NBA Finals games to see the contrast. In Game 4 against Miami, Ginobili was a rare kind of abysmal. The numbers don’t quite quantify it — he shot 1-for-5, missed all three of his three-pointers, committed four fouls and one turnover. It’s not good, but it doesn’t tell the story. Maybe this does: Minus-22. That was how his team fared against Miami when he was on the floor. They were outscored by 22 points. There was something about Ginobili in Game 4 that seemed almost jinxed. He was like that guy Mayhem in the insurance commercials.

And Game 5? Well, you already know: Brilliant. Amazing. Spectacular. Ginobili started for the first time all season — seriously, Gregg Popovich should be given some sort of basketball knighthood and just wear robes when he’s on the sidelines — and he made eight of 14 shots, scored 24 points, dished 10 assists, added a steal and a couple of rebounds, and yes, this time he was plus-19. The Heat had no idea what to do when he was on the floor.

MORE: Pop — the bully, the buddy, the winner

The extremes are greater now that Ginobili is older and his body is beat up, but really this has always been true of him.  He has always been great and terrible, unstoppable and un-goable. Thirty two times in his career, he scored 30-plus points. One hundred thirty times he has played at least 20 minutes and scored single digits. He’s had nine games with double digit assists, and 10 games with double digit rebounds, and almost exactly as many when he had no rebounds (10) and no assists (13). He takes dives that are sometimes embarrassing, and he also makes no excuses and points at himself when things go bad. He ranges from the best player on the floor to a very good player to an OK player to invisible to car wreck.

And watching this, night after night, I can see how that gets inside you. Just when you think he’s shed the inconsistencies of the past, he has a game that makes you want to poke out your own eyeballs. Just when you wish the Spurs would just get rid of him, he saves a season with some bit of transcendent genius. In a weird way, it’s like the relationship with your kid. One minute, you want to ship them off to boarding school. The next minute, they bring you to a level of joy that never seemed possible.

I think now of a Spurs fan who tweeted me after Game 4. I had cracked wise about how great Dwyane Wade was in that game and how dreadful Ginobili had been. A brilliant reader named Ray Bailey tweeted back:

And so it was. See, that might be the best part of being a fan of a player — when you know them so well, so deeply, that you sense their patterns and feel their pain and know their rhythms. San Antonio certainly treasures Tim Duncan for being so reliably awe-inspiring and San Antonio certainly adores Tony Parker for being a wizard capable of powerful magic.

But you could see how it is something a little bit different with Ginobili. They have lived with him, died with him, screamed at him and blessed his name. He could cost them Game 6 or he could win them Game 6. They know him, maybe, at a deeper level. And at some point, with Manu, there’s really nothing left to do but love the guy.

Kobe Bryant sends inspirational recovery message to Gordon Hayward

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Kobe Bryant has been there. He tore his Achilles at an age most players would have said: “that’s it, I’m out.” Not Kobe. He fought through it, came back, and was able to leave the game on his terms — and with a 60-point night.

So when Kobe sends an Instagram recovery message to Gordon Hayward, he knows of what he speaks.

Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish for the day back, the game back THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you. Time to move on and focus on doing everything in your power to prepare for surgery, ask all the questions to be sure you understand fully the procedure so that you may visualize it in your subconscious while being operated on and better the chance of it’s success. Then focus on the recovery process day by day by day. It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted. This will also mean that when you return you will have a new perspective. You will be so appreciative of being able to stand, walk, run that you will train harder than you ever have. You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always.

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The message was vintage Kobe, all about the drive and steps to recovery. Focus on the next thing, don’t let any obstacles stop you.

Let’s just hope Hayward can take this to heart and make a full recovery.

PBT Podcast: Gordon Hayward injury, Celtics’ future, opening night news

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The buzz of the NBA’s opening night was killed just a 5:15 into the first game when Gordon Hayward went down with what could be a season-ending ankle and leg injury.

What’s next for Boston now? Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports get into that with this latest PBT Podcast.

They also discuss the opening night game between the Celtics and Cavaliers and what we can take away from it, same with the Houston Rockets upset of the Golden State Warriors. The pair also gets into the Nikola Mirotic/Bobby Portis incident in Chicago (this was recorded just before the Portis suspension came down), the LaMarcus Aldridge extension with the Spurs, and if Joel Embiid should be ticked about being on a minutes limit to start the season.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Michael Jordan scores again, this time with his Jumpman logo

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is showing he still has the ability to score big – even though he hasn’t played in nearly 15 years.

The Hornets owner’s latest slam dunk off the court might come by way of the NBA’s new uniform contract with Nike.

Since the Jordan Brand is a Nike subsidiary and the namesake of the six-time NBA champion, the Hornets will be the only NBA team to wear the Jordan Brand “Jumpman” logo on their uniforms this season. That would appear to be a merchandising windfall.

After the switch from Adidas, the other 29 NBA teams will wear the Nike “swoosh” on their uniforms.

Charlotte’s All-Star point guard Kemba Walker loves the idea of the Hornets being unique – and knows it’s because of Jordan.

“I mean, he’s the GOAT (Greatest of All Time),” Walker said. “Everybody loves MJ. Everybody loves the way he competed and the way he carries himself.”

Especially off the court.

There isn’t a player in the league who doesn’t want to emulate the NBA’s greatest pitchman.

Though Jordan was not made available to be interviewed for this story, others praised his savvy and longevity.

Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbook is a representative for the Jordan Brand, which sponsors 21 active NBA players. Westbrook is soaking up as much knowledge as he can working with Jordan.

The reigning league MVP said he’s tried to use what Jordan has done with marketing skills as a model for his own success.

“He set himself up, not just on the basketball court, but in business,” Westbrook said. “…. He set himself up tremendously – his kids, his family – by doing the right things on and off the court.”

Jordan last soared through the air in the NBA in 2003. But even now, at 54, his marketability doesn’t seem to be tapering off.

Forbes Magazine estimated last December that Jordan has made $1.7 billion since leaving the University of North Carolina in 1984 – more than any athlete ever.

The vast majority of his wealth has come from marketing, since Jordan earned $93 million during his playing career.

It’s all led to Jordan being able to call his own shots – like exclusive use of the Jumpman logo.

“Well, he does own the team,” Westbook quipped. “He gets to pick that for sure.”

Hornets forward Marvin Williams, who like Jordan played college basketball at North Carolina, said he knows the uniforms will be popular with NBA fans simply because of the “international symbol” Jumpman has become. The logo features a silhouette of Jordan leaping through the air, his legs scissored and one outstretched hand holding a basketball.

“That symbol – I have seen people have it on their clothes, their cars, tattoos,” Williams said.

Larry Miller, president of Jordan Brand, said the logo represents greatness “so it’s a natural fit to have it on the uniforms of MJ’s team.”

“Aligning his team and his brand brings everyone in the Jordan family closer together,” Miller said in an email to The Associated Press, “and it’s a win for both organizations.”

The Hornets recently opened an expanded team store at their downtown arena and are still receiving new Jumpman merchandise, but it’s not staying on the shelves very long.

Hornets executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer Pete Guelli said the team is expecting a “substantial increase” in merchandise sales.

“Being the only Jordan Brand team has a number of inherent advantages,” Guelli said. “It is also our first formal connection to our owner and allows us to explore additional extensions around that unique alignment.”

History indicates it should be a profitable connection.

“Obviously people knew who he was when he played, but when you see a 5- or 6-year-old kid walking around with Jordans on, and know who Michael Jordan is, but have never seen him play,” Williams said. “I have teammates that have never seen him play but know about everything he has done. It speaks volumes not only to what he has done as a player in his career, but it speaks a ton to what he has done post-basketball as well.”

AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

 

Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic out 4-6 weeks with fractured face; Bobby Portis suspended 8 games for punch

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The price to be paid from the fight at Bulls practice Tuesday came into focus Wednesday.

Nikola Mirotic, who suffered a fractured upper jaw and concussion due to a punch from Bobby Portis, will be out at least a month from his injuries, the Bulls announced.

For his part, Portis has been suspended eight games by the Bulls without pay for his actions. He will be able to practice with the team, and can return to action on Nov. 7 against Toronto.

The incident happened during the Bulls practice Monday. This much everyone agrees on: What started as a physical battle for rebounding position around the basket turned into a shoving match between Mirotic and Portis. Also, so far this isn’t unusual, shoving matches happen every once in a while on every team (in every professional sport).

Then Portis punched Mirotic and dropped him, fracturing his face. While the first reports called it a “sucker punch” — likely spin from Mirotic’s agent/camp — Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he didn’t see it as one. Apparently, neither did Robin Lopez, via Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago.

Whether it was a sucker punch or not is moot — you can’t punch and drop a teammate. It crosses the line.

Mirotic may be the Bulls best player, and certainly will be one of their leading scorers this season. Portis has struggled to live up to his early promise and reportedly is frustrated with his role, and by extension Mirotic. That does not mean you can punch the team’s best player in the face. Rather the opposite.

Can you imagine the reaction of any other organization if their best player got punched by a teammate?

The Bulls have to make a decision on what to do with Portis, who has a $2.5 million team option for next season, then would be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019.