- Ray Tattooedboy
“MANU-20, TAIWAN-SA, 1,265 KM, I’M HERE FOR U,” read the sign 22-year-old Wen Yu Lin held with her father. It was about an hour before the San Antonio Spurs faced the Philadelphia 76ers at the AT&T Center on January 26. “I’ve been following [Manu Ginóbili] since I was 12,” said Lin, who played for Taiwan’s national team at a high school level. “He’s the best.”
Manu Ginóbili was born in basketball-crazy Bahía Blanca, Argentina (he’ll be 41 on July 28), but he was far from NBA material. He was always fierce and capable of scoring, but he wasn’t tall or strong enough to amount to anything more than a stand-out on a local or regional team. Nevertheless, his now-legendary discipline and hard work led him to great success in Europe and on Argentina’s national team. Ginóbili was a 57th overall draft pick for the Spurs in 1999, but instead of joining the NBA, he went back to Italy’s Kinder Bologna where he won it all in the Italian league and the EuroLeague, for which he was named MVP. He finally joined the Spurs for the 2002-03 season, which was impressive enough, but winning his first of four NBA rings in his first season here took him over the top.
“Manu is a student of the game who knows his rivals very well,” said Carlos Maffrand, the “Manu historian” at @InfoManu, a Twitter account devoted to all things Ginóbili. “In the NBA, he was never the tallest, the strongest, the fastest or the one who jumped the most, but oftentimes he has been the most intelligent player inside the court.”
Though a still-injured Ginóbili didn’t play against the Sixers that night back in January – the Spurs experienced a crushing loss – Lin, the former Taiwanese high school player, got a chance to take a photo with her idol, as did dozens of fans near courtside. The majority of them were from Argentina. The overseas Manuheads who come to San Antonio just to see Ginóbili include those who plan their own trips and those who take advantage of tours organized by online travel agencies like Kit Viajes and Sportmagic to capitalize on Ginóbili devotion, which increased significantly around the All-Star Game in Los Angeles on February 18. That devotion continues to explode thanks to Ginóbili’s killer form.
Under the hashtag #ElPibede40Tour (roughly translated as #The40yoKidTour), the Twitter account @InfoManu is arguably the best way to stay on top of the Argentina-San Antonio tours — and practically anything related to Ginóbili. With Twitter and Facebook accounts launched in December 2011 with Ginóbili’s blessings, @InfoManu is managed by Manuheads in Texas, Argentina and Brazil who met through a now-defunct forum on manuginobili.com. The agency-organized “Spurs Tours” include game tickets, hotel stays and chances to see and interact with Ginóbili up close before games. Building on the success of tours in November and February, the next tours arrive in San Antonio this month.
“I’m sure you realize that Manu is not really into self-promotion — he only posts a few photos and articles on his personal Twitter and Facebook accounts,” said Jane Ann Craig, an Austin-based Ginóbili fan who drives to San Antonio for every home game and often interacts with Argentine fans near courtside. “So [Ginóbili] was more than happy to have someone else take over the task. He also had enough ‘history’ with us, and he trusted us.”
The growing @InfoManu community now boasts more than 45,000 Twitter followers and more than 33,000 Facebook followers. The latter, according to Craig, comprises fans in 40 countries, with 25,000 from Argentina and 1,200 from the U.S. About 30 percent are women.
“Needless to say, the Warriors game [on March 19] will be spectacular,” said Ariel Sonnet, an Argentine living in Brazil. One of the key members of @InfoManu, Sonnet met Ginóbili in November during a tour organized by Kit Viajes. “The groups are always around 20 people per trip, which we think is the exact quantity so that we can all enjoy more.”
While Kit Viajes’ tour covered the Sixers, the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets games, their March tour will include games against the New Orleans Pelicans (March 15, with access to a courtside warm-up), the Minnesota Timberwolves (March 17, with a court visit during half-time) and the Golden State Warriors (March 19, with on-court shooting after the game). Starting at $1,735, the package includes seats near courtside and a six-night hotel stay. Sportmagic, on the other hand, is selling packages that include the Timberwolves and Warriors games along with a four-night hotel stay for $1,550 per person (roundtrip airfare from Argentina to San Antonio starts around $1,500).
To experience Manumanía first hand, I attended the Sixers, Kings and Nuggets games in February. Approaching the AT&T Center’s main entrance, one could hear Ginóbili fans adapting soccer chants while waiting in line for the security check. “Oléee-olé-olé, cada día te quiero más / Sooooooy, soy de Manu … Es un sentimientooo … no puedo parar” (“Each day I love you more / I root for Manu / It is a feeling / I can’t stop.” As those fans filed through the VIP entrance, I spotted Jane, @InfoManu’s Austin contact. Just as I was about to follow her to the Spurs’ warm-up area, Dan, one of the stadium’s ushers, asked Vicente Trabal, a 13-year-old kid from Uruguay, “Would you like some autographs?” The kid’s face lit up, eyes open wide. Gonzalo, Vicente’s dad, became a Spurs fan during a work visit in 1997, two years before the Spurs’ first NBA ring. “I immediately fell in love with Duncan and Robinson,” Gonzalo said. “They were different.”
One by one, the Spurs who were warming up for the Sixers game stopped by the assembled fans to take photos and sign autographs. Ginóbili stayed on the court, looking strong.
“If I can have a photo [with Ginóbili] and an autograph, I’ll leave happy,” said Argentine Alejandro Albamonte, who came with his son. “We came two years ago with the whole family, but this time …” Ginóbili suddenly appeared and Albamonte forgot all about me. “Manu!! Manuu!!!!” After taking a photo of his son with Ginóbili, Albamonte disappeared into the crowd.
While Ginóbili signed autographs, I asked him for his take on @InfoManu.
“They’re doing a terrific job,” Ginóbili replied in Spanish. “They’re followers from all over the world. I love what they do.”
Mónica Rubio and Pablo Carbó came all the way from Mendoza, along the Argentina/Chile border, to fulfill their dream of seeing Ginóbili in the NBA, even if that meant spending $500 a piece for tickets. “Manu told us, ‘Let me finish warming up and then I’ll be with you,’ and he came and signed everything and talked to us,” Rubio said in seeming disbelief. “I think I’m going crazy.”
“I traded miles, did a few weird things to get here, but here I am,” Albamonte explained once he reappeared. “[Manu] is an example of a different type of Argentine. We’re known everywhere as cocky, and that stereotype is true. But Manu is not from [Buenos Aires], he’s a provincial guy like us. And that’s what makes parents like me come all the way from the other side of the world so that we can impress upon our kids Manu’s life and professional example.”
The difference between a Ginóbili fan from San Antonio and one from Argentina is that the Argentines have been carrying Manu devotion since even before he became the leader of the Generación Dorada (Golden Generation) of Argentine basketball. With the help of former NBA players like Fabricio Oberto (another former NBA ring-winning Spur), Andrés Nocioni, Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola, Ginóbili won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 (with an eight-point victory over the U.S. team, the eventual bronze winner, which included Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Allen Iverson). Besides overachieving, Ginóbili has compensated for any physical and technical limitations with unparalleled heart. On top of that, he’s a genuinely nice guy from a country with a long list of flawed sport heroes.
“Argentine sports have a dirty god (1986 MVP/World Champion soccer superstar Diego Maradona, who’s scarred by his history with drugs), a Catalonia-formatted Superboy (Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who never played professional soccer in Argentina and thus lacks the devotion of Argentine fans) and a collection of stars with feet of clay,” wrote sports writer Alejandro Wall in the Argentine magazine Anfibia. “None of them convinces us fully. Except Ginóbili, a veteran who shines in the most galactic of leagues, a totem without any contraindications, a hero of political correctness.”
Unpretentious San Antonio and the Spurs are a perfect match for Ginóbili — that’s why we love him, and that’s why his worldwide fans love the Spurs.
“[Ginóbili is] a middle-class man who didn’t conquer New York but San Antonio, someone who doesn’t lead through shouting but through consensus,” Wall wrote. “He’s our mundane idol.”