SAN ANTONIO • Trending on the Internet recently was a video of Manu Ginobili assisting on a fast-break basket, while lying down on the job.
Literally. Like a 1.98m avenger stalking his prey, Ginobili sniffed out a pass to Phoenix's Mirza Teletovic, wrestled the ball away and fell onto his back. But he still had the court vision and body control to rifle a perfect southpaw pass upcourt to Kawhi Leonard for a lay-up, ahead of three trailing Suns.
His team-mates on the San Antonio Spurs bench erupted. Ettore Messina, one of the Spurs' assistant coaches, merely cracked a smile at the sight of Ginobili the contortionist still making something out of nothing after all these years.
As coach of Kinder Bologna in the top Italian league, Messina signed Ginobili at 21. Messina's intention was to use him as a backup shooting guard and eventual replacement for Serbian star Sasha Danilovic.
Worn out by injuries and indifference, Danilovic retired abruptly. For Messina, such was the serendipity of coaching life. Ginobili, an Argentinian of Italian descent, proceeded to help make a champion out of Messina and kick-start a European coaching career that included four Euroleague titles.
Little known outside Argentina and San Antonio, Ginobili became a two-time Italian league most valuable player while his team won essentially every trophy it could.
Ginobili had missed 12 games due to a testicular injury suffered last month against New Orleans and the subsequent surgery and rehab.He wore a protective cup for the first time in practice this week and played like the injury was the furthest thing from his mind.
"He was an incredible athlete, flying and jumping all over the place, making unbelievable plays," Messina said of the 57th pick of the 1999 Natonal Basketball Association (NBA) draft.
By the fall of 2002, or just after Ginobili had flamboyantly introduced himself to North American audiences at the Fiba world championships in Indianapolis, Messina sat at a lunch table with an American reporter in Treviso, Italy. He said, just wait, we had not seen anything yet.
Having taken over as head coach for Benetton Treviso, Messina explained how Ginobili would "change the culture" in San Antonio, how he would "light a fire" under the then-methodical Spurs and Tim Duncan. It was not immediate, and Ginobili would have a tempo-pushing partner and fellow motivational arsonist in the French import point guard Tony Parker.
But four championships later - on top of the one Duncan won with David Robinson in 1999 - the results affirm Messina as something of a talent-evaluating prophet.
Now, in his 14th season in the NBA draft, Ginobili continues to prove his worth.
On Saturday, he scored a season-high 22 points in 15 minutes in his return to the Spurs and sparked San Antonio to a 104-94 victory over the Sacramento Kings.
Ginobili had missed 12 games due to a testicular injury suffered last month against New Orleans and the subsequent surgery and rehab. He wore a protective cup for the first time in practice this week and played like the injury was the furthest thing from his mind.
The 38-year-old helped San Antonio turn a close game into a runaway by scoring 13 points during a dominant third quarter.
"Manu was the difference-maker," Kings guard Darren Collison said. "It was unexpected with this being his first game back because we were thinking that he would have a little rust. He was slicing and dicing our defence, whether it was with his drives, his passes or his shooting. He gave them a great lift."
After all, three of the Spurs' regular starters (LaMarcus Aldridge, who had a migraine), Tim Duncan and Danny Green (rest) had all sat out. Despite the fact the Spurs went 11-1 while Ginobili was absent, there is no doubt about the importance of the veteran to the team's run towards another championship.
In San Antonio, there has been speculation that this season will be Ginobili's last.
Sooner or later, the end is coming and the opportunity to escort the Argentinian to the finish line, Messina said, was one of the attractions for him joining coach Gregg Popovich's staff last season.
Popovich and Messina are alike in certain ways, Ginobili said. Both are taskmasters unafraid to challenge convention and unwilling to concede that in an age of player empowerment the coach cannot be totally in charge.
In many ways, Ginobili believes his time with Messina prepared him for Popovich, for a team that in 2002 was still running through its San Antonio skyline of Duncan and Robinson.
"Those two years made me more of the player I am now," he said. "Before that, I was more of a talented, creative and fun-to-watch type of player, but not with substance. I didn't care about the team, about the other players. I didn't play defence, and I mean the good, solid D. I went for steals and dunks.
"I know with Coach Messina I started to understand where my team-mates were, how to use them and make them better for the benefit of the team."
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS