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There's no Spurs conspiracy: Manu wants to play

Have the Spurs been playing along with Manu in order to take the heat in Argentina off him?

Andy Lyons

The whole Manu injury saga seems close to being over. Unless Manu miraculously convinces the Spurs to let him play, he will miss the World Cup. Considering we have such a diverse readership here at PtR, the subject has been controversial.

As an Argentine who not only identifies as a Spurs fan but also writes from a Spurs fan perspective, I've been torn about the issue and been hellbent on trying to be as objective as possible. But after reading some comments and tweets that I considered to be a little misguided, I thought I'd offer my take on a couple of issues.

The Spurs are not doing Manu a favor

There's been a little conspiracy theory gaining steam in the comments and on Twitter. I even discussed it with other PtR members and at one point I thought it wasn't so far-fetched. Now I do, and because I indirectly helped create it, I feel like I need to address it.

Basically, the idea is Manu knew from the beginning he wasn't going to play. He went through the motions, gesturing like he wanted to even though he knew the stress fracture wasn't going to heal. After the tests, the Spurs would say they were invoking a clause in his contract and he would save face in Argentina by showing people he was doing his best to suit up. What the Spurs got out of playing the villain was a healthy and rested Manu.

The reasons the theory is not outright ridiculous at first sight is that there have been some little irregularities in the way the Spurs have handled  the situation from the start. San Antonio is usually extremely tight-lipped about "family business" yet the news of Manu's injury and about their decision to hold him out of the WC leaked to the press. R.C. Buford made sure everyone at Summer League knew that the Spurs had the power to keep Manu out of the competition. Instead of dealing with this in-house like they normally do, they went public with it. Isn't it possible they did that to make sure everyone knew they were the driving force behind Manu not playing, thus sheltering Manu from the Argentine public opinion?

The reason I commented that I helped create this theory is because I mentioned the pressure Argentine players feel to play. They are supposed to want to wear the national colors and represent their country in Argentina above all else. Part of it is the kind of dumb but harmless nationalism sports often elicit. But mostly I believe it has to do with the fact that our biggest stars don't play in Argentina. Because you can't get the wife and kids and go see Manu play regularly, having him represent Argentina is the best way to feel a connection to him. When someone declines, some people feel cheated.

Regardless of the reason, anyone who lives in Argentina knows the pressures to play are real. With the Golden Generation on its last legs and the crisis with the Basketball Association (CABB), those pressures are higher now. In that environment, Manu asking the Spurs to be the bad guys makes at least some sense.

But here's why I think it's impossible something like that has happened.

There is only one way the whole operation is possible without involving a ton of risk: if everyone knows beforehand, from the Spurs to the national team. Otherwise, there's always the possibility that a slip-up exposes the whole thing and it backfires enormously, causing the Spurs and especially Manu to receive significantly more heat than he would have by simply declining to play.

The problem with that theory is there is no conceivable reason why the Argentine national team's doctor, the coach and the other players would play along. There are enough distractions as it is, with the association's crisis, and no one would gain anything from the ploy. Even when it comes to star power to pressure the association's leaders, Scola carries more weight than Manu in those circles, as crazy as that might sound to non-Argentines.

Now, it's possible that only Manu and the Spurs knew. Maybe Ginobili lied to his great friends from the national team, two doctors, the coach and the entirety of the Argentine media about how badly he wanted to play just to avoid some hate, regardless of how negatively it ended up affecting the national team's chances. Does that sound like Manu to you? It sure doesn't to me.

There is a much simpler explanation that I believe accounts for why the Spurs acted they way they did: Manu has no leverage. He likely retires after this next season, so whatever bad blood results from the Spurs' actions won't have lasting effects on the franchise. He can't say he will ask for a trade. He can't say he won't re-sign. And the Spurs understandably want him to rest now more than ever. Because they know Manu, they know he will play if given the choice, as he made clear once the news about the injury surfaced. So they have, from the start, put pressure on Manu to not play with every tool they had, including press operations.

That doesn't necessarily make the Spurs the bad guys. Manu is in fact hurt and stress fractures can be tricky. I'm sure they love Manu and would love to let him do whatever he wants, but R.C. has the job he has because he makes tough decisions and always looks out for the Spurs' best interest. It seems pretty cold to act like that to a longtime member of the franchise. But from the Spurs' perspective, Manu sitting out is the best possible outcome. So they've acted accordingly, using every tool at their disposal, exactly like any other franchise would have.

Now, the simplest answer is not always right. But in this case, I think that the second option makes a lot more sense than the first one.

Comparing this situation to other jobs or talking about contracts is silly

This might seem a bit paradoxical because I advocated for simplicity in the previous paragraphs and now I'm about to ask people to understand how complex things are. So bear with me.

When situations like this emerge, there's a natural inclination to try and compare it to things we know. So people will see it as an employee and an employer having a spat and, in their experience, what the manager says goes when it comes to behavior that could harm the company's future. The balance of power has been clear to any of us who has had a regular job. So Manu is in the wrong.

The thing is, professional basketball player is not a regular job, so the rules we live under don't really apply. Similarly, the fact that Manu is being paid millions is completely and utterly irrelevant.

If the Spurs weren't willing to pay Manu that money, someone else would have been. That's what good basketball players get paid. And Manu could have arguably gotten that money while playing summers, like he has with the Spurs. He is a highly specialized employee, one of the absolute best in an industry in which you need those elite people to be competitive, so teams are willing to take risks. Throughout his career, Manu has had more power than any of us have on our work environment. That might have changed now, but the way he's acting makes sense considering his experiences.

So what about his contract? No one really knows what it states. We know the figures because of leaks, but never the full terms. We don't really know how the clause in Manu's contract, if there is one, is actually worded. If things get litigious, Manu might have a case. Or not. Who knows?

Now, it's completely OK to feel happy about the Spurs' decision. Anyone that is not from Argentina or a Manu fan above all else probably is. But there's no need to oversimplify the situation in an attempt to figure out who's right and who's wrong using personal experiences that simply don't matter in this completely alien scenario.

This is truly a terrible situation in which a lot of us have been caught between allegiances. No outcome is going to satisfy everyone. But it shouldn't be the type of thing that creates unbridgeable differences between people who ultimately root for the same team. The key thing to remember is, things are often more nuanced than we instinctively think they are. And that there are really no bad people involved; just people with different interests.