Manu Ginobili arrived at Argentina this morning and held a press conference in which he had the Larry O'Brien trophy next to him. The tone was supposed to be celebratory but questions obviously centered on his injury and his chances of playing the World Cup. Because he is fantastic at handling the media, Manu controlled the situation and didn't really say much other than what we already know: if he feels like he can play, he will play.
Ginobili mentioned he sought a second opinion to the diagnosis the Spurs' physicians have given him and that an independent doctor in Chicago ruled that it was possible for the injury to heal in a shorter time frame than predicted. So Manu is going to wait until the 25th, redo the exams and if he's better, he will play. If he's not, he won't. But he also said that if the results are not conclusive either way, he will make a decision and the Spurs will have to trust him.
Anyone who has heard Manu speak to the media knows he is eloquent, honest and direct. This was not the exception. He acknowledge that he understood why the Spurs' doctors were extra cautious and that the team would prefer for him to sit out the tournament. And he said he talked to the team and communicated that he will take time and make the final decision based on new tests. The injury is not grave, so he's not ruling out representing the national team in Spain. In fact, he sounded very confident that was going to be the case.
So the affair wasnt all that illuminating as to what Manu will do but it does offer a glimpse into the context in which Manu will have to make that decision. In that same press conference, someone asked him if he believed the Spurs had leaked the injury report to pressure him to sit out. Manu handled it well, saying he trusts the franchise completely. But that questions illustrates perfectly the minefield he has to navigate when it comes to his commitment with the national team.
The Argentine sports press is just like America's. We have our #hotsportstake artists and our level-headed journalists, our Stephen A. Smiths and our Zach Lowes. But when it comes to the national teams on any sport, it seems like a sector of the public opinion loses IQ points and resorts to Manichean judgement. Anyone who doesn't play, for whatever reason, is a traitor and anyone who doesn't perform well is a loser. And the media, sometimes without realizing what they are doing, end up pandering to that lowest common denominator, confusing them for a majority simply because they are the loudest.
The guy who asked Manu if the Spurs were pressuring him had a good reason to pose the question. Andres Nocioni went out of his way to put the blame squarely in Philadelphia's hands for his absence in the last World Cup. And it was appropriate then. Nocioni had played a bit role for the team and when the Sixers took every possible measure to prevent him from playing they were protecting an asset more than a person. It got litigious and the Sixers actually had to enforce a clause that allows teams to prevent injured players from competing.
Ginobili's situation with the Spurs is obviously different. There's a degree of trust involved that is rare in any sport, after 12 seasons together. The Spurs will respect Manu's decision even if they are surely doing all they can to convince him not to play, and Manu won't blame them if he decides to skip the tournament.
But that question needed to be asked anyway, because a club interfering is, in the eyes of many, the only valid reason not to play for the national team. By answering honestly and taking the responsibility for his decision, Manu has opened himself up for a lot of public scrutiny. If the exams don't provide a conclusive answer, Manu will have to navigate what he called "that gray area" without the safety net of blaming it on the Spurs. And if he decides to sit out after all, he will get direct heat from a sector of casual basketball fans and indirect criticism from the journalists that represent them.
Almost every time there is an article on Scola or Nocioni in the Argentine press, the writer makes sure to mention that they always play for the national team, exulting their patriotism. That's true, especially on Scola's case. And Nocioni, to his credit, has tried to play though injury multiple times. There's nothing wrong with giving props to those guys, but what is implied in those praises to their commitment, intentionally or not, is a lack of those qualities in Manu, who has missed a handful of tournaments over the years. Or at least that's how a sector of the public seems to interpret things.
So public opinion in Argentina is surprisingly divided on Manu. Hardcore basketball fans know that what the guy has done is unique and he is as responsible as anyone for the ascent of Argentine basketball. But the people who simply tune in for the big tournaments read about how Manu bowed out while Scola didn't and think Manu is all about the dollars instead of his country.
Now, that alone would add pressure to Manu's decision, especially considering he is seriously considering moving back to Bahia Blanca when he retires. But there are other factors in play as well. Manu won't likely play for the national team again. He will be 39 by the next Olympics. Leo Gutierrez and Pablo Prigioni are also likely out after this World Cup. Walter Herrmann had retired and is coming back to the national team for this tournament. Scola is showing signs of age, even in FIBA play, where he traditionally dominated. This is it. This is the last tournament in which Argentina will have a chance of making the semis and then the old guard is gone.
Making things worse, Carlos Delfino might not recover in time to play. Delfino hasn't played in months and is going with the Bucks team to Las Vegas for Summer League, in a last ditch attempt to try and get in shape for Spain. Without Delfino, the national team simply lacks any type of quality replacement for Ginobili, making his potential absence even more glaring.
Finally, the Argentine national league is at a crossroads. A group of owners led by former NBA and national team player Pepe Sanchez have pushed for change. They are trying to adopt a system similar to the NBA's, with conferences and a development league. Sanchez owns Bahia Blanca's team and Manu has expressed his support for the project and has made it known many times that he would like to be involved with the organizational part of Argentine basketball when he retires. This is the best moment to help keep the sport popular and indirectly help keep the changes underway.
Now, I know this all means little to Spurs fans who simply want Manu to rest and be healthy for next season. But even as an Argentine myself, I honestly did not understand why Manu would even consider playing after the injury was announced. It just made no sense to me. It took this fairly innocuous press conference to put the context in perspective. The pressure Manu must be feeling to play has to be exponentially bigger than the pressure he feels to sit out.
Ginobili is a fierce competitor who loves representing his country above all else and that's the main reason he will play, if that's what ends up happening. But the circumstances must have surely played a part in the way the keenly analytic Manu has navigated these choices over the years. Hopefully, they don't cloud his judgment this time and let him make the best decision for the Argentine national team, the Spurs, and himself.