[Editor’s Note: On the occasion of our favorite player choosing to retire, we can either be maudlin and emotional or we can celebrate his career by having some fun. This is an attempt at the latter. What follows is the account of an imaginary universe in which Manu Ginobili never played in the NBA, and instead became a star quarterback in the National Football League. All quotes are fictional. No journalists were harmed in the making of this fake oral history.]
Part 1: “Who the f--- is that?”
- Mel Kiper Jr.
Gregg Popovich, Head Coach/President of San Antonio Saddles Football: “The thing you have to understand is that coaches are sick people. There is something in our wiring where we cannot function normally in the outside world. We cannot turn this part of us off, no matter how much we want to. I like to consider myself a balanced individual. I have outside interests. I read. I keep up with what’s going on in the world. I’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine now and again. I have friends who couldn’t care less about what I do for a living. Yet even on a beach in Australia when any other normal person would just turn their brains off and relax, I’m the idiot thinking, ‘You know, I bet this kid I don’t know at all would make a helluva quarterback.’ I was probably suffering from sunstroke or something.”
Buck Harvey, Former columnist, San Antonio Express News: “By now the story has been told so many times, by so many people, it’s become the stuff of legend, like the millions of people claiming to be in Hersheypark Arena when Wilt [Chamberlain] scored 100 points when in reality it only held 4,000-something. The official recounting is that Manu and some of his teammates were relaxing at the beach during an off-day of the 1998 FIBA Championship and some American tourists near them happened to be playing catch with a football and the rest is like a script out of Hollywood, the ball just happens to bounce at his feet, somebody asks for him to throw it back, and here’s Manu Ginobili, a 21-year-old string-bean who’s never played or watched a game of American football in his life, practically throwing the ball through this guy’s chest cavity from 30 yards away. And Pop just happens to be watching it happen. I mean who would buy a story so ridiculous?”
Fabricio Oberto, Former teammate, Argentina National Basketball Team: “We’ve all heard the stories. ‘No it was only 15 yards, no it was 40 and he broke the guy’s hand.’ Some tabloid paper said Manu threw it extra hard at the guy because he caught him looking at Manu’s girlfriend. It was crazy. Many (Ginobili’s girlfriend at the time and now his wife) wasn’t even there. I really didn’t think much of it at the time. I remember seeing Pop introduce himself to Manu and the two of them talking briefly, but that wasn’t unusual. Strangers came up to us all the time, asking for pictures or autographs and Manu was always nice to everybody. If I knew then that I was about to lose my teammate and one of my best friends, I would have taken the ball before he got to it and kicked it to the moon. Then maybe Pop would have signed me.”
R.C. Buford, San Antonio Saddles General Manager: “Pop swears it’s all dumb luck, and to a large degree it is. He had no idea who Manu was when he happened to catch them play in that tournament. And I know for a fact that he didn’t stalk him to that beach. That part was a coincidence. But he did recognize him [from the tournament] right away and a kernel of an idea was probably hatched right then and there. Don’t let him con you into thinking that he thought he was some volleyball player or whatever.”
Mike Monroe, former San Antonio Express-News Columnist: “There have always been whispers that Pop paid the kid to roll the ball at Ginobili’s feet. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Manu Ginobili, Saddles Quarterback/Safety, Four-time Super Bowl Champion: “We had fun with it over the years but the truth is that I’ve kind of gotten tired of being asked about it, so here’s the final version, once and for all and I don’t want to ever talk about it again: Yes, it was the first time I threw a football, but it wasn’t completely new to me. Argentina isn’t a third-world country. We do get broadcasts of NFL games there. I don’t think I ever watched one beginning to end, but I would see highlights sometimes, probably I was impatiently waiting for them to end so that they would show highlights of Michael Jordan, which was all I cared about back then. But I knew some stuff about American culture and could already speak English, which surprised Pop, I think. The truth is he saw some kids playing catch and when he recognized me, he asked them if he could borrow their ball, walked over to me and introduced himself. He said he watched me play the night before and really liked my competitiveness. At first I thought he wanted me to autograph this ball, which wasn’t even a basketball so I thought that was weird, but instead he showed me how to hold the laces and asked me to throw back to this kid. So I did. And then he asked the kid to back up a little bit and had me do it again. To this day I don’t know why I agreed to it. But he thanked me for my time, shook my hand and I never thought I’d see him again.”
Harvey: “Fast-forward two years. The Saddles have just unfathomable success for an expansion team, winning a Super Bowl in their fifth year of existence. What a coup for San Antonio. To think, the choice for a franchise came down to either them or Jacksonville. Jacksonville! Can you imagine? Obviously it helps having Tim Duncan, the best defensive player since Reggie White, at the center of your defense. Winning that Super Bowl gave Pop a free ‘Get out of jail’ card so to speak to take risks without too much blow-back, and really who’s going to worry about the 257th pick of the draft?”
Jeff McDonald, San Antonio Saddles beat writer: “Besides Mel Kiper, I guess, right?”
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN NFL draft analyst: “I’m never going to live that one down, am I?”
McDonald: “What saved him is that only nutcases watch the third day of the draft. It’s on during the afternoon, opposite the NBA playoffs, and maybe three guys anyone’s heard of get picked those final four rounds. And during that show typically they hardly analyze any of the picks. They’re all getting announced so fast and furious that there’s no time. They’re mostly focusing on the storylines from the first two days and doing their instant grades and all that B.S. So here’s the deputy commissioner, with the second-to-last pick struggling to get through ‘the Saddles select Emmanuel Gi-NOH-bi-li, Argentina’ and already the credits are rolling and the show is ending and here’s Kiper, obviously thinking his mic’s off, yelling to no one, probably, ‘Who the f—- is that?’ Twitter didn’t exist back then but there were just enough cranks who caught it that it became a minor sidebar in our paper and a couple of national media columns might’ve mentioned it and it’s lived on through YouTube over the years. That’s the power of the NFL. You can’t even slip in an ‘F bomb’ at pick 257.”
Kiper: “It was not my proudest moment, obviously, but to this day I’ll tell anybody that I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize the mic was hot, not that I didn’t know who he was. No one did. It was the ultimate Super Bowl champion draft hubris pick. Not only had Ginobili never played football before, but he had no intention of doing so. Some teams even complained later on that the Saddles picked somebody who hadn’t formally made themselves eligible and the league had to add that rule subsequently.
Herb Rudoy, agent for Manu Ginobili: “That was definitely the weirdest phone call of my career. Popovich called me one day and said, ‘Hello, we just drafted Ginobili, can you please give him my phone number so we can chat?’ At first we both thought he was a soccer coach.”
Ginobili: “He came to my house (in Argentina) that summer, re-introduced himself and after a few minutes I kind of remembered him. At first I thought he was crazy but he had some official NFL footballs in his bag and a few tapes and then I knew for sure he was crazy. He had a future contract for me saying if I ever joined the NFL it had to be for the Saddles and it was for a decent amount of money and we exchanged phone numbers but basically I blew him off and didn’t think too much about it. I didn’t watch the tapes but I didn’t throw them away either. They were in a closet at my parents’ house for a long time.”
Buford: “I can’t explain it and I don’t think Pop could either, to be honest with you. Ginobili became his white whale. He was obsessed with the guy. He’d seek out game tape —again, these were basketball games— and watch this grainy footage of Argentina’s international games and the second division of the Italian league, and he’d be yelling at us ‘Did you see him stick his nose in there... did you see that pass through that window?’ He kept calling his agent every couple of months just to keep tabs.”
Popovich: “The whole thing was a convoluted excuse for me to scout the best bottle of Malbec more than it was scouting Ginobili. It was a lark, more than anything. Until 2002. Then it got more real.”
Monroe: “We made our jokes the next couple of days after the draft but after Ginobili didn’t show up to the rookie minicamp and it was explained to us to not expect him for training camp either, we all forgot about him. Three years went by and no one cared. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first draft pick who never played a down of football in the league.”
Harvey: “They won that title in 1999 with mainly a veteran-laden team of castoffs surrounding Duncan but after that, the roster started to get stale. The Saddles were basically impossible to score against, but in addition to being as old as dirt, they were also boring as dirt. Eventually fans get tired of watching 13-10 week after week, even if you have the 13 most of the time. They needed a spark.”
Popovich: “Really I think what pushed the ball over the goal line for us, so to speak, was the success of [Tony] Parker the year before. Here was this teenager from France, who didn’t play the game collegiately, but not only was he fast as heck and shifty and quick and all of those things but more importantly he really had a nose for the endzone and he was a tough son-of-a-gun. It showed that while this is an American sport, that we Americans don’t hold the exclusive patent to athleticism or toughness or all the jingoistic cliches. It’s a big planet out there. Granted, Tony’s father was an American, but his success as a running back kind of validated where we were going as a program, so we redoubled our efforts on the Ginobili front.”
Ginobili: “Pop showed up at my door with tapes of Tony saying, ‘If he can do it, you can do it’ and I was thinking ‘Are you crazy? That kid can fly! They all can.’ I wasn’t that kind of athlete. But he kept insisting that they couldn’t throw it like I could and that skill was valuable in the states. More importantly what he kept stressing to me was that he noticed how connected my teammates were on the national team, how he noticed all of us together not only on the floor but on that beach in Sydney, and he told me that if “you value teamwork then football is the game for you.’ He explained it was the ultimate team sport, with 11 guys moving as one and if just one guy screws up it all goes wrong. My basketball career wasn’t progressing as much as I’d hoped by that point. I had improved a lot but didn’t seem any closer of achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. No one was calling my agent even for a workout much less drafting me and I was already 24, almost 25. I figured, why not visit, get a free trip to America, make a little money during the summer and finally this crazy old man will leave me alone.”
Popovich: “I was saying any BS I could think of. That’s what coaches do. He was getting on in years and I had made up my mind that it was gonna be then or never, but I probably didn’t put it to him in those terms. Fortunately, he decided to give it a shot, and all of our lives changed forever.