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An imaginary oral history of how Manu Ginobili changed the NFL forever: Part 2

In a different timeline, The Argentine would have made an insanely great quarterback.

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. If you missed it, here’s part I..]

Part II: “He said ‘I am Manu. This is what I do.’”
- Gregg Popovich

Tim Duncan, former middle linebacker, San Antonio Saddles: “I remember that spring, maybe a month after the season ended, I was at the facility working out and Pop had just gotten back from visiting him, and getting him to sign, I guess, and he said to me ‘Wait until you see the arm on this guy, Timmy, wait until you see him compete’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see.’ I just assumed he was another one of those experiments I’d never meet.”

Gregg Popovich, Head Coach/President of San Antonio Saddles Football: “All coaches are pragmatists by nature, so I tried to keep my expectations realistic. I was just hopeful that he wouldn’t want to quit after the first weekend of camp or that he wouldn’t be so overwhelmed that we’d be forced to make that decision for him. The absolute best case scenario in my mind was that he’d be lost initially but then his competitive instincts would kick in and he’d flash for a few plays during practice and then we’d stash him on the practice squad and let him develop into something maybe two years down the road. Honestly I wasn’t even sure I’d play him in any of the preseason games at first. It took about two practices for me to accelerate that timetable just a bit.”

Mike Budenholzer, Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers and former Saddles Offensive Coordinator: “It’s fair to say he surprised all of us. Pop told me to expect a complete novice, someone I would have to install the playbook to piecemeal, the way you’d teach a child to read. He’d never played or even been exposed to the game before and he didn’t know routes, coverages, protection schemes... I didn’t even know if he knew the rules. But the reality was he was a lot more advanced and prepared than I anticipated. I don’t want to say he had it all down cold from the beginning, but clearly he had worked at it before he got here and was a quick learner. To this day I’ve never had a rookie pick up our playbook faster, and we typically draft guys who’ve been playing their whole lives.”

Manu Ginobili, Saddles Quarterback/Safety: Once I signed my name, I committed and was all in. I figured it wouldn’t be fair to myself or to Pop for me to half-ass it. If I was going to get cut it was going to be because I wasn’t good enough, not because I didn’t try my best. So I started working out seriously, got a bit stronger, and more importantly I started watching those tapes that he had sent. I actually bought a book on the history and rules of the game, which was boring but necessary. And I had them mail over the playbook. For two days it was like hieroglyphics, but then it cleared up for me, I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe it helped that I was always good with numbers and geometry or that I’ve always been able to pick up new languages quickly, who knows? But in the end all team sports are kind of the same, right? You get the ball to the open guy so that you can score.”

Mike Monroe, former San Antonio Express-News columnist: “Camp starts and we finally got to meet Manu. He was friendly and a better interview than any of us expected, but you looked at his body, how skinny he was, and honestly you would’ve thought he was the punter. Hell, given his nationality, that would’ve made more sense, right? I thought we’d get one sidebar story out of him and that would be it.”

Buck Harvey, former San Antonio Express News columnist: “I remember Mike and I were standing next to one another and the first practice it was the ‘ones’ on defense versus the ‘twos’ on offense, with Stephen Jackson at quarterback. Finally, toward the end of the drill Bud[enholzer] subs in Manu for a couple of reps. First play, down the seam to the tight end 20 yards down the field only the defense is in ‘Cover-two’ and Duncan’s there to easily jump the route and pick it off. I think he barely got a fingertip on the ball before it whacked off his helmet and he stumbled right on his ass. The next rep, Manu feels some pressure on his left and runs up the gut. Timmy gets low to ‘thud’ him — basically two-hand touch since you can’t hit the quarterback in practice — and Manu tries to hurdle him, doesn’t get quite high enough and knocks Tim ass over teakettle, all the while never hitting his knee or elbow on the turf and he just kept right on going. It was probably not a coincidence that soon after that the Saddles closed practice off to everyone.”

Mike Brown, defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders and former Saddles defensive coordinator: “The first practice, I thought ‘this kid is going to get somebody killed.’ The second practice, I thought ‘this kid is going to get himself killed.’ The third practice, I thought this kid is going to give Pop a heart attack and get us all fired.’ By the fourth practice, I thought ‘This is a bad boy. He’s going to be a problem for people.”

Ginobili: “I played okay in the fourth quarter of the first preseason game, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be, I called the plays right in the huddle, completed a few passes but then I hurt my right ankle late in the game. It was pretty bad. They shut me down for the rest of the preseason. I thought ‘that’s it, they’re going to release me.’ It was very frustrating. Even when I came back, I wasn’t close to 100 percent. I couldn’t really move like I normally would or even plant hard on my foot to throw hard. I wasn’t me. I kept seeing the way my teammates looked at me and thinking ‘They don’t know what I can do. They just don’t know.’”

Popovich: “We were going to stash him on IR (Injured Reserve) and he begged us not to. Actually, begged isn’t the right word, it would be more accurate to state that he refused to do it. He was adamant that he’d heal up quickly enough to contribute during the season and made it quite clear that if we didn’t feel that he could contribute then we should give him a plane ticket back to Argentina.”

R.C. Buford, San Antonio Saddles General Manager: “Finally, from a stubbornness standpoint, Pop had met his match.”

Popovich: “The coaches explained to him that once the season began, there wouldn’t be too many practice reps to go around and we had Steve [Smith] and [Stephen] Jack[son] ahead of him. But we had some injuries at safety early in the year and he volunteered to take scout team reps there. He was just so loaded for bear. I thought, ‘Now here’s someone with uncommon competitive fiber.’”

Brown: “You can win a free beer or two with your friends with that trivia. Manu actually caught an interception in an NFL game before he threw one.”

Duncan: “We were missing so many guys back there that they threw him out there in our fourth game, I think, when we were in our dime package. I signaled the play to him and I don’t think he even looked at me. Sure enough the first play he’s in there, they throw it right to him and he picks it off off and starts running it back and I’m trying to block for him and before I know what’s happening he tosses it to me. I guarantee you I was more surprised than anyone in the whole stadium. I just reacted on reflex and caught the ball and basically fell down. We got to the sideline and he’s asking me why I didn’t run with it. To him it was the most natural thing in the world. I’m like ‘Who is this guy?’”

Jeff McDonald, San Antonio Saddles beat writer: “By mid-season it’s clear that Steve Smith, their starting quarterback, was at the end. They turned to Stephen Jackson, who had good touch on the deep ball, but he was a bit too reckless out there, in a completely different way than Ginobili was reckless. He was trying too hard to be the star when it was still a meat-and-potatoes, running-and-defense team built around Duncan and the defense. For some reason, Pop turned to Manu in November. He and ‘Jack’ actually alternated series for awhile and at first, it was the most cookie-cutter, vanilla quarterback play you could imagine. For a couple of weeks at least.”

Ginobili: “All the work at safety helped me when I got my chance at quarterback. I understood the coverages and what defenses were trying to take away better. The game slowed down for me a little. But I still had to work on gaining the trust of my teammates and coaches and even on trusting myself. Mostly they kept it simple for me. It was hand the ball off to Tony, play-action rollout to the tight end and maybe throw a deep post or a ‘go’ route once a game. The thing Pop kept telling me was to keep it simple. ‘A punt is a winning play with our defense.’ He just made it very clear, in that colorful way that he has, that we couldn’t turn the ball over.”

Popovich: “My message really got across to him because the next game I think he threw two pick-sixes and tossed three more laterals to no one in particular. I was ready to send him back to Argentina in a box but every time he caused a turnover on on side of the ball he seemed to come up with one on the other. I’ve never seen anything like it. We won the game something like 34-31, which was a very unusual score for us, and the next day in during film session I’m getting upset all over again, screaming ‘This is the NFL, we don’t do that rugby B.S. here, what the hell is the matter with you?’ And he said, ‘This is what I do.’”

Harvey: “That ‘rugby B.S.’ as Pop so eloquently put it —I’m guessing the actual language he used was a bit different than that— was of course Ginobili’s pet move of scrambling past the line of scrimmage and then tossing the ball right when he was about to get creamed. At first he did it like rugby style, or how you’d typically see at the end of games with no time remaining, a short underhanded toss. And sometimes they would work and a lot of times it would be a complete disaster. His teammates wouldn’t expect it and would drop the ball or the defense would be faster than Manu anticipated. But then, for whatever reason, despite all evidence to the contrary, Manu started to get more confident in it and started lateraling the ball with his natural overhand throwing motion. And that’s when everything went nuts around here.”