SAN ANTONIO There is a 27-step walk to the podium from the locker room. He has made the walk before, but never under these circumstances. Most NBA players will tell you that they really don't pay attention to that walk.
Most NBA players don't even know they're lying.
But most players who excel in Game 1 of an NBA Finals don't get stopped at step 24. Most don't get pulled to the side and tossed up against a white brick wall, under an exit sign where the lights of cameras and hands connected to tape recorders have swarmed. Most don't have to stop to speak to the Spanish-language media before they present themselves to the rest of the world.
The podium at the Finals is reserved for only the chosen few. And when players make that walk to it, most know what time it is.
Manu Ginobili stayed against the wall for less than 10 minutes. Water still dripping from his hair. Gatorade bottle lodged between two fingers. Carmel slacks creased. Patterned beige shirt opened at the neck. Face shaved from a day ago. He answered all of the questions in his native language, with no issues. And after he saw Rip Hamilton walk by, he looked at Spurs media guru Tom James. He knew his time had come.
A part of me feels partly responsible for this.
In 2002, after the third game of the World Championships in Indianapolis, I ran around the arena asking anyone I could find from Argentina how to say something in Spanish. The word I wanted can't be printed, not here, but it starts with "mother," if that helps any. In context, I meant that the man I'd just watched on the court that day had played like one.
The story I wrote ran in "Slam" a month later. Ginobili was only just then beginning to make his presence felt in the consciousness of the American basketball public.
I remember walking back to the hotel in Indianapolis with Gregg Popovich, and asking him, "Who is the cat running guard with Pepe Sanchez? I need to tell his story."
Pop had this smile on his face, like he knew something.
"He's good, isn't he?" is all Pop would say. Knowing that he knew all about the kid.
He'd drafted him three years earlier.
And even though Ginobili won a ring with Pop and the Spurs in 2003, it's different this time. Now, what Pop knew, the world knows. And maybe it's too early to put this out there like this, but Manu Ginobili quite possibly has just become the most important basketball player in the world, at least until the end of this series.
The player who was voted the MVP of the "true" world championship in Greece last summer and who will not be the MVP here because if San Antonio wins, T.D.'s got it locked Ginobili is the one who can end the argument that Tim Duncan couldn't win a championship without David Robinson.
There will never be another "50" in San An. But if Ginobili keeps playing like the best international player with no NCAA experience ever to join the NBA, the statement will change to this: Tim Duncan got only two rings with David Robinson. Ginobili was with him for all the rest.