The economy is a disaster, the political situation is precarious, the national psyche is fragile. But one thing Argentina has going for it these days is Manumania.
It is axiomatic that as big as NBA players from Europe and South America get back home, they aren't nearly as revered as the soccer stars there. But after one NBA season 6'6" Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who was born 350 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, in Bah�a Blanca, is starting to redirect his countrymen's focus from midfield to midcourt. Ginobili was chosen as Argentina's outstanding athlete of 2002 by Clar�n, one of the nation's largest newspapers—and that was before he averaged 9.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.71 steals in San Antonio's triumphant postseason. His number 20 jersey is a hot item in the sports shops of Buenos Aires, an honor previously reserved for astros del f�tbol. Argentines get three live NBA telecasts per week, many of them Spurs games, and they follow Ginobili's exploits in Page One stories and on prime-time news.
Part of Ginobili's Manumaniacal summer schedule looked like this: He returned to Bah�a Blanca to have a gym dedicated in his honor; presented Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, with a Spurs jersey in a ceremony; gave a series of NBA-sponsored clinics in South America, including Argentina, where he was escorted by police motorcycles and followed by caravans of thousands of fans; visited Italy, where he first made his hoops reputation while playing for Reggio Calabria and Kinder Bologna; and represented his homeland in the Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico. ( Argentina finished second to the U.S.) "It took some people in Argentina by surprise that I have done so well," says Ginobili, "but they are happy for me."
How has he captivated so many so fast? First, he's a solid contributor on a championship team. Second, Ginobili plays with �lan, something style-conscious Argentines can appreciate. In an oft-replayed sequence from Game 4 of the Finals, for example, he took off on one of his pell-mell drives to the hoop, dribbling behind his back while hurdling over fallen Nets defender Lucious Harris. No matter that he missed the layup; he had brought the crowd to its feet.
Most important, Ginobili is keenly aware of his cultural significance at home. "When you do something good, the Argentine people really attach themselves to you," he says. "They have so many problems back there that they're looking for somebody to be proud of. I think about that, and I won't forget it."