This was not how it was supposed to be, the youngest son watching out for his family. Manu says he considered taking his parents to the U.S. "for about 10 minutes before I came to my senses." He knew their roots were too strong to pull up; they'd lived in the same modest home for the past 34 years. So every night between 7:30 and 9:30, Jorge and Raquel, accompanied by their genial collie, Oto�o (Autumn), can still be found working at Bahiense. Asked if they would move, Raquel shakes her head emphatically. "No, no, no, no," she says. "We are not going to change our lives."
After installing an alarm system and hiring security for his parents--Manu says he does not worry about his own safety because "I'm the one who has to pay the ransom"--he left for Athens last August. What happened next is already a gilded national memory: First he led Argentina to an upset of the U.S., then to an 84-69 gold medal victory over Italy. The TV ratings jumped from 6.6 for the U.S. game to 14.0 for the final, a figure nearly unheard of for sports in Argentina. Even at the aptly named Locos Por El F�tbol, a Buenos Aires sports bar across from the cemetery in which Eva Per�n is buried, 300 people turned out to watch the final on 27 TVs. "It was a very nervous silence, and waiters couldn't even move between the tables," says Abel Barrios, 31, who was the bartender that night. "Then people would suddenly go crazy. Whenever they would score, everyone would shout out, 'Gol!'"
Later that day the nation's soccer team beat Paraguay 1-0 in the final, making it two gold medals in 12 hours for a country that hadn't won one at the Summer Games in 52 years. But Argentina expects to be good at soccer, which has been a source of pride ever since the team took Olympic silver in 1928 (and the World Cup in '78 and '86). Hoops success was something else. Which is why the celebrations for the soccer gold medal, while raucous, didn't compare with those that erupted after the basketball team prevailed.
ONCE UPON a time Ginobili was just the skinny brother of Leandro and Sebasti�n, seven and five years older, respectively. When Manu was three, a local coach, Oscar S�nchez, taught him how to dribble with his eyes up and his off arm out to shield the ball. He did it all day, every day, tagging along everywhere; Fabian Horvath, who coached Leandro and Sebasti�n, says he had to give Manu a ball to dribble during the older boys' practice or the kid would hincharme las pelotas, which translates literally as "swell my balls" but colloquially as "bust" them.
Enthusiasm didn't necessarily translate into success, however. At 15 Ginobili didn't even make the city All-Star team; Pepe S�nchez--who has since had only cups of caf� in the NBA--was the junior national team star. "Nobody," says Colamarino, "thought Manu would be this good."
What he was, in essence, was every scrawny American teenager circa 1986. He stayed up late for the NBA Finals and was obsessed with Michael Jordan, watching Come Fly with Me and Michael Jordan's Playground over and over. A life-sized Jordan poster still hangs in his bedroom. Then the growth spurt kicked in. He sprouted three inches in a year, and soon he was driving and finishing with a thunderous volcado, just like his idol. Previously, he'd been purely a shooter. "My first year professionally, my coach said, 'You see this line--don't ever go past it,'" Ginobili says, referring to the three-point arc. "I was 6' 3" and 160 pounds. I was skinny as hell."
Stronger and taller, he signed to play in Italy in 1998. He spent two seasons with Basket Viola Reggio Calabria before starring for Virtus Kinder Bologna. Established as a star in Europe, he signed with the Spurs in July 2002, and ever since there's been an outbreak of black-and-silver jerseys in Argentina. Ginobili's number 20 is worn at Bahiense del Norte by the little boys and kids like 15-year-old Agust�n Juanpataoro, who with his shaggy hair and matchstick biceps looks much like Ginobili did at his age. "We all try to play like him," Agust�n says. "He is basketball in Argentina."
What does he mean to the country? It depends on whom you ask. Keep in mind that Buenos Aires is in many respects a European city grafted onto South America, from the Parisian architecture to the late-night culture to the emphasis on soccer. Some 60,000 fans turn out for matches between Boca Juniors and River Plate, Buenos Aires adversaries that make the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry seem tame. A 2004 survey by the daily Clar�n asked whether Ginobili ranks with the nation's five great sporting legends: Formula One driver Juan Fangio, soccer star Diego Maradona, golfer Roberto de Vicenzo, boxer Carlos Monz�n and tennis champ Guillermo Vilas. The readers said not yet--he needed to win more titles--but as Juan Carlos Meschini of TYC Sports channel notes, "That he is even mentioned in the same breath is indicative of his stature."
ESPN Latin America broadcast two games a week during the '04-05 NBA season, most of the playoffs and all of the Finals games, and the future looks bright: There were two more Argentine players in the league this season-- Carlos Delfino with Detroit, who was left off the playoff roster because of knee injuries, and Andr�s Nocioni with Chicago--but it is Ginobili, the chosen one, who leads the way, especially after averaging 16.0 points and 3.9 assists in the regular season and 22.3 points and 4.3 assists in the playoffs. Says Leo Montero, host of NBA Magic on TV and a good friend of S�nchez's and Ginobili's, "Pepe always jokes that if the plane crashes and you are sitting next to Manu, everyone else may die, but you will be all right."
Despite a reputation for arrogance (old joke: How does an Argentine commit suicide? He jumps off his ego) Argentines are also said to be acutely insecure. That's why Buenos Aires is a haven for medical tourism (read: cheap plastic surgery) and a bastion of eating disorders, and is renowned for having as many therapists per capita as any major metropolis. Imagine the effect on the national psyche if the hoops team's success proves not to be the climax of something great, but the start. If Argentina can sustain its success in this most foreign sport, maybe it can compete in other modern arenas. Maybe it can rise again.