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IN SAN ANTONIO he is known for his clutch shooting, creative passing and slicing drives to the basket. Sure, some young girls might rhapsodize about his smile and his expressive brown eyes, but for the most part the public cares only about his play for the hometown Spurs. In his native Argentina, however, Manu Ginobili long ago ceased being merely a talented shooting guard. There, he is not only the country's finest basketball player and an Olympic hero, but--in a country wracked by economic turmoil--he is also living, dribbling proof that anything is possible. Even his fellow members of the Argentine national team call him the One and Neo, nods to the destiny-bound hero of The Matrix.
It is a heavy burden, being a national icon, especially for an introspective 27-year-old whose idea of a good time is watching HBO movies while fooling around on his laptop. Ginobili didn't sign up for all this: for thousands of crazed fans waiting for his autograph in Buenos Aires; for paparazzi dogging his footsteps; for threats against his family; for reporters calling his parents so often that, as his father says, "every time we hang up the phone, it just rings again." He may live the privileged life of a multimillionaire professional athlete in the U.S., but head 5,400 miles south to his hometown, and you begin to grasp the price he pays for his success.
TO UNDERSTAND how a basketball star can emerge in f�tbol-mad Argentina, one must go 350 miles southwest of Buenos Aires to Bah�a Blanca, a sleepy city of 290,000 surrounded by lush pampas as far as the eye can see. Here, and only here, soccer is second. The ground here, as La Nueva Provincia sportswriter Enrique Nocent puts it, is "planted with basketball hoops." There are 20 basketball clubs in town, each comprising eight age divisions, and it seems that everyone--including the mayor, a former first-division star--is a player.
If the game courses through the veins of Bah�a Blanca, then the heart beats inside the Bahiense del Norte gym. Walk past the paddleball courts and the small office crammed with trophies, and you see a giant banner that reads DE BAHIENSE AL MUNDO--From Bahiense to the World--festooned with photos of the club's 10 international players. There, past the images of Leandro Ginobili and Sebasti�n Ginobili, and just before Olympians Alejandro Montecchia and Pepe S�nchez, is Manu Ginobili. Unlike the rest, however, he is looking not up but down and to the side, as if to duck the camera's gaze. The angle puts into relief his most prominent feature, the one that earned him the nickname, as a boy, of Narig�n. Big Nose.
On a cool evening last fall, 150 locals sat on the white stone bleachers watching the city's championship game in the top men's division. Back when Manu's dad, Jorge, played point guard, this was a humble concrete court under the stars. Now it is a raised wood floor in a cavernous gymnasium. As the men play, pushing the ball upcourt, draining soft threes and making backdoor cuts--a scaled-down version of the team-first style that won Olympic gold--the gym's most famous alumnus watches. Or at least a fist-pumping, 15-foot-high image of him does, from a billboard that reads ESTADIO MANU GINOBILI. The real Manu is only a block and a half away at his parents' house, but he will not come to the final tonight. It is, he says, too difficult for him to go out in public.
It began in August 2002, after the national team upset the U.S. at the world championships in Indianapolis and finished second to Yugoslavia. Ginobili came home to find he had gone from local hero to, as his former coach and good friend Gabriel Colamarino puts it, "one of the Rolling Stones." After a press conference at the municipal theater downtown, the 6' 6" Ginobili stood on the balcony reluctantly waving to the throng choking the street. "It was awkward," he says in fluent English. "I felt like I was running for president."
His popularity soared even higher after the Spurs won the 2003 title. Ginobili averaged 7.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in his rookie season, winning converts Stateside with his headlong energy and rococo spin moves. "The fans in the United States, they are, well, more polite," says Ginobili. "The fans in Argentina can get wild, crazy. If you meet people in a restaurant, it is fine, but when they get in groups, woooo"--he shakes his head--"it gets dangerous."
IN THE summer of 2004 Ginobili experienced something of a personal triple double: domestic, economic and professional success. That July he married Marianela Orono, the daughter of a former Argentine basketball star and the only woman he ever seriously dated. They tried to have a small, private ceremony, but the media crashed the affair. "Some of them got in," says Manu's mother, Raquel, dismissing the incident with a wave of her hand. "One photographer came disguised as an orchestra member."
Next came the contract. After averaging 12.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists as a starter last season, Ginobili signed a six-year, $52 million deal with the Spurs last July, making him the highest-paid Argentine athlete. But that financial security also amounted to an open invitation for extortion. With the economy in tatters since the devaluation of the peso in 2001, and with the legal system compromised by corruption and an inability to prosecute kidnappers, Argentina has become a hotbed of that crime--a problem throughout Latin America, where an estimated 75% of the world's abductions take place. Last September the mother of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Ugueth Urbina was kidnapped in Venezuela; she was eventually rescued unharmed on Feb. 18.
In July 2004 police intercepted a phone call between members of a kidnapping ring and learned that Ginobili's father was on a list of targets. At the time Manu and his parents were on vacation in the Patagonian Andes. "The police called here and spoke to one of my brothers," says Manu. "At the beginning there was a lot of security. Federal police were at the house, and they followed my parents and my brothers to make them feel safe. You have to be careful. You never know." He shrugs. "There is not a moment where you can say, It's enough, no more security, everything come back to normal."