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Olympics Basketball 2012: Manu Ginobili Looks Timeless, Even as His Clock Ticks

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Olympics Basketball 2012: Manu Ginobili Looks Timeless, Even as His Clock Ticks
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Time will soon betray Manu Ginobili, and a body responsible for executing hundreds, maybe thousands of breathtaking basketball plays will succumb to an unrelenting clock that ticks louder than ever.

He didn’t waste any of that time Sunday night, when Argentina commenced group play in the 2012 Olympics with a 102-79 drubbing of Lithuania.

Within the game’s opening three minutes, Ginobili had drawn an offensive foul, swiped an inbounds pass, bombarded the basket with the force of an Army tanker, snatched a rebound from a crowd of Lithuanian defenders and bagged a stepback triple.

San Antonio Spurs coaches, broadcasters and fans have come to call this phenomenon “Manu being Manu.” Kestutis Kemzura was merely the latest sideline chief to devise a plan to contain the Argentina star and leave the proceedings in defeat with a pulsing headache.

Ginobili ran the high pick-and-roll with Luis Scola as if teaching the play in a hoops master class. Scola sizzled with 30 points, even banking in a circus shot high off the glass.

A team short on opportunity but still long on ambition dispatched its first London challengers like the housewife slapping the kitchen table and walls with a swatter to catch a pesky fly. After a tight first period yielded the illusion that Lithuania might stick around long enough to steal away victory, Argentina whacked away with a three-point barrage until the repeated connections left Kemzura’s squad listless and lifeless.

Ginobili’s line—typical of his contributions in games that matter—still looks gorgeous the day after: 21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals.

The male athlete sure to lead the Games in floor burns was at it again Sunday when he wrestled a rebound away from 6’9” Paulius Jankunas and drew a foul that earned him two free throws.

Even the beach volleyball players at the Olympics do not crash to the ground as often. Ginobili has made a career of launching his 6’6” frame all over the hardwood, sometimes hugging the court, sometimes suffering painful injuries after hard falls and awkward landings.

Through it all, he has built a resume that will someday take a man who became an icon in Bahia Blanca, Italy and San Antonio to Springfield. With each drive, each dish and each age-defying triumph, that day inches closer.

While Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps and other American stars are running their celebrated final Olympic laps, Ginobili is in the midst of a probable swan song that means more.

The United States can count on fielding athletically dominant and superior squads in international competitions until humanity ends. Even if no American swimmer accumulates as many gold medals as Michael Phelps did in one tournament in Beijing, Ryan Lochte’s emergence suggests the nation’s swimming program can cope when both retire.

Aquatics chiefs here can replenish the talent base just as a water hose refills an empty pool.

Will any South American country ever produce another basketball player as special and rare as Ginobili?

Argentina doesn’t have another Manu in waiting, and the desperation with which the team competed Sunday said as much.

He celebrated his 35th birthday Saturday, and the pressure on the part of Argentina’s hoops organization and the Spurs to make the most of his remaining years has never been greater.

The career 15 points-per-game scorer has impacted a Central Texas city and a league in ways that no statistic could ever quantify. Replacing Ginobili will prove as impossible for San Antonio’s brass as finding the next Tim Duncan. There isn’t one.

What began in La Rioja, Argentina in 1995 continues now in London.

In that 17-year span, he has racked up a profusion of accolades—Italian League MVP, Euroleague Finals MVP, FIBA Americas MVP, All Euro-League First Team, NBA All-Rookie Second Team, NBA Sixth Man of the Year, a pair of All-NBA Third Team selections, three NBA championships, two All-Star berths and an Olympic gold medal—that put him in select company. The only other baller who achieved the highest level of success across that many platforms? Bill Bradley.

The Spurs plucked Ginobili from Europe with the 57th pick in the 1999 Draft, an astonishing feat no team will ever duplicate so close to the end of the second round. He arrived in the Alamo City in 2002, just after Argentina’s silver medal finish in the FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis.

He carried his nation to gold in Athens two years later, establishing himself as an indispensable contributor and a ferocious competitor, the likes of which Spurs fans may never see again.

Ginobili’s contract expires in 2014, and should he choose to retire then, he will do so as the second most accomplished Argentine athlete behind only Diego Maradona.

That should keep silver and black supporters glued to computer and TV screens for the remainder of the Games.

If Ginobili does not call it quits on his own by the time Rio de Janeiro stages the 2016 Olympics, David Stern and the league’s 30 owners will do it for him. The commissioner has discussed a plan that would bar NBA players older than 23 from Olympic participation and transform the FIBA World Championship into basketball’s version of the World Cup. Yahoo! Sports’ Writer Adrian Wojnarowski detailed the proposal here.

The idea, which will succeed if enough owners want it to, is nothing more than a cash grab from CEOs tired of watching their millionaire investments compete on a global stage without any direct financial return.

They see an opportunity to profit while placing greater restrictions on where, when and how their stars play during the offseason. Begrudge the owners all you want; it’s smart business.

Ginobili, though, offers a compelling reason to leave the system alone, to appreciate what the structure of FIBA-controlled tournaments can do. Spurs GM R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich accepted long ago that “Manu being Manu” meant allowing him to represent the country that worships him as an idol.

He stands tall alongside Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki as a future Hall of Famer who once watched Michael Jordan and the Dream Team and resolved to reach that stratosphere and distinguish himself in the NBA.

The difference 20 years after FIBA first allowed the United States to stock its national team with pros instead of college standouts: The best players abroad don’t want to take pictures with the high-flying, high-scoring Americans. They just want to beat them, and they can.

Ginobili has done it twice, both times robbing Team USA of a chance at a gold medal.

Argentina won a 1950 world championship with Oscar Furlong as its centerpiece, but none of the squads in previous eras managed the sustained excellence of the Ginobili-led Golden Generation.

He runs on fumes as much as physical ability, and that keeps Argentina in the hunt for a podium finish, its last title chase before the elders exit and leave the program in uncertain hands.

National Team coach Julio Lamas has a front-row seat in London to watch those daring no-look passes, determined charges at the rim, long-distance connections and the symbiotic Ginobili-Scola high pick-and-roll that still befuddles and slices up opponents. The turnovers and head-scratching miscues come with the territory.

Argentina and the finest basketball player the country has ever produced don’t have much time.

As the clock ticks, his body’s fuse nears the point of detonation. Someday soon enough, a Ginobili explosion to the basket will be his last. A bone might break beyond repair, or maybe he’ll just decide in two years that his twin boys are enough of an excuse to become a permanent spectator.

The Spurs and Argentina will have to move on without him, and the NBA and FIBA will suffer because of it.

Until then, Ginobili will do what made him special: Make every minute count.

The clock doesn’t relent, but neither does he.

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