In less than 12 months, as Kinder Bologna has been winning every trophy available - the Euroleauge, the Italian League and two Italian Cups - 24-year-old Argentine guard Emanuel Ginobili has been collecting MVP awards each step of the way. He lacked only the Italian Cup MVP, until last Saturday, when Kinder won by a basket in overtime behind Ginobili's 28 points, 10 rebounds and 5 steals. Ginobili sank the overtime three-pointer that put his team ahead and, with another incredible drive, fed Antoine Rigaudeau for the game-winning buzzer-beater. This is the "Manu" whom Kinder fans call "The Phenomenon". He did not replace Sasha Danilovic in their hearts, but he has been able to make just as much room there. When Danilovic visited with Kinder's players at practice on Monday, his first congratulations were extended to Ginobili. The passing of the torch seemed complete. In a Euroleague.net interview on the eve of the Top 16, Ginobili recognized that the coincidence of Danilovic's retirement just after he arrived at Kinder opened up an opportunity for him. "In all honesty," Ginobili said, "if he had not retired, I would never have had a season like the last one."
Manu, last week you were missing only the Italian Cup MVP trophy. Now, you have your personal Grand Slam, too.
"Yes, I do. I am very lucky because I play on a winning team. If I played on a losing team, the MVP award would have been very far from me."
When you came to Bologna, Kinder had dealt until the end with Andrea Meneghin. Did you know you were the second choice?
"I've always known it, but it never caused me any problem. I knew that if Meneghin was the No. 1 choice for them, it meant that he deserved to be. He was and is among the best European players, coming off an incredible season with Varese and the Italian National Team. I was more a bet than a sure choice, but I was calm because I felt I could do good things here. And I just have done what I was asked to do."
Danilovic retired after he had played only one practice with you. What did you say when you knew about his retirement?
"Well, I thought that more space was opening in front of me. 'There's room for me', that's what I thought. But I also thought about what I could have learned with him on the team. He played with the ball, without the ball, he had a smell for the game. He was great. In all honesty, however, if he had not retired, I would never have had a season like the last one."
How much attention has this success, both yours and your team's, received in your home country, Argentina?
"I think that the situation has improved recently. In the last two years, our results got more attention than in the past. Also, people in our country have plenty of expectations about the World Championships next summer. I remember when Kinder won everything four years ago with my friend, Hugo Sconochini, there was no chance to see a picture or to read something about it in my homeland. Now things are different."
Argentine players remind us of Yugoslav ones. We are used to saying that Italian players are too relaxed and comfortable with what they have, while Yugoslav guys want to emerge and to win because of socio-economic factors, just like Argentine players now. Do you think this is true or not?
It may be true. Of course, it depends on the player. Five years ago, in my country, if you said that you were leaving your studies to play basketball, your parents did not approve at all. Now, if you have talent you can try, because being a lawyer could mean nothing and guarantee nothing for your future. We have always had talented players in Argentina, we had quantity and quality, but I think that the Bosman law made it easier for us to be signed and enrolled. No one trusted Argentine players, but now many clubs take a look there.
Do you think Argentina can compete for a medal at next World Championships?
"A medal is maybe too much to expect. Eighth place is our best result so far, if I remember correctly. We are not at the same level of Yugoslavia, for example, even if we know we can beat any team in a do-or-die game. The podium will be very difficult, and we must keep our feet on the ground, just to go there with the right attitude."
Is it frustrating for you to be a sort of a minor hero? I try to explain: Maradona is Argentine like you, but he is an idol, just like all the soccer players. You do great things, too, but only for a limited audience, it seems.
"I know that. And I am really angry about that. But that's the way it is, and I can't do anything. Of course, if the Italian Cup Final had been broadcast in Argentina, too, maybe things would be better for me and for the whole sport of basketball. I know that soccer takes up all the pages in European magazines and newspapers, but unfortunately, that's normal. We have to adjust, and do the best we can for the fans we have."
Which way is basketball going in your opinion? Don't you think there's an abuse of the pick-and-roll?
Definitely, yes, there's an abuse of it. Once, the abuse was only in the NBA, but now the pick-and-roll rules everywhere. Of course, that's the way basketball is going, with big men shooting from the perimeter, with open spaces for an outside shot, especially for a team like Kinder, with players like Jaric or me, who are able to open the court by driving inside.
You are a second-round NBA pick. Do you think that is an advantage for your career?
"Well, I did not expect to be a pick at all. I was amazed to be selected in the draft. But that wrote my name on the geographical map of basketball. First round or second round, it does not matter. Even if I was picked now, the situation could be different for me."
Former Italian League player Charles Smith scored 32 last weekend in a game against Sacramento. If he can do that, is there room for Ginobili in the NBA? Do you feel ready for another basketball world?
"I think that a player should go there if he is ready and if he feels mature enough to go, because the longer you take making the decision, the longer and harder will be your adjustment to that game and lifestyle. I feel more ready than two years ago, but of course, we cannot know what will happen. I want to try it, to see what it is like. Maybe, the thing I would miss is the electricity you find in the locker room before a key game here, the pressure for the result, the atmosphere. The NBA seems to be more show business. However, I just want to see it for myself."