On a January night in Indiana more than a decade ago, 26-year-old Manu Ginobili was sitting on the floor near the end of the San Antonio Spurs bench as coach Gregg Popovich walked toward him.
It was Ginobili’s second season in the NBA, and the celebrated Euroleague star was still trying to find his bearings in Popovich’s more rigid system.
The coach glared at Ginobili, who was off to a rough start in the game against the Pacers, and barked the kind of demand veiled as a question he’s become known for over two decades on the Spurs bench.
“Are you ready to be a human being?” Popovich said, sprinkling a little profanity in for dramatic effect.
Ginobili nodded sheepishly, pulled himself up and checked back into the game.
That was in 2004, the infant stages of a union that Tony Parker has said he wasn’t sure was going to work. Ginobili played with reckless abandon, and Popovich was determined to saddle the wild stallion and turn him into a disciplined, precise player who fit the Spurs mold.
What ended up happening was something entirely different. The crusty old jockey started to just grab onto the horse’s mane, hold on for dear life and feel the wind fly through what little hair he had left. And he found it exhilarating.
“Everything doesn’t happen in a day, but as you watch him play and realize the competitor that he is, he’s quite unique as a competitor and as a talent,” Popovich said. “Closing your mouth and not trying to coach so much is better, and letting that gifted player show you what he can do and how he can help your team win.
“As time went along I learned to not speak as something was contested or a shot was contested or a defensive play he wanted to make to get a steal or whatever, because he does things that win games. It taught me to watch a little bit more and not be so micro-management-like.”
Together they have won four championships, including the one last June. And while the exacting Popovich has built the most enduring success story in modern American sports with a my-way-or-the-highway approach, Ginobili is one of the few players to convince the coach to let him color outside the lines.
“I think it was a great accomplishment. Not only me, I think Tony also made him change or see things in a different way,” Ginobili said. “The truth is that he thought that was the way to go to make us better. It’s not that I talked him into it. He started to see that maybe we were going to be more successful and less predictable playing a different way.”
If Popovich appears to be uncompromising now, just try to think what he was like before Ginobili arrived in 2002.
“Pop had a way of coaching and Manu came and he was a little bit like a free bird, a little bit like a good (kind of) crazy, just making stuff happen,” Parker said. “Pop was smart enough to adjust and Manu understood what Pop wanted, and they found a happy middle.”
That’s definitely not where it started.
With a military background, Popovich was a big believer in structure. His players have often spoken about the coach putting them in specific lanes with specific roles, and there was little room for interpretation or freelancing.
But freelancing is what Manu does best. He reached great heights by playing with the kind of fearlessness that blitzed opponents from all angles. Sometimes that led to a wild turnover or a forced jumper in traffic.
For Ginobili, those turnovers were just the cost of doing business. For Popovich, they were a fork dragging down a 10-foot long chalk board.
“At the beginning it was me trying to adjust to him. He didn’t care about adjusting to me,” Ginobili said. “Then, slowly, I started to gain his confidence and he started to trust me and like what I did on the court.”
Ginobili had to compromise as well, accepting a role as a sixth man over the more glamorous spot in the starting lineup because Popovich preferred his aggressiveness and playmaking to help the second unit.
They have made each other better, and the Spurs as a whole have been the beneficiaries.
All these years later, the free-spirited Ginobili still might drive Popovich crazy every once in a while with an ill-timed gamble, but “not like he used to,” the coach said before a game in Minnesota this season. “We’ve kind of met in the middle a little bit, you know?”
And what is more human than that?
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