San Antonio Express-News
More than a thousand miles from the River Walk cheers, other sounds resonated Saturday. They resonated in Times Square cash registers.
A store that sells sporting goods there displays this month’s featured merchandise near the front door. No. 20 Spurs jerseys.
Most are already sold. “These jerseys,” said the store manager, “are the biggest seller.”
Across the country, passing over the River Walk on the way, is a West Coast NBA general manager. Saturday he sold No. 20 with as much enthusiasm.
This exec works in basketball, not marketing. So he said something he didn’t know for sure, but he acted as if he knew.
“No. 20,” he said, “will be our league’s most popular player.”
Few in San Antonio would have argued that Saturday, as No. 20 floated down the river on Barge No. 20. But there is something else going on here, from the East Coast to the West and beyond, and it’s bigger than most think.
Isn’t Manu Ginobili’s parade just starting?
Going by the crowd Saturday, all of the Spurs are worth a few jersey sales. Devin Brown cried out, “What’s up, hometown?” and Sean Marks even got a turn at a barge microphone.
Tim Duncan drew cheers that should accompany a three-time NBA Finals MVP. And when Bruce Bowen kept chatting on their barge, Duncan did something no one thought possible. He reached for the mike — if just to get it away from Bowen.
When they got to the Alamodome, Brent Barry showed a personality sometimes hidden this season. Barry poked fun at everyone from his teammates to his son, then demanded Tony Parker rap in French.
It might have been Parker’s best performance this month.
And when Bowen introduced Ginobili in Spanish and the crowd roared, Ginobili used an international word. “Wow.”
Wow, all right. As popular as the Spurs are in South Texas, they’ve rarely crossed over into the mainstream. George Gervin always has had a cult following, and David Robinson and Duncan have their admirers.
But mass appeal? In those same stores in New York City, for example, there were few Spurs jerseys for sale in either 1999 or 2003 during the NBA Finals.
No. 21 isn’t moving this year, either. “We don’t sell many of those,” said the manager.
Understand the power, then, of last week. Ginobili didn’t merely capture his second title. He captured a crowd looking for someone special.
The globalization of the NBA is part of this. Yao Ming brings in parts of Asia as Dirk Nowitzki and Parker bring in Europe.
But it’s much more than demographics with Ginobili, and it’s not glitz. Parker, after all, is more Hollywood.
Ginobili, instead, brings in fans by bringing them out of their seats. His determination is visual and his fearlessness is captivating. He doesn’t play for attention; attention comes to him because of how he plays.
Ginobili was at it Saturday night, too. “I can guarantee you one thing,” he said. “I’m not leaving town until I win another (championship).”
Who doubts him?
Not the West Coast GM. “Not since Michael Jordan,” he said, “has anyone attacked the rim as this guy does.”
Ginobili is not the next Jordan, and no one should say that. The hype did nothing for Grant Hill or Vince Carter.
But Ginobili is likely the next pop star in the NBA culture. If the NBA chooses to market him and if marketing whizzes notice the jersey sales, then national companies will step in and endorsements will make his fame official. That’s how it works in this business.
For the Spurs’ franchise, this is as much a dream as championships. They’ve always prayed for a Spanish-speaking star, and this one is likeable and sensational.
No wonder Peter Holt sat on Ginobili’s barge Saturday. Any owner would want to keep such an asset close by.
Russ Bookbinder, the Spurs’ executive vice president, saw this a long time ago. Before Ginobili ever played in an NBA regular-season game — in the fall of 2002 — Bookbinder made a prediction. He said that, outside of Robinson and Duncan, Ginobili would have more impact than any newcomer in franchise history.
Bookbinder was reminded of that prediction earlier this month. And Bookbinder smiled and held up one finger — signifying Ginobili wasn’t behind Robinson or Duncan.
“I was wrong,” Bookbinder said.
He was half-joking.
But half of him wasn’t, too.