By Jake Appleman

“In those days, Wall Street firms touted Argentina as one of the world’s hottest economies as they raked in fat fees for marketing the country’s stocks and bonds.
Thus were sown the seeds of one of the most spectacular economic collapses in modern history, a debacle in which Wall Street played a major role.” – Paul Blustein, Washington Post, August 3, 2003.

pay·back – noun

1. the period of time required to recoup a capital investment.
2. the return on an investment: a payback of 15 percent tax-free.
3. the act or fact of paying back; repayment.
4. something done in retaliation: a really vicious payback for years of being snubbed.

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The YouTube video begins with a slogan: Argentina: REAL DREAM TEAM. Then, a native rapper spits a few bars about the national team, rhyming “cocina” (kitchen) with “Argentina”, and “Oberto, Herrmann, Scola” with “maestros en el control de la bola” (teachers in the control of the ball). The subsequent NBC footage from 2004 is grainy but familiar. Manu Ginobili jackknifes through the lane and converts an and-one between three defenders. Good, if unconventional, ball movement leads to a Pepe Sanchez 3. Ginobili sneaks baseline and receives a backdoor feed, leading to another and-one. Oberto, Herrmann and Scola dominate the boards and act as maestros en el control de la bola.

It continues: Andres Nocioni gets clinical in the post. Repeatedly. Hugo Sconochini whips a behind the back pass while airborne to a streaking Alejandro Montecchia on the break and Montecchia casually flips in an funny looking layup. Ginobili finishes a tricky alley-oop around Tim Duncan. Ginobili wets a three. Larry Brown furrows his brow in frustration. Allen Iverson has a look of pure disgust on his face. Stephon Marbury is being surly and committing cheap fouls. Ginobili draws a foul while nailing a 3. Scola emphatically dunks on Richard Jefferson and dances around like it’s his birthday. As the video comes to a close, Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘em Down” is on full blast.

For those suffering from short term memory loss, Team USA was bounced unceremoniously in the semifinals by Argentina in the ’04 Olympics, the mighty American basketball dragon fully slain. It was more than a basketball game for both countries. The loss put USA basketball on notice and was defining moment in Argentina’s run to Gold. Cavs GM Danny Ferry, who was Ginobili’s teammate during his rookie season, says matter-of-factly, “[Argentina] alone is one of the reasons why we switched to having more of a commitment and having more of a team than an all-star team.”

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As the Olympic torch passed through streets filled with protesters during the spring leading up to this all important election year, it was obvious to anyone paying attention that America is at a crossroads. The country once thought of as the world superpower is losing its grip on global dominance and Team USA’s precipitous fall in international competition has mirrored recent political and economic turmoil. Barack Obama marches towards The White House promoting hope and America’s youth are marching along to the drum beat of, “yes, we can.” For those not caught in the misfire defining our occupation of Iraq, the most fundamentally damning reality of the here and now is a free-falling (Petty? yep) economy that continues to cripple our country, challenging the basic needs (eating, sleeping and affording a roof to live under) of millions of Americans, day in and day out.

It is only fitting then that we will be blessed—controversial or not—with this summer’s Olympic Games. There’s nothing quite like a team representing its country in Olympic competition to unify a struggling nation. For an America that has lost its way, and a people looking for something, anything, positive to latch on to, the Argentinean national basketball team—and more specifically Ginobili—provides a template of hope.

According to a study done by consulting group, Equis, published in Argentina’s widely read newspaper, Clarin, Argentina’s financial crisis hit rock bottom mere weeks before Manu Ginobili first stepped on NBA hardwood, in October of 2002, when 57.5% percent of its people were living under the poverty line and 27.5% were completely impoverished. Much like the US right now—albeit on a smaller, worse scale— a once stable middle class was ripped to financial shreds. Banks literally froze and held people’s money.

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The reason this stuff interests me and I wrote about 7 papers about it in college is because I lived in Argentina for 3 months during the summer of 2000, mere months before the country started to fall apart. (I like to occasionally joke that it happened because they couldn’t handle me leaving, but, really, that’s not funny.) There were signs when I was there that an economic storm was coming. My host father owned a rubber factory and the family was quite well off. We were supposed to go skiing in Bari Loche (like the Argentinean Aspen) for break that July, but due to sudden financial constraints, plans were changed and we ended up in a small town in the mountains. Weeks later, as unspoken ideological differences strained my relationship with my host family, I habitually ditched my greedy, market capitalist fam and joined forces with my class, a graffiti-tagging gang compromised mostly of philosophical Che-loving hippies. They made sure to explain America’s role in globalizing Argentina, and how that positively and negatively affected them directly. My experiences with those kids permanently changed my view of the world. (I also, at 17, illegally suited up for a college basketball team down there, but that’s a story for another day.)

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By the time Ginobili helped the Spurs to their second NBA title less than a year after the economy hit rock bottom things had started to improve. When Argentina won Olympic Gold in Athens the following summer, 23% of the people that had been living under the poverty line before Ginobili entered the NBA had risen out of the economic doldrums. Two years after that, over two thirds of those suffering from extreme poverty were extricated from green hell, and the percentage of Argentines staring up at the poverty line had shrunk by more than half.

Did Manu Ginobili directly improve Argentina’s economy by draining clutch threes and emerging as a force on basketball’s biggest stages? No, not really. Credit former President Néstor Kirchner, whose wife is now Argentina’s president, and former economic minister Roberto Lavagna, along with the society at large for not accepting the status quo, something today’s America fails miserably at. Still, Ginobili’s cultural contributions during these trying times are of immense import, literally and figuratively. And they will continue to matter.

While sports may offer very little direct correlation to a country’s economic revival, the irony of Ginobili’s star rising in the United States, a country partly responsible for his homeland’s recession, is unmistakable. Interestingly, Ginobili’s play and maturation process have put a positive twist on the same two words—reckless abandon—that define the way America and other financial powers invested in Argentina during the late 90’s. In fact, in 2003 Hans-Joerg Rudloff, chairman of the executive committee at Barclay’s Capital, compared the problems caused by greedy international investing in Argentina to the Enron disaster. As for Manu’s own hell bent style of play, his coach, Gregg Popovich recently told USA Today: “If I played him 40 minutes every night, Manu might just burn up. Disintegrate.”

What’s truly important after the fact is that Ginobili’s ascent with the Spurs and the success of Argentina’s national team gave his country something to be proud of during a period of time when there wasn’t much for any Argentine to wave a flag about. Moreover, by having arguably the NBA’s biggest per-minute impact—he was the only player to average over 17 a game in under 32 minutes per this year—Ginobili’s style of play and the accompanying stats have served to reinforce the idea that, during trying times, you need to squeeze every last drop out of everything that’s given to you in order to survive. “I don’t think I’m a player to play 42 minutes, to tell you the truth,” Ginobili told USA Today. “I think 35 would be good. But we have a lot of good players, and it’s good to have everybody fresh at the right time.” Heading into another Olympic summer, it’s imperative for Manu to be at his freshest as he tries to lead Argentina to gold again. Whereas he’s one out of three stars for the Spurs, for Argentina, he is the man; the man on a team, but still the man nonetheless.

Ginobili’s success–and I cover where it comes from more in the mag–is crucial because art and culture are often born out of struggle. Talib Kweli once asked: “What if the environment didn’t create the context for the art?” Had Larry and Magic not laid the foundation for Michael, you probably wouldn’t have ever held SLAM in your hands. Jordan’s globalization of the NBA also paved the way for a young international dreamer like Ginobili, born into a basketball family, to actualize his path.

In part because of where he comes from and what he’s seen in his life—shared experiences that are unique to being an Argentine—Ginobili doesn’t care for a lot of the extracurricular stuff that today’s players get caught up in. “I really don’t know what other people think,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I don’t talk about that and I don’t read so many papers. Maybe I am not [appreciated]. But I don’t worry because I am on a championship team. I have three rings. So I really don’t care. I know that further [along] in my career – or once I’m 50 years old – I’m going to look at my rings and not [worry] about whether somebody appreciates me. . . . I’m going to look at those rings and that will be the thing.”

*****

Adrian Paenza, a broadcaster and mathematician who played an integral role in bringing the NBA to Argentina, said the following to the Newark Star Ledger about the way Argentinean players have developed their ubiquitous tenacity: “The conditions are very bad. The dressing rooms leak, you play in hostile environments where you don’t know if the police are going to protect you or hit you, and you grow as a man very fast. The ones who survive are the toughest.”

“When you look at Scola, Oberto, Nocioni, those guys all grew up together,” Ferry adds. “There was a passion to play and a passion to compete. It was a very special group of guys that all helped each other.”

As their country continues to rebound and Ginobili continues to represent an improving Argentina (politics, economics and basketball), one thing is certain: Argentina deserves its success.

One can only hope we don’t throw out the blueprint. It’s more important to be all-world than it is to be an all-star.

Jake Appleman is a senior writer for SLAM. His third favorite kind of cheese is cheddar. To pick up the second part of his two part magazine feature on Manu Ginobili, grab SLAM’s Olympic issue.