Why We Watch: Manu Ginobili, Man Without A Plan

Manu Ginobili seems, almost always, to be playing out of control. He is, but for a good reason.
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In the Argentine movie Nine Queens two grifters’ paths collide when the younger of the two, Juan, botches a con at a convenience store, only to be rescued by the elder, Marcos, who rapidly ushers him out of the scene posing as an arresting undercover officer.  

From this seemingly random encounter, the two strangers form an uneasy alliance. Marcos will take Juan under his wing, show him some simple cons, and, eventually, reveal that he has a much bigger proposition for which he enlists Juan’s assistance: the sale of some rare (and counterfeit) stamps to a corrupt Spanish businessman. Reluctantly, Juan, who is desperate to raise money to bribe a judge so that his father (also a con artist) can be released from prison, agrees.  

The film then does what good movies of this sort do: take us through an unpredictable and dizzying and often harrowing set of twists and turns during which it is never quite clear what is planned and what occurs by chance, what is an obstacle and what an opportunity, what is real and what is mere appearance, and who has the upper hand. And even at the end, when it is all finally clear, there’s this overwhelming urge to replay the whole thing to see what you missed the first time, how the whole thing got pulled off. We might as well call it That Manu Ginobili Feeling.

***

There is no number of re-watchings that will explain how a mostly unknown 23 year-old Argentine would go from being the last pick of the 1999 draft to Euroleague Champion and MVP, Olympic Gold Medalist, two-time NBA All-Star, Sixth Man of the Year, and core piece of three NBA championship teams; the fact that it all seemed to happen quite logically doesn’t help. The sense of having been duped, or of having missed something, is not resolved but rather heightened by watching Ginobili play.

On first impression, Ginobili appears chaotic on the court. Almost constantly moving, he is prone to changing speeds with frequency and without any obvious motivation, with and without the ball. With the ball, he may throw himself headlong, seemingly out of control and against all sense, into a crowd of taller defenders near the basket. He seems to initiate plays without knowing how his wild beginning will resolve itself. Sometimes the ball seems to slip from his control as he shifts from dribble to pass or shot. Indeed, this chaotic unpredictability is what a number of his coaches, teammates, and opponents signal as Manu’s standout characteristic: it’s what makes him next to impossible to defend, but also, sometimes, difficult to play with and to coach.

But beneath this chaotic presentation, Manu’s most distinctively effective plays combine a fairly limited set of components that one might think of as the elements of Manu’s style, the presentation of mutability (of speed, direction, or size) and of vulnerability (in the form of bad judgment or awkwardness). I put it in a table:







Defender Sees:

Mutability

Vulnerability

     
 

Of speed

Of direction

Of size

Bad judgment

Awkwardness

What is it?

With or without the ball, forward or laterally, rapid acceleration or deceleration

With or without the ball, of himself or of the ball, rapid alteration of the angle of attack

Rapid contraction or extension of his body

Attacking rather than avoiding a crowd of defenders

Presenting as off balance or out of control

How does he do it?

Combines lengthening or shortening with accelerating or slowing; if dribbling, pushing the ball to a spot further or closer to his own body;

Multidirectional footwork, (Eurostep) unorthodox ball handling (one handed crossover, dribbling between his own legs or those of an opponent or moving or passing the ball around his back

Usually with the ball, shortens his steps, bends at the knees, hips, and waist, tucks his arms into his torso; or the reverse

With the ball, on the perimeter or near the basket, dribbles or leaps into a crowd

Through his left-handedness or through apparently arrhythmic and mutli-directional footwork or through unfamiliar contortions of his torso,

What does it do?

Immobilizes defender by provoking hesitation

Immobilizes defender by provoking hesitation; forces defense to overplay one possible direction leaving another vulnerable to attack

Allows him to move through spaces defenders consider too cramped or closed entirely; may provoke defenders to diminish their own size or to extend their own size at the expense of mobility

Forces multiple defenders to guard him leaving his teammates with a numerical advantage over the opponents; he also creates an appearance of vulnerability or futility which can provoke a momentary relaxation on the part of defenders who consider the play completed)

Presents unfamiliar physical shapes to defenders whose success depends partly on reacting reflexively to familiar situations, but he also, again, can generate instants of defensive relaxation

Manu seems almost to look for trouble, seeking out the tightest and least comfortable spots seemingly by some defective instinct, then wriggling out with a maximum of breakneck effort. He ignores or violates many of the time-honored tenets basketball: throwing one-handed passes, leaving his feet without having a clear path to shoot or pass, exposing the ball to the defender while dribbling, shooting without facing the basket, all of those and often. But he gets to the basket and finishes (or makes the right pass) with such persistent effectiveness that it eventually becomes clear that perhaps it only looked like trouble to us; that Ginobili himself saw something different and knew all along what he was going to do, or at least what it was possible for him to do. When he is at his mercurial best, Ginobili even inspires the thought that appearing to be in trouble is an integral part of his eventual, continued, sustained success.  

Manu transforms what appears as inevitable constraint in the world around him – an opponent’s dunk on a breakaway or a blocked path on offense – into the viral unstoppability of his own invention. “We have to see creation,” Gilles Deleuze once said, “as tracing a path between impossibilities. Creation takes place in bottlenecks.” Which, okay, it’s nice to know who Deleuze’s favorite wing player would’ve been, but which is not quite enough for Manu: he doesn’t just transform the constraints he confronts, he actually creates the impossibilities in the first place, or at least the appearance of them. This is how he disarms his defenders, how he pulls off heist after heist. He inspires the same baffled awe and confusion in those tasked with stopping him that he does in those of us watching it. It’s auteurist basketball, or at the very least very complicated, very commanding real-time storytelling.

***

My wife introduced to me to a poem written in 1996 by the late Argentine poet named Vicente Luy, who was born in 1961 and died last year:

Por qué los secuestradores prosperan?
Por qué sonríen los diputados?
Porque tienen plan.
Vos no tenés plan.

Here’s my rough – and I want to emphasize unauthorized and undefinitive – translation (I know others who could do this better and hopefully will):

Why’re the kidnappers gettin' paid?
Why’re the politicians smilin'?
They got a plan.
You ain't got no plan.

It’s a tricky poem to translate; there’s nothing literally informal about the Spanish original, and yet it conveys to my ear a sense of confiding, intimate informality. And it is at least as tricky to make sense of. It includes a simple riddle with an apparently simple answer in its first three lines. And then it offers, in its last line, a harsh description of modern reality and our place in it. It also appears, in a tough sort of way, to suggest a path.  

But, at the same time, that last line keeps switching back and forth in valence: should I be dismayed or relieved that I have no plan? If I have a plan – if I plan, if I calculate – it seems to say that, like kidnappers and politicians, I can prosper and be happy. But then, of course, the downside, at least to my way of thinking, is that I would be like kidnappers and politicians: as immoral, as craven and cruel and bad. But not having a plan would seem to leave me poor and sad. How to break this impasse? How can you, or I, or anyone slip this trap and get ahead?

***

Manu, even if he doesn’t always seem to, knows how. He gets ahead, first, by dissolving simultaneously the seemingly fixed dichotomies between either having a plan or not having a plan and between either reality or appearance. Manu’s play both responds to the tricks in Luy’s poem and embodies the artful deceit of the characters in Nine Queens, by appearing to have no plan when he really does have one and by appearing to have a plan when he really doesn’t. It’s complicated, but if you’ve seen him play, you know all this, too.

And if that’s so, then Manu is also, at the same time and at any given moment, pretending to pretend when he is not pretending and really being real when he is not being real and therefore both pretending and being real. Confused? Imagine guarding him.

The trick, Manu’s play seems to say, lies neither in having a plan nor in not having a plan, but in never letting your opponent know whether you have one or not. Yet, as in any good con, the apparent revelation of the trick is really only the last trap for the mark. There is always another twist, another trick, a truth yet to be revealed. His many minutes of ineffectiveness in San Antonio’s Game 1 comeback against Golden State were not some long con designed to set up his game-winning three-pointer in the second overtime; he made some mistakes and some great plays, just played a Ginobili game. But, but: it’s tough not to think about.

It took my wife, who observes basketball with the unplanning eyes of a beginner, to see that in the case of Manu’s game, the final twist may be this: whether or not he really does or only appears to have or not have a plan, Manu really, really does know that you do have a plan. That and he knows what that plan is. (And you don’t know that he knows, but it wouldn’t matter if you did because you are a planner and so you’ll always have a plan and someone can always crack its code.)  

In order for all of Manu’s play with appearance and reality, with calculation and improvisation, to work, he has to know, or at least have a pretty good idea, of what his defender’s plan and reactions will be. If this were not true, all his crafty, chaotic sleight of hand would wind up looking like involuntary spasms: random and ineffective. He may have had a crappy game against the Warriors, but he knew that Tony Parker had had a good game and so maybe he knew also that the Warriors would, by design or accident, send two defenders at Parker on that final inbounds play, leaving Manu free to drift, passively back behind the arc on the far side of the court, seemingly out of the plan and away from the action, until he wasn't.

In that sense, like the hero of Nine Queens, Manu’s plan involves playfully conjugating appearance and reality, planning and planlessness, all the while observing and anticipating your plan and using it against you. This may be cause or effect of all the time he has spent as a sixth man, taking in the flows and patterns of energy on the court in the opening minutes before then stepping onto the floor. But whenever he plays and however he’s used, Manu’s chaotic non-plan consumes or cannibalizes any and all others. Ultimately all the calculating energy you invested into your plan works towards his ends: all your cash winds up in his pocket, all your happiness on his face.

And perhaps that may be Manu’s secret, whispered advice to those – like me – confused by the apparent impasses that Luy’s poem presents. Don’t strive for prosperity and happiness by mirthlessly calculating a rational (but morally foul) plan.  Don’t become a calculating, sinister planner – a politician, a kidnapper: the Spanish secuesterer sheds a wry light on the secret bond in our own current political system between politicking and kidnapping.

Instead, watch, and know the plans of the calculating and the sinister. Then learn to disarm them, and to relieve them of both their resources and their smiles, by having no plan other than knowing theirs and showing them that you have none yourself. They’ll never know what hit them.


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