SAN ANTONIO — Manu Ginobili is a winner.
You hear that claim often, about a lot of ballplayers. Sometimes it's even true.
Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles. Yogi Berra won 10 World Series. Charles Haley won five Super Bowls.
Ginobili isn't in that territory yet, with three NBA titles and maybe more, depending on whether the Thunder bows up and stands tall in these Western Conference Finals.
But sometimes we forget they play basketball across the pond and south of the equator. Basketball that sports ultra talent and deep passion.
Ginobili beat the Thunder in Game 1 Sunday night.
Seven points in the last 52 seconds of the first quarter. Eleven points in 41/2 minutes down the stretch of the fourth quarter.
Ginobili's Spurs won 101-98 on a night when aging stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were more aged than stars. Ginobili scored 26 points on 14 shots.
And the Thunder should feel honored. It entered good company.
Ginobili is one of the most decorated ballplayers in history. He's been MVP of the Euroleague, when he led Bologna, Italy, to the 2001 championship. MVP of the 2004 Olympics, when he led Argentina to the gold medal.
Three-time NBA champ as an indispensable member of the Spurs' triumvirate. Ginobili is 34 years old and still going strong in carving one of the great résumés in hoops history.
“He's a competitor,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Manu's got that same fighting spirit of any other great competitor in any sport. Whether it's going well or going poorly, he's going to do the best job he can, maximize his effort.
“Usually it comes out way more positive than negative. He's just got that competitive spirit. We didn't give it to him. He's just got it.”
Bill Bradley is the only other man with championships in the NBA, the Olympics and the Euroleague, a talent-rich consortium of European teams which crowns its champ with a grueling combination of NBA-style regular season and college-style playoffs.
Bradley was an interloper in Europe; he spent one season with Milan, Italy, while studying as a Rhodes Scholar.
Ginobili is no interloper. He's an icon on three continents, including this Alamo City, which is kooky over its Argentine import in his 10th season bedeviling NBA foes.
“Ginobili is a special player and it was vintage Ginobili last night,” Thunder coach Scotty Brooks said. “He was on. He was making his shots. He was making passes. He was getting to the basket.”
You know all those tricks the Thunder's James Harden has unleashed on the NBA the last two years? Sliding through cracks and performing hidden-ball tricks to score a basket? Ginobili's been doing that repeatedly for a decade on the grand stage of the NBA playoffs.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti last week called Ginobili one of the greatest winners in sports history. Ginobili's pals say it comes from a competitive spirit.
“He goes out and competes every play,” said the Spurs' Gary Neal. “Offensively, defensively, Manu's one of the most competitive people I've ever come across in my life. When you play with that competitive edge, that will put you in a winning situation nine times out of 10.
“He's competitive. Shooting games. Cards or whatever, that's just him. He doesn't want to lose at anything. Just a great leader to have.”
Opponents speak of Ginobili's guile. How crafty he is with the ball. How his flops lead to kindly referee whistles. But they also speak of that spirit.
“He does bring an attitude, he's never going to quit,” said the Thunder's Nazr Mohammed, a Spur teammate on the 2005 NBA title team. “Everyone pretty much knows he's the type of guy who gives it all he's got, leave it on the court. He's not going to quit on a possession; he's going to get it done.”
Ginobili grew up with his dad a basketball coach and two brothers who went on to play professionally.
“I just play the way I feel the game,” Ginobili said. “I love doing what I do. That's basically it. I just play instinctively a lot and I love playing and of course winning.
“I've been competitive all my life, from grades in school to the game. I guess it's in my nature. Sometimes I can do it well. Sometimes I struggle.”
Not often, he doesn't. And not in Game 1. To beat the Spurs, the Thunder must beat one of basketball's all-time winners.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.