NEW YORK — Yo no hablo español. But I can probably still tell you what Manu Ginoboli and his friend and countryman spoke about before the Knicks beat up on the road weary San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 3.
Before the game, for 10 minutes, Manu Ginobili and Pablo Prigioni stretched, laughed and conversed in Spanish.
Monolingual passersby couldn’t understand their conversation, but their body language couldn’t have been more clear. Initially happy and relaxed, the conversation eventually got serious. Ginobili began using his hands to mimic bounce passes, and may have told Prigioni that the Knicks can only survive without Raymond Felton if he emerges as a dependable floor leader.
Ginobili may not have muttered those words. But if he did, he’s correct. And if he thinks Prigioni can, he’s correct again.
The prospect of Prigioni’s emergence was a major contributing factor in last week’s declaration that even without Felton, the Knicks will remain one of the top teams in the conference.
Ginobili can already boast partial responsibility for his friend’s defection from Spain to the NBA. He is, after all, one of the friends that Prigioni consulted with before eventually ending general manager Glen Grunwald’s five-year pursuit of the point guard.
When they met up about three hours later, after it was all said and done, Prigioni had put together one of his better games as a Knick. From the beginning, Jason Kidd seemed a step slow and managed to play just 21 minutes, but with six minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Knicks ahead 56-50, Woodson subbed Kidd out for Prigioni and with him running the show, the Knicks outscored the Spurs 21-10 over the game’s next 7 1/2 minutes.
Prigioni was running the show during the game’s decisive stretch and helped put the Spurs away.
The Knicks would go on to defeat the Spurs by a final score of 100-83, and the normally stoic Gregg Popovich couldn’t stop raving about Prigioni when I asked him what he thought of the oldest rookie in NBA history.
That’s especially telling since Popovich is known across NBA media circles for his nonchalant and often combative answers.
“He’s a really solid kid,” Popovich said. “He’s one of those Argentinians… They’re always solid, always professional, play to win 100 percent of the way, all the time, always in the game, always focused.”
Popovich knows a thing or two about Argentinians. On his watch, the Spurs drafted both Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola—Prigioni’s close friends—and since Popovich’s relationship with USA Basketball began back in 2002, he’s watched international basketball closely.
Just last month, he reportedly turned down an offer to be the head coach for Russia’s national team, and it’s probably because he is being considered by Jerry Colangelo to succeed Mike Krzyzewski as Team USA’s man in charge.