"He's seeing the floor a little better," David Menéndez Arán says. It's the third quarter of the Spurs' Sunday matinee against Denver, and before the next dribble hits the floor, the comment becomes prophecy.
Manu Ginobili stutters to his right, draws the defender and dishes to George Hill for an easy layup.
"Old Manu was a better slasher," Menéndez says. "But I think he's a more-gifted passer now."
If anyone outside of an NBA office would know, Menéndez would. He's been watching Ginobili play since the days before the Spurs drafted the 6'6' Argentinean guard.
He's seen practically every minute of Spurs basketball played over the last three seasons. It's his attention to detail that has made him one of the leading voices of Spurs basketball on the Web.
“I think David is the cream of the crop,” says Tim Varner, managing editor of “48 Minutes of Hell,” a Spurs blog associated with ESPN.com. “He writes in a very insightful way, but with all the fun and wit of a fan.”
“He gives you the feel that you’re attending a game, and you’re having a conversation with the guy next to you.”
But here's the thing: Until last week, Menéndez had never seen an NBA game in person.
Until last week, Menéndez had never set foot in the United States.
Along for the Rodeo
Menéndez is anything but a casual Spurs fan. The 27-year-old civil engineer from just south of Buenos Aires never misses a game – even if it’s only on after midnight and his alarm clock is set for 7 a.m. the next day.
He’s also made another name for himself as “LatinD,” the stat-minded contributor to “Pounding the Rock,” a Spurs blog that bills itself as the source “for all your Manu-loving San Antonio Spurs news.”
Now, after years watching the game from afar, Menéndez is finally seeing his Spurs and meeting the fans behind their Pounding the Rock (PtR) avatars.
Menéndez is visiting the United States for three weeks to follow his favorite player and his favorite team through the eight-game Rodeo road trip.
Thursday night, he’ll be at Rose Garden to watch the Spurs play Portland. On Monday, he’ll be in L.A. to see the Spurs play the Lakers. He’ll be in Denver for Spurs-Nuggets three days later, and three days after that in Dallas for the All-Star Game.
It’s a basketball pilgrimage for Menéndez; the road trip of a lifetime.
“I knew after one year writing for PTR that I wanted to go and see Duncan and Tony and Manu while they're still playing,” Menéndez says. “I knew I had to see them live. I had to.”
A Blogger’s Beginnings
Menéndez's basketball upbringing plays pretty much to script: He became a fan watching Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but Argentinean television only showed a handful of live NBA games each year.
That all changed, though, in 1999. Menéndez had taken notice of his country’s national team and their promising young talent, including Ginobili. When the San Antonio Spurs drafted Ginobili in 1999, all of Argentina kept an eye on the swingman from Bahia Blanca.
“They won the title his rookie year, and I just had to keep watching,” Menéndez says. “I loved being a fan. I started reading about the history of the Spurs and the players. They were my team.”
The growth of the Internet – and Ginobili’s continued success – made following the Spurs even easier for Menéndez. He started reading PtR for the insight – and stayed when he found like-minded fans to chat with during games.
When Menéndez eventually started writing for PtR, it was with one goal in mind: improving his English skills.
But under the pseudonym “LatinD,” he quickly became one of the site’s premier writers, posting everything from Tim Duncan YouTube videos to stat-heavy analysis. (Some recent LatinD posts – including “The NBA in Polychromatic Form 3.0” – may require an advanced degree in mathematics to decipher.)
“It's just a blog,” Menéndez said. “I try not to take it too seriously. It's a great way to remember that you are only a fan.”
The World is Flat
But it’s also easy to forget that so many of these new fans are, like Menéndez, tuning into Spurs basketball from abroad.
A map of Pounding the Rock's traffic on a recent game night showed that visitors from six continents logged on to the site.
Some -- from France, home to two Spurs players -- make sense. Others suggest unusual spheres of influence for Gregg Popovich's team.
Kuopio, Finland? Kanagawa, Japan? Amman, Jordan? Spurs fans in all three cities logged on.
Pounding the Rock editor Wayne Vore estimates that a quarter of all readership on the blog is international. And out of the U.S. traffic, he says half comes from outside Texas.
Credit for such widespread interest is partially due to the international growth of the game, though the Spurs are among the most visible franchises in the world.
Few teams have signed so many international players – remember Icelandic center Petur Gudmundsson (he played for the Spurs from 1987 to 1989)? Or Beijing big man Mengke Bateer (he only played in 12 games in 2002-3 for the Spurs)? Or, yes, current Spurs from Manu to Mahinmi.
As the Spurs’ reach has grown, so have the number of Spurs fans, and many have come together on blogs or message boards, like Spurs Talk, to discuss their favorite team.
“The international fans especially feel embraced,” says 48 Minutes’ Varner.
Vore puts it another way: “This is a team that everyday people can identify with.”
Varner points out that international Spurs fans also offer a valuable service to their American counterparts, posting links and translations of Spurs coverage from the foreign press.
Coming to America
On game nights, over on the world map of PtR’s traffic, a few tiny white dots always appear above Argentina. One of those is Menéndez, logging onto the site to chat.
But last week, for the first time, Menéndez wasn’t online during a game. Instead, thanks to his friends from PtR, he was in the stands.
The exchange rate isn’t exactly favorable for Menéndez – these days, it takes four Argentine pesos to buy a single U.S. dollar – but it turns out that the blog isn’t just a go-to source for Spurs analysis and data. It’s also a boutique travel agency.
The PtR staff put Menéndez up last week when he came to San Antonio for three games. Tonight, PtR editor Vore has found him housing in Portland with a friend.
In San Francisco, Menéndez is meeting a PtR regular, and they’re driving down to Los Angeles together to see the Lakers play. PtR’s housing him in Denver and Dallas, too.
“Without the guys from the site, I couldn’t have done this trip,” Menéndez says. “They’ve shown me around. They’ve given me a place to stay.”
Vore says when he asked his wife if she minded hosting Menéndez for a few nights – “Oh, it's just this dude I’ve met through the Internet,” Vore remembers jokingly saying – the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Sure, Menéndez and Vore said, after years of exchanging emails and chatting online, there was some initial awkwardness, but the PtR group finally started to settle in. They took Menéndez on tours of downtown (which he enjoyed) and for breakfast tacos (which he didn’t).
The group even posed for a photo and then superimposed their avatars over the image.
It’s a fitting image for a community that’s so connected and, yet, so anonymous. The topic came up recently in a conversation with a fellow NBA blogger, says 48 Minutes’ Varner.
“He said, ‘We exchange emails every third hour, but we wouldn’t recognize each other on a train,’” Varner says. “But that's the world we live in.”
In Person, and On the Road
Thanks to PtR’s media access – Vore is credentialed by the Spurs for every game – Menéndez also has gotten inside access to the team on his trip. He sat in on a Gregg Popovich media session (he asked a question about Ginobili, of course) and chatted with assistant coaches about the team’s use of advanced statistics.
He says just getting to see the team in person has given him a greater appreciation for the game.
“It's amazing how tall they are,” Menéndez says, “and how little space they have to do everything they do.”
But Tim Duncan probably won’t be the most awe-inspiring spectacle on Menéndez’s trip. Back in Argentina, Menéndez uses his engineering background to work on dams, which is why he’s making a special stop on his tour of the West to see the Hoover Dam.
Still, there’s one moment that’s likely to stick with Menéndez longer than any other. True, if not for the PtR guys, Menéndez probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to the States. But if not for Manu Ginobili, Menéndez might not be a Spurs fan at all.
So after a decade of watching him from afar, last week, Menéndez finally met the man who put Argentinean basketball on the map.
He got his jersey signed by Ginobili – “a great moment,” Menéndez said – and had a few moments to chat with the Spurs guard.
“It happened so fast,” Menéndez said. “He wanted to know about me and what I do on the blog. He was just great. It's nice to actually see how he interacts with fans."
“I’m going to write about it at some point,” he added. “I have no idea what I’m going to say.”