Twelve years on, San Antonio All-Star guard Manu Ginobili has transformed his coach almost as much as Gregg Popovich once was intent upon changing him.

The two men have come to a mutual understanding that also has led them and their team to four NBA championships since Ginobili arrived on these shores from Argentina by way of Europe a wild, sometimes reckless player whom U.S. Air Force Academy-educated Popovich aimed to tame.

“At the beginning, it was me adjusting to him,” Ginobili says now. “He didn’t care about adjusting to me.”

But, hey, times change.

And so has a relationship that has morphed in ways neither could have foreseen from an oppositional beginning.

Ginobili played one way in winning EuroLeague and Italian league titles — not to mention two Italian league MVPs — while playing two seasons for Kinder Bologna, and the Spurs, well, they played another way.

Popovich’s way.

“Slowly, I started to gain his confidence and he started to trust me and liked what I did on the court,” Ginobili said. “We started to find a common ground. But at the beginning, I had to adjust and get used to playing in a totally different way than I used to.”

Now considered one of the great draft steals in NBA history, the 57th player selected in the 1999 draft wasn’t alone. New teammate Tony Parker — the 28th player taken in 2001 himself — had just survived the start of the same process the year before during his rookie season.

“It was fine,” Ginobili said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, such a different way of playing.”

Ginobili came to understand the beauty of Popovich’s ways and precise system in much the same way the regimented coach came to open his own mind as well.

Popovich already had won one title before Ginobili and Parker arrived from Europe. They’ve won, of course, many more since then with a fellow named Tim Duncan alongside. Ginobili’s full head of hair is long gone, but the “Eurostep” move he has popularized remains.

“Everything, it doesn’t happen in a day,” said Popovich, who brought his team to town Saturday for their final Target Center visit this season. “As you watch him play and realize the kind of competitor he is, you realize he’s quite unique as a talent. Closing your mouth and not trying to coach so much is sometimes better and let that gifted player show you what he can do and how he can help your team win.

“As time went along, I learned to not speak if I thought a shot was contested or if there was a defensive play he wanted to make to get a steal because he does things that win games. So it taught me to watch a little more and not be so micromanagement like.”

Ginobili considers such an influence “a great accomplishment” reached with a coach who majored in Soviet Studies at the Air Force Academy, served his required five years’ military service after graduation and once considered a career in the CIA.

“Not only for me, I think Tony made him change or see different things in a way,” Ginobili said. “The truth is, he thought that was the way to go to make us better. It’s not that I talked him into it. He started to see maybe we’d be more successful and less predictable playing a different way and that’s what happened.”

However it happened, it is now ancient history while all the rest is history as well.

“I don’t know if it took six months or 2½ years of whatever,” Popovich said. “But that was the process because he’s going to play a whole lot better without me nagging him, which has been proven.”

All these years later, Popovich still has his sanity — and all those trophies as well.

“Not like he used to,” Popovich said when asked if Ginobili’s play still drives him crazy. “We’ve kind of met in the middle, you know?”

NBA short takes

Mama told me there would be days like…

Looming Roy Hibbert is taking his mother’s advice and pushing back against others trying to push around Indiana’s 7-2 center who often doesn’t play as tall as his height. Hibbert has collected five technical fouls this season — including one in consecutive games recently — for defending himself and his ground.

“I got a phone call from my mom and she said [to]stand up for myself,” said Hibbert, whose mother previously had advised him to turn the other cheek. “Not trying to be a tough guy. … I’m just going to stand up for myself, just not going to let anybody push me like that.”

The Pacers play the Wolves on Tuesday.

Lawson vows to shoot more

Some people vow to exercise more, but Denver point guard Ty Lawson has a different kind of New Year’s resolution: He’s going to shoot more and not pass up shots.

His numbers in three games since he declared that don’t live up to the promise just yet, but Nuggets coach Brian Shaw is all for it anyway.

“I’ve been down with that from Day 1,” Shaw said. “I wish New Year’s would have come back in October, when the season started. I’m happy to see that. Hopefully, he backs up what he says. That’s the position you have to be aggressive and in attack mode, especially for our team. I trust he’ll make the right decisions.”

If you thought watching the Wolves was bad …

Those New York fans who wore paper bags over their heads Thursday night aren’t alone: TNT analyst Charlers Barkley apparently has seen enough, too, after sitting through from the studio New York’s 24-point home loss to Houston. The loss was the Knicks’ 14th consecutive, and their 5-34 start is worst in franchise history.

“If y’all show the Knicks or the Lakers anymore, I’m going to stay in the green room,” Barkley said, referring to the show-business lounge where guests wait before their TV appearances. “I’m not coming out.”

Wolves’ Week Ahead

Tuesday: 6 p.m. at Indiana, FSN

Friday: 8 p.m. at Phoenix, FSN

Saturday: 8 p.m. at Denver, No TV


Player to watch: Goran Dragic, Suns

The Wolves play Phoenix twice in nine days, so if last week’s Player of the Week was backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe, this week we’re going with the other half of the Suns’ two point-guard starting combination. Either can hurt you.


«It got me good.»

Wolves veteran Chase Budinger on a virus that caused him, teammate Robbie Hummel and even coach Flip Saunders to miss last week’s game against Denver.