San Antonio Express-News First week back in town, Manu Ginobili stopped by the Spurs' practice facility for show-and-tell. Want to see what an Olympic gold medal looks like? Tim Duncan, Ginobili remembers, didn't want to see. They traded a few jokes, and teammates joined in. Ginobili hasn't let up. He has continued to flaunt his medal, culminating with Wednesday's season opener. Then he wore his gold for all to see. It just wasn't around his neck. Ginobili didn't make much of his 24-point, nine-rebound night against Sacramento. Ginobili said he thought his style fit the Kings, and, besides, his bronze medal-winning teammate didn't do too badly, either. Asked afterward if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich ran more plays for him, Ginobili nodded. "But it's just the way it worked out," he said, downplaying any significance. Popovich doesn't downplay it. Popovich loved Ginobili's toughness and creativity before, but now he sees something else going on. Ginobili starting the opener wasn't part of that. Ginobili started a year ago, too, before moving to the bench about halfway through the season. But the strategy switch wasn't a demotion. Hedo Turkoglu needed the confidence boost that comes with starting games. This roster isn't built the same way. Brent Barry has been around too long to care, and Devin Brown showed last year against the Lakers in the playoffs that he comes with his own, built-in boost. Besides, Ginobili did well as a starter a year ago. Early in the season, with Duncan out, Ginobili went for 33 points and 12 rebounds in a double-overtime loss to the Lakers. Contributing to a championship as a rookie also suggested Ginobili could play, as did his new contract with the Spurs this past summer. And an anonymous evaluation by a scout suggested something else. Ginobili, the scout told a magazine, is one of the 10 best in the league with the ball in the closing minutes of games. But winning a gold medal for Argentina in the summer added emotions that even Ginobili has struggled to describe. "I think you should be a kind of poet to explain those feelings," he said. He tried anyway: "With 30 seconds left, we were already 12, 14 points up, and I remember my skin already starting to feel like the hair is rising up, like the goose. How do you call it? Goose bumps." Popovich, a U.S. assistant coach, and Duncan felt a different set of bumps in Athens. But as time passed, Popovich began to see why the United States not winning the gold medal wasn't all bad for his locker room. "Everybody says the NBA is different and all that," Popovich said. "Well, I was there (in Athens), and that is an emotional, heartfelt, big-time competition. Anybody who says less is just copping out." The way Popovich saw it, Ginobili led Argentina the way great players lead NBA teams. And it affected Ginobili. "He gained confidence, even though he is a confident, committed athlete already," Popovich said. "I think it really made him feel like he belongs in the top echelon of players on this planet. Not that he would ever act like that or say that to you, but I think deep down in his gut, he knows that he is one hell of a competitor and he knows what it takes to win." Popovich treated him that way Wednesday. He ran plays for Ginobili to end quarters and to stop Sacramento runs, and Popovich thinks this makes Ginobili better, too. Now Ginobili is more patient because he knows his moments are coming. One came toward the end of the first quarter, with Duncan sitting. Ginobili turned the corner for a left-handed drive, then found Barry with a 50-foot pass for a layup. He began the next quarter with a string of free throws until Duncan returned. And when Ginobili threw in a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter for a 16-point lead? Ginobili pumped his fist as he did a few times in Athens. "I was just happy," he said, "I had actually made one." So much for flaunting. Still, Ginobili can't help but show what he has. He plays differently now, as if the summer in Athens altered his stature, as if the medal is somewhere inside of him. But visible.