No one knows when the end will come for the San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili. All that’s certain is it will come sooner than anyone wants and much later than everyone expected.
“I guess it’s sort of a melancholy joy, thinking that every arena he steps into will be the last time I’ll see him in that arena,” Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said earlier in the season [via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News]. “I try to touch him before every game and remember what he’s meant to us over the years and how significant a factor he’s been in our success.”
At 40 years old, the book on Ginobili’s career is already mostly written. The ink is dry on all but the epilogue. In the Spurs’ most trying season in two decades, it was Ginobili who provided the final push to get San Antonio into the playoffs with big performances over the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings. For his troubles, Ginobili will face the Golden State Warriors and, likely, a quick exit.
Still, San Antonio is a city more famous for fighting the good fight than winning the big battle. And when battle lines are drawn in the sand, few cross it with more style and gusto than a Ginobili Euro step. After all, Manu Ginobili has spent more than 15 years playing every game as if it were his last.
4. Prometheus and the gift of fire
Early in his career, Manu Ginobili was dubbed El Contusión by former teammate Brent Barry. Manu’s reckless style of play left him a walking bruise, threatening to shorten his career.
If Tim Duncan was San Antonio’s North Star—a permanent fixture in the sky by which the Spurs navigated—then Manu Ginobili was to be its shooting star: a spectacular ball of fire blazing across the horizon, lighting up the night sky for a moment and then gone.
And like a shooting star, Ginobili has carried the burden of making many of San Antonio’s wishes into reality.
The intensity at which Ginobili plays was supposed to have consumed him long ago. Mortal shells aren’t built to contain the fire of the gods. Still, Ginobili is fueled by the same drive that burned in Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan…only without the same athleticism.
“He’s one of those guys who becomes the heart and soul of your team because of his exemplary competitiveness. He’s really an anomaly in that regard. He has the same foot-on-your neck attitude that Kobe had, those types of guys. Magic and Larry. He’s got the same attitude and plays with that same fire. He always has.”
Lacking the same physical tools, Ginobili had to strain against his limits to reach the same level of play, leaving Popovich to unleash it in shorter bursts to maintain a longer burn. Somewhere along the way, that competitive fire stabilized into something that sustained more than consumed.
3. The Immortality of Manu Ginobili
Of the Spurs’ iconic Big Three, Ginobili is the most obviously marked by time. Duncan sports some grey fleck in his hair and Tony Parker a grizzled stubble on his face, but for Ginobili, the long, flowing locks he once wore as a crown are a distant memory. The lines across his face are more prominent. Still, his game has inexplicably endured longest.
In the closing minutes of the Spurs’ recent win over the Sacramento Kings, Popovich turned to Ginobili with the game—and San Antonio’s playoff hopes—still in doubt.
Up four with a little more than four minutes remaining, Ginobili went to work against Bogdan Bogdanović at the top of the key.
At his age, Ginobili no longer ricochets off defenders like an out of control bobsled. But his dance is still one of contrasting subtle feints and dramatic angles, which he used to lean Bogdanović into a screen before rejecting it, crossing over to his reliable left hand to get downhill and launch himself off unreliable 40-year-old legs.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) April 10, 2018
A game before, with the Spurs at risk of falling out of the playoff picture against the third-seed Portland Trail Blazers, Ginobili reached deep into his reservoir of magic and pulled out a win; scoring 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, hitting all seven of his shot attempts in the game, and stripping Damian Lillard later for a crucial steal.
— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) April 8, 2018
“If you saw me, I was cheering, cheering, cheering,” Murray said. “He’s 40 years old. What do you want from him? He already paid his dues. He’s a future Hall of Famer. He’s own championships. So it’s like that’s just a bonus for us. Manu could be with his family and kids. But he’s showing the love and passion he has for the game, and he’s here with us.”
2. Fighting against time
Ginobili is forever present in time while simultaneously existing outside of it. Few seize a moment and make it theirs quite like Manu.
On any given possession, countless passing and driving angles run through his mind at once. If the multiverse exists, Ginobili has the unfathomable ability to peer into the countless different outcomes possible in multiple realities and pull the most magnificent one into this one.
How many players could possibly thread a needle through the shuffling legs of a defender running to keep track of Tony Parker? And of the handful of people on Earth who can, how many would have the courage to attempt it in the NBA Finals?
His passing ability borders on precognition, though his frame of mind never strays from the present. And Ginobili’s conscience is never hindered by the past. One mistaken never causes hesitation in the next decision. Though, past failures to move him forward.
After missing all six shots and turning the ball over three times against the Los Angeles Clippers, Ginobili—who has literally given up parts of his body for the Spurs—felt he owed the team heading into the game against Portland.
“I was very disappointed with the way I played in Los Angeles,” Ginobili said after the Spurs clinched a playoff spot with the win over the Kings. “It was a huge game for us and I feel like I let the team down, so I was very focused on having a good game and bringing it all in these two games.”
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) April 10, 2018
Ginobili often follows cataclysmic failures with remarkable displays of determination, punctuated by vintage dunks.
1. A warrior against Warriors
Fuel in the tank is never a question for Ginobili. The worry is tread on the tires. Still, for this Spurs team, he’s more than token experience.
Absent the corporate knowledge that made the Spurs’ offense sing, San Antonio has returned to the stifling defense that silences all opponents. The Spurs lean on LaMarcus Aldridge’s volume scoring like a crutch.
Against a dialed in defense, this leaves the Spurs far too predictable. And so, Ginobili remains the one source of unscripted chaos to give opponents’ pause.
That Ginobili is the one Spur who can pull at the seams of a defense off the dribble and make the right decision is troubling. With the Warriors’ switching defense, there are few moments between rotations where Golden State is vulnerable. Manu will be counted on to find them.
The problem lies in the limited amount of minutes Ginobili has available. Each one over 20 brings diminishing returns not just in that game, but in the next one or two to come.
But if the Spurs’ defense can do enough to put the game into Manu’s hands? Anything remains possible for a night.
No one knows when the end will come for Ginobili. What is certain is, when the time comes, he won’t go quietly into the night. Those moments will belong to him until he has no moments left to give.