In 2002, Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s Dilemma was burning up the airwaves, The Wire debuted on HBO, and a baby-faced Argentinean checked into a San Antonio Spurs game for the first time. Sixteen years later, only Manu Ginobili remained a steady source of new inspiration; at least, until he retired this week.
Throughout Ginobili’s career, the NBA has continuously evolved. Commissioners have come and gone while MVPs have risen and fallen. Only Ginobili and the Spurs have remained constant, shifting with the times but never losing who they were.
They existed as something akin to the temples and ruins of ancient Greece; static monuments too enduring to move aside amidst a changing city.
Tim Duncan’s stolid Zeus and Tony Parker’s swift Hermes were two pillars of the Olympus head coach Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford constructed. Ginobili was San Antonio’s deus ex machina, its god from the machine who existed outside of the Spurs’ system to swoop down and save it when the plot lines seemed too tangled for the protagonists to prosper.
In Game 5 of the 2017 Western Conference Semifinals, the Spurs faced a moment right out of a Greek tragedy. With Duncan retired, Parker lost for the series, Kawhi Leonard on the sidelines injured, and the ball in the hands of James Harden, the Spurs seemingly faced insurmountable odds; until Ginobili materialized to save them.
With the game on the line, Ginobili took the challenge against one of the most devastating offensive weapons in recent history and came out on top.
The entire game was quintessential Ginobili, scoring 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists, recording the block moments after this insane finish around the long-armed Clint Capela.
At times, he was Dolos, the Greek spirit of trickery, drawing oohs from the crowd with sleight of hand passing or physics defying shots.
When I think of Ginobili, I’ll think of spinning layups through thickets of defenders and of those “no, no, no, YES,” impossible leaning lefty three-pointers. I’ll remember the grinning coyote trickster weaving through the legs of opponents; the perfect counter to the stone-faced Spursian totems, injecting chaos into the metronomic clockwork of the Spurs machine, disappearing behind screens only to reappear in a passing lane or at the rim, snatching victory out of thin air.
Other times, he was Ares, the god of war, ruthlessly gutting defenses by attacking relentlessly; meeting aggression with aggression.
Ginobili’s aggression was a tricky balance, teetering between the untamed, destructive aspect of war some Greeks viewed as a curse, and the resilient, dutiful soldier the Spartans worshipped.
At times, he got the Spurs in trouble, like the turnovers he committed in the 2013 NBA Finals or his infamous foul of Dirk Nowitzki in the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals.
However, that bottomless reservoir of fire also fueled his ability to bounce back. After suffering one of his worst playoff performances in the 2013 NBA Finals, Ginobili put the exclamation mark on San Antonio’s 2014 championship.
The Spurs throttled the Miami Heat on the way to a 3-1 lead but LeBron James carried his team to a 16-point lead early in the first quarter. The Spurs appeared to be in a dogfight. After an 18-6 Spurs run in the second quarter, Manu Ginobili sensed the moment.
After Chris Bosh bricked a corner three, Duncan corralled the rebound and delivered an outlet pass to Ginobili. With no numbers on his side as he surveyed the court, most would have expected Ginobili to slow down and run some offense.
Instead, the then 36-year-old saw a sliver of daylight and, sensing the Heat were close to cracking, erupted into the lane. Defenders flailed in Ginobili’s wake while Bosh unfurled himself at the rim in a last gasp effort to stop the bleeding. Manu put Bosh into the rim, which sent San Antonio into a frenzy.
Seconds later, after a LeBron fadeaway stopped the Spurs’ 14-0 run, Ginobili caught Udonis Haslem in a switch. Using his trademark herky-jerky flare, Manu stepped back off the dribble and drained a three-pointer in Haslem’s mug for his 12th, 13th, and 14th points off the bench.
Tony Parker was dazzling, leading the Spurs in scoring in the Finals. Tim Duncan was San Antonio’s anchor and calming influence as always. Young Kawhi Leonard was the team’s best defender and Finals MVP. But as he was for his entire career, Manu Ginobili was the soul of the Spurs.
In a league of marquee names and brands, Ginobili was both one of the NBA’s brightest talents and most egoless stars. He played with flair and aplomb that deserved top billing and captured imaginations, yet his style was not vain. Ginobili readily sacrificed shots, minutes, and credit to make the Spurs greater than the sum of its parts.
And like our favorite shows or artists, we’ll always want more. With the relative drama, uncertainty, and disappointment of the Spurs’ last season so fresh, it’d be easy to feel Ginobili’s ending his career on a bittersweet note. The whirling dervish guard nicknamed El Contusion doesn’t owe us a storybook ending, though.
Among the game’s international players, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki are at the top of the mountain. Arvydas Sabonis—on sheer talent and legend—is also among the best. None enjoys Manu’s combination of international, EuroLeague, and NBA success, which should give him legendary status.
With four NBA championship rings, multiple All-Star and All-NBA nods, Olympic and FIBA medals, and damn near every Euroleague award imaginable, it’s time.
His last two seasons were his lowest scoring years outside of his rookie year and last season he produced the second-worst shooting mark from deep. It was also his worst season by VORP, BPM, PER, BPM, and the only negative Offensive Box Plus/Minus year of his career.
Ginobili is 41 years old with his best basketball in the rearview mirror. When it’s time, it’s time. Rather than miss Manu, I’ll remember him flying down the court, wispy hair flying, eyes wide and probing, spinning across the lane with his elbows out, contorting himself through keyholes in the defense and smile.
We won’t miss a thing with Ginobili because we know he already left everything he had out on the court.