In the midst of a marathon, every runner must face the proverbial wall. It’s a moment in every race where fatigue within the body and mind conspire to break both, forcing an athlete to pull from reserves beyond either.
Manu Ginobili has run this race for 16 years now, hurling himself into thickets of arms, legs, and bodies much larger than him. Now, as he so nears the end of this run, every collision tests the resolve left in every tendon, joint, and muscle.
The years have cost Ginobili more than a step off his pace. Something he’s compensated for by sprinting into almost every pass he receives; building momentum before he catches the ball to try and put a defender on his heels.
With a little under three minutes remaining in Game 4 of the San Antonio Spurs’ series against the Golden State Warriors, and the Spurs clinging to a six-point lead, Ginobili turned to this tactic against Nick Young. Sensing his opponent’s weight shift as he has so many times before, Ginobili abruptly changed directions, putting the ball behind his back at a sharp angle.
But with reserves long since depleted, that first step past the change of direction lacked the same ability to create separation, colliding his knee with Young’s.
Down went Ginobili, clutching his leg.
There was no time for nervous silence in San Antonio. For 16 years, Manu Ginobili has given the city everything he’s had. This was one of the handful of times it could give back. If Manu had to tap into reserves beyond himself, they would supply the fuel.
“Ma-nu! Ma-nu! Ma-nu,” the crowd started, first in a low rumble, then in a loud frenzy.
Chants of “M-V-P,” have become commonplace in NBA arenas. Everyone cheers for the hometown star. Crowds even add to the momentum of a team, turning a trickle into a tidal wave. It is a rare moment in sports—and an even rarer connection between fans and player—for the audience to lift a single individual.
Years ago, during the 2013 NBA Finals, Manu Ginobili got the rare start in the Spurs’ final home game of the series in an attempt to spark the struggling shooting guard. The crowd roared from the moment he first touched the ball as Manu accounted for 13 of San Antonio’s first 15 points in Game 5.
Last year’s playoffs provided another example, when Isaiah Thomas—facing the grief and despair from the loss of his sister—was seemingly lifted by the Boston crowd in a transcendent moment.
These Spurs are suffering their own pain, grieving for and with Gregg Popovich and his family. And even with Stephen Curry absent, this is a Spurs team hopelessly outmatched. And yet…
Ginobili rose to his feet, walking towards the sideline with a slight limp.
As grown men in Argentina jerseys chanted, compelling their hero to rise, Ginobili grimaced. Then gritted his teeth.
“Tell me you’re not thinking about standing up and saying the same thing,” Jeff Van Gundy remarked, practically reading the script from a Rocky Balboa movie.
The people called, their champion went to work.
Every runner must face the wall. Few runners face a mobile, 6-foot-7 solid brick wall with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and nasty disposition.
But with a minute and a half remaining, there Ginobili was using a screen to get reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green on an island…a man bigger, younger, quicker, and stronger than himself.
As he drove to his right, he was engulfed by Green, cutting off his path. A fake and a pivot later and Green cut Ginobili off once more. Ginobili ran headfirst into this obstacle and, once deterred, ran headfirst into it again.
On the second turn, the ball poked loose. In that moment of chaos, Ginobili’s strength renewed like a shorn Sampson in his final act, picking the ball up and lofting a flip shot over the outstretched arms of Draymond Green.
And then again, in the last 30 seconds, receiving the ball in the corner—right in front of the Warriors’ bench—icing the game with a three-pointer, lining the shot up and walking off. The win avoided what would’ve been a franchise-record eighth consecutive playoff defeat.
— NBA (@NBA) April 22, 2018
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” LaMarcus Aldridge said after the game. These days, Aldridge is the Spurs’ rock, scoring 22 points—including a miraculous three off the glass. But if he is the first 100 blows in San Antonio’s framed Jacob Riis quote, Ginobili is the 101st. “He makes things happen. He has no quit in him, and he definitely made some big shots tonight and some big plays.”
Ginobili scored 10 of his 16 points in the finals six minutes, drawing and hitting a pair of free throws, sidestepping a Klay Thompsons closeout for a three, hitting the drive on Draymond Green, and the final three-pointer.
It almost feels like magic until you realize how scientific Ginobili can be, crediting the Spurs’ 15-for-2 shooting behind the three-point line as regression to the mean…or the point where an uptick in shooting balance out a downturn, leaving the overall percentages where they should be in the end.
He’s also an artist.
At this point in his career, he’s all guile, fakes, and angles—showing the ball on shot fake, driving, showing the ball again on another fake, then laying it in. Everything is sleight of hand.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 22, 2018
“All heart and grit,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingtson said. “He puts the Spurs on his back in big moments—fearless.”
That fearlessness is what makes Ginboili the most beloved sports figure in San Antonio history. The modesty helps.
After the game, Manu dismissed his carrying the team down the stretch, pointing to a team effort with five players in double figures, including 14 for Rudy Gay as the Spurs’ second option, and 12 from Dejounte Murray, who visibly gained confidence with each jumper Golden State ceded to him.
This is a proud Spurs team, even if it’s not the most talented one. Between the season-long absence of Kawhi Leonard and the recent passing of Erin Popovich, San Antonio isn’t playing for championships. Just another day on the court together.
“We haven’t been through this type of adversity,” Ginobili said afterwards. “Our leader [Popovich] is struggling. So, we’re trying to respond and play as if he were here and hopefully he keeps pushing us from home.”
Golden State will likely go on to win this series. Beyond that, the Spurs’ future remains a question for the first time in two decades. The wall will never break Ginobili on the court, but someday soon it will get him in the offseason.
Even for San Antonio, the past isn’t always prologue and the future rarely certain, but the moment…the moment always belongs to Manu Ginobili.