When we, as NBA fans, talk about the legacies of our favorite players, the questions always default to a number of obvious criterion. How many championships did he win? How many points did he score? How was he as the franchise guy on his team? We measure greatness in those parameters because they’re being served to us all the time, often by the media. They don’t paint the whole picture of what makes an NBA player great, but they’re always the easiest ones to grab hold of and argue over when we start talking about legacies.
Somewhere along the way, there’s always one player who defies our traditional stipulations for greatness. His career typically flies under-the-radar because he rarely scores 30 a game, never pounds his chest, doesn’t have a presence on social media, and almost never draws attention to himself. This is the kind of player we don’t appreciate enough until he’s gone. And when he leaves, we scratch our heads and kick ourselves for not giving him the love he deserved.
Well, let’s change that now, because if this player decides to retire from the NBA, we may never get the chance to.
NBA players are wired to dial up their competitiveness during the playoffs. As fans, it’s not something we look for, it’s something we expect. But there are rare occasions when a team on the verge of beating another team drops its guard to recognize a player from the opposing team, who may or may not have played the final game of his career. I’ve seen it happen twice. The first was in 2005 in what ended up being Reggie Miller’s last game. It was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and the Detroit Pistons were putting the final touches on an 88-79 win that would eliminate the Pacers. Miller was subbed out with 15.7 seconds left to play and he received a thunderous standing ovation from his home crowd in Indianapolis. What made the moment more profound, though, was when then-Pistons coach (and former Pacers coach) Larry Brown called an additional timeout to allow Pistons players to join in the ovation for Miller. It was awesome to see. Watch it below. If you don’t end up with at least a tear in your eye, you must have a hallow soul.
The second time happened last season. The player on the receiving end of the celebration? Manu Ginobili.
As it turned out, Ginobili didn’t retire after last season. He signed a two-year contract in the off-season with a player option for the second. The San Antonio Spurs had, for its standards, an uneven season mired in the controversy of Kawhi Leonard’s extended absence. But San Antonio managed to make it to the playoffs for the 21st straight year, in part, no doubt, by a revitalized LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way. Make no mistake, though. Aldridge isn’t the only reason why the Spurs made it to the playoffs. It also relied heavily on the prolonged genius of Ginobili.
Nobody expected San Antonio to do much in the playoffs, especially after getting the Golden State Warriors in the first round. Calls for a sweep could be heard from all corners of the world, and yet, when the opportunity presented itself for the Spurs to steal Game 4, it was Ginobili who rose to the occasion with a throwback performance that generated the kind of basketball magic we had gotten used to.
Casual NBA fans may not hold the same amount of reverence for Ginobili the way hardcore fans do, but that’s nobody’s fault. For all of his skills and accolades, Manu is completely detached from the self-serving personalities most NBA players exhibit these days. He’s not about tooting his own horn for the sake of finding his name in the news the next day. Some of it may be a generational issue. Manu is, after all, 40 years old. But even in his prime, Ginobili talked loudest with his game.
He wasn’t gifted with LeBron James’ athleticism or Russell Westbrook’s physicality. His shooting is not even on the level of Steph Curry. But he remains one of only a handful of players who could warp a basketball court to his game. In his mind, no bounce pass was impossible, no off-balanced leaner was unfeasible. He played the game at his speed and forced others to keep up or get left behind. Ginobili’s game isn’t defined by any singular trait; it’s an intoxicating cocktail of skill, vision, intelligence, passion, competitiveness, and fearlessness.
He’s is an outlier in that sense, but it’s also one of the many reasons why he’s beloved beyond the borders of the Alamo. It’s also one of the many reasons why the NBA is never going to be the same without him.
The truth hurts, and soon enough, we’re going to have to grapple with another truth that we’ve resisted to believe for so long. We can see the writing on the wall. For all of the excitement Manu Ginobili continues to showcase, they’re underlined by an anxiety that the magic is running out. He’s not the full-throttle Manu who should have won the 2005 NBA Finals MVP anymore. We can still see glimpses of that man on occasion—Game 4 being a perfect example—but those examples have become fewer and farther in between. The crisp bounce passes, deceptive Euro steps, and game-changing threes are still there; they just don’t happen as often as we’d like.
Perhaps it’s a little presumptuous to talk about Ginobili in these terms. Technically, he hasn’t retired from the game yet. But everyone knows the ride’s about to end. It’s just a matter of time before it does. That’s why we want to preserve and enjoy every last second of it before it’s gone.
Years from now, Ginobili’s legacy will undoubtedly be overshadowed by other players. He won’t be talked about as often as LeBron or Steph, he may not even be in the discussion for the title of "greatest international basketball player in history." But those who saw him play know what’s up. We know the kind of player he was. We know about his accomplishments.
There will come a time when we start telling stories about this Argentinian basketball player who threw some of the most mesmerizing passes you’ll ever see, who routinely dunked over guys six inches taller than him, who hit countless clutch baskets, and who played the game with such reckless abandon that it somehow evolved into synchronized madness. One day, we’ll talk about this superstar who selflessly accepted a less glamorous role for his team, thrived at it, helped his team win four championships, and turned all of it into a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
If that day ends up coming soon, we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready to let the world know that there was one basketball player who redefined our stipulations for greatness, created his own, and made us believe in it.
His name? Manu Ginobili.