How did you do it? How did you dunk over 7-foot 6-inch Yao Ming? How did you block 6-foot-11 inch Kevin Durant at the rim? How did you make that no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to Danny Green for a corner three? How did you Eurostep around four Los Angeles Lakers and finish with a one-handed slam? How did you elevate with a stress fracture in your right leg and posterize Chris Bosh in the 2014 NBA Finals?
I suppose the answer is you have no idea. You just did it. You played instinctively and reflexively, with heart and grit, twisting your body here, zipping the ball there.
You will be missed in San Antonio. After 16 seasons in the NBA, you taught the Spurs – and the league – to expect the unexpected. In 2010, I saw you catch an errant pass with one hand. As you were stumbling out of bounds into a row of cameras, you flung the ball behind your back to DeJuan Blair for an assist, a play ESPN called the best of the decade.
On Halloween night 2009, I saw you spread your arms and mark your prey as a bat swooped low over the AT&T Center court. As players scattered in fear, you killed the mammal with a single swat, picked it up, and disposed of it. Last I checked, that “play” had logged more than 1 million views on YouTube.
Your retirement, though not unexpected at age 41, saddens me. I understand your body has taken a beating. I know El Contusion, as Brent Barry famously called you, wants to enjoy his wife and three boys. But you were my favorite Spur. The player I had to watch. The spinning, soaring, sleight-of-hand Argentine who made me – and some fellow sports journalists – want to cheer on press row when rules expressly forbid such conduct.
Greek broadcaster Rigas Dardalis is an unapologetic fan. He told me so when I covered the 2013 NBA Finals for spurs.com. “Manu Ginobili has beaten us as a member of the Argentinian team many times,” Dardalis said. “But he’s the only guy that, well, we like him to beat us. He’s such a good guy, an excellent guy. Everybody sees the way he acts inside and outside the court, and everybody loves Manu.”
Your ability to create magic on the fly is one reason. Your humility is another. I recall a game against Minnesota in 2009. You had 14 points and 10 assists. You were one rebound shy of your first career triple-double. Coach Gregg Popovich asked if you wanted to re-enter the game. Your team was up by 24 points. Six and a half minutes were left in the fourth period. You declined.
You didn’t care about personal achievement. You didn’t care about coming off the bench. You didn’t care about awards (NBA Sixth Man of the Year) or accolades (two-time NBA All-Star). You cared about winning. And you won four NBA championships. You played so hard and with such passion you inspired countless San Antonians to root against Team USA in the 2004 Olympics.
After the Summer Games, I asked friends and fans: Did you pull for Argentina or the U.S.? The most common response: “We rooted for Manu.” When Argentina won Olympic gold, it felt like the Spurs had won another NBA championship.
I remember your first. You arrived in 2002 as a 25-year-old rookie, a second-round pick from the 1999 draft who wowed fans and infuriated Pop. He didn’t care for behind-the-back-passes, especially when they missed their target. You spent much of the regular season hurt, playing behind veteran guard Steve Smith, but flashed your potential in the playoffs.
After one postseason practice, I asked Steve Kerr about the Spurs’ future, specifically about the emerging Big Three. Kerr looked at me strangely. Tim Duncan, just 27, was already a five-time, first-team All-NBA selection. Tony Parker, only 21, looked like a future All-Star. I thought you did, too. “It might be a bit premature,” said Kerr, who retired after that season, “to put Ginobili in that category.”
It wasn’t. In your first season and David Robinson’s last, the Spurs won their second NBA title. I believe confetti was still falling when Robinson announced that you were his favorite player to watch. Kobe Bryant eventually said the same thing. Sports writers echoed the refrain.
The crazy part is no one in your hometown of Bahia Blanca saw this coming. You once told me a coach taught you to dribble around chairs when you were 3 years old. You also told me you failed to make the local All-Star team at the age of 15. Like Robinson, who grew six inches in college, and Avery Johnson, who grew seven inches after high school, you were a late bloomer.
You were also a student of the game. You studied the moves of your older brothers Sebastian, an exceptional passer, and Leandro, a lethal shooter. You incorporated moves from Sasha Danilovic and other Europeans and made up your own. When you finally hit a growth spurt, filled out to 6-foot-6 and turned pro, you thrilled fans and terrified your mom.
As I recall, Raquel begged you to stay out of the paint, to play it safe and shoot the three-pointer. You, of course, didn’t listen to mom – or to Pop, for that matter. You found lanes and angles to the basket no one could see. Your fearless, reckless play led to all sorts of injuries, which is why Raquel kept turning her head, but nothing stopped your ferocious drives to the basket. Not even a knee to the groin that required testicular surgery.
Manu, there’s never been a Spur like you. It’s hard to see you retire. In my family of five, you are the player we will miss most. The day before he turned 19, my son Noah retweeted your announcement on Twitter and lamented, “there goes my childhood.” He also wrote, “i love you.”
After you won your second NBA championship in 2005, my wife, Noah and his two siblings climbed into the car in our driveway and began honking the horn. We did it after the championship in 2007 – and again in 2014.
There will be no more championships with No. 20 in the lineup. But there will be another opportunity to mark your legacy. After your name is called and you give your speech, we’ll pile into the car and sound the horn for a first-ballot Hall of Famer.