It was odd watching Manu Ginobili walk off the floor Sunday night, donning his country’s colors for what is likely the last time in a basketball setting. Anger, sadness and pride combining to form every drop of sweat that fell from his brow. In his final Olympic competition for the Argentinian National Team, Ginobili failed to win a medal. Ginobili’s list of international accomplishments is nothing short of magnificent — he led his country to two wins over the United States from 2002 to 2004, making Argentina one of the handful of countries to have beaten the American National Team since they started using pro players in 1992 — but his esteemed overseas career now lacks a sense of completion. After his nation’s heartbreaking loss to Russia in the bronze medal game, one that was littered with iffy no calls in the game’s crucial moments, Ginobili would not make his international retirement official, but the sense is that the now 35-year old will not be making the trip to Rio as a player.
There is something different about competing for your country than playing in the NBA. There’s a certain mystique to it that fuels an unmatchable sense of pride in almost every athlete. That’s the reason you see players like Luis Scola or Rudy Fernandez take their games to another level when they throw on a jersey with their country’s name on the front instead of a uniform with some NBA team’s name that just happens to be paying them millions of dollars. And because of the nature of the summer games (once every four years), being able to play Olympic basketball is such a rare and fickle opportunity. Just ask Blake Griffin, who got injured during Team USA’s training camp and was replaced on the team by incoming rookie Anthony Davis. Depending on how things play out from now until 2016, Griffin may never get another chance to suit up for Team USA. The situation is not as dire for international players as their talent pools are rarely deep enough for players like Scola or Ginobili to be replaced. But once you’ve reached the end of the line, as it appears Ginobili just did, you begin to realize that the opportunity to represent your country as an athlete will never come again.
Though Ginobili being done playing for his country doesn’t spell an end to his career with the San Antonio Spurs, it’s a pretty clear sign that the end of that era is near, too. This upcoming season is the last year on Manu’s current deal with the Spurs and given that he’ll be 36 by season’s end, it’s conceivable that this could be Ginobili’s final year in San Antonio.
And that doesn’t sit well with me. Though I am not a Spurs fan, I grew up watching the team, Ginobili being one of the first players I became familiar with, and I’ve always had an affinity for him. It just doesn’t feel like we’ve seen enough of Ginobili to be fine with him walking away, whether it be next year or the year after that. He played his rookie season at the age of 25 and a couple of his seasons were cut short by injuries. Even when including his playoff games, Manu has only played the equivalent of 10 full NBA seasons during his career but his late start, dedication to international play and relentless playing style seem to have put extra tread on his tires. Ginobili is a player that has never lacked a sense of youthfulness even as he has aged, but father time may start to wage his war on Manu’s body soon as he gets closer and closer to 40 (he’s already taken his hair). If this season does pan out to be somewhat of a farewell tour for Ginobili, I feel like I need to pay homage to one of the game’s most original, gifted and demiurgic visionaries.
Ginobili has always had a mesmeric game, a cultivated beauty with an aptitude for success. Even the most disinterested NBA observer would fall head over heels after watching Manu play. There’s something about his natural flair for extravagance, his sense of the moment and his distinct passion for the game that seduces the senses of anyone who is a fan of visual arts, athletic grace and even drama. During his nightly performances, Ginobili appears as a basketball genius. An innovative mind whose creativity springs to life on the floor, resulting in an abundance of ravishing twists and jukes previously unimaginable in the American game. Though Ginobili is no slouch athletically, he approaches the game as if he has to out-think his opponent to beat them, allowing his imagination to shine.
Manu’s basketball creations vary from the engineering of efficient situations for himself to his innate ability to make the game easier for those players around him, thus elevating their individual games and the overall production of the team. He brings a bit of everything to the table: dribble penetration, outside shooting, excellent passing, timely rebounding and intuitive defense. He is, in a certain sense, a middle class man’s version of LeBron James. He does a bit of everything at a very high level, his most spectacular works displaying more artistry than most players do in their entire careers.
Ginobili’s craftsmanship is hard to properly describe with words. I’ve witnessed many of Manu’s most marvelous moves with a blank stare on my face simply because what he does often defies comprehension. Ginobili is the most unpredictable player in basketball, holding the defense by a string each time that he bounces the ball of the floor. His skillset is so diverse that literally every play is a possibility when he has the ball in his hands. What makes watching Ginobili operate even more beautiful is that he knows the control he has over the defense and he sets them up to pick them apart. His willingness to pull his three-point shot with a man in his face makes his quirky pumpfake one of the most effective in the league. His Magic-like court vision coupled with his adventurous personality means any pass from any angle can be attempted at any time. Once you’ve realized that Ginobili is crazy enough to whoop a behind-the-back pass while on the move, then he’ll pass-fake you out of his way and Eurostep to the rim. And if you think you’ve found a way to slow down pick-and-roll offenses in the NBA, try you strategy on Manu, whose got every tool you can think, making him capable of picking apart any kind of defensive scheme you throw his way.
So much of Ginobili’s mastery of the sport involves how well he manipulates the opposition, which has a lot to do with him being such a wizard at manipulating the ball. I’d be totally fine if NBA announcers everywhere stopped saying that players put “a little English” on shots at the rim and instead proclaim that they “put a little Manu” on it. From any direction, at any speed, with either hand, Ginobili’s as good as anybody at getting the ball into the rim from all sorts of angles. The natural lefty has unteachable touch with either hand and anytime he displays it, it’s a joy to watch. As is watching Ginobili operate as San Antonio’s point guard, which is really his natural position (his deadeye spot-up shooting is a testament to his dedication to getting better). At six-foot-six, Manu can survey the floor and dissect it with the proficiency of the world’s best marksman. Ginobili will often test the limits of his capabilities, which usually creates maddening turnovers, but the majority of the time Ginobili sets out to find a teammate, he’s making a picture perfect basketball play that puts the recipient in a position to score, doing so with such a symmetrical allure.
When you watch a Spurs game you are guaranteed to see Ginobili positively impact the team. Even on his worst nights, when his mind’s illustrations fail to come to life or his overaggressive style puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time (remember when he fouled Dirk in the ‘06 Conference Finals?), his inspiring competitive spirit infects those around him, his teammates galvanized each and every time he pulls off a seemingly fictitious move while slashing through the lane. Anytime Manu is handling the ball, you trust that no matter what he does, he’ll find a way to get things done, which is a level of fan faith that I’m not sure even Tony Parker has been blessed with to this day. Ginobili has been outplayed before, but he’s rarely been outplayed, outworked and outclassed all on the same night, and that’s something that deserves appreciation.
Naturally, as Ginobili’s career draws to a close, we’ll start to look at his career in a historical context. In pondering just that, I came to a conclusion that many will disagree with: Manu Ginobili is one of the five best shooting guards of the three-point era (est. 1979-1980). The top two are obvious (Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant) but after that, there’s definitely room for debate. The names in the conversation are Dwyane Wade, former Spur George Gervin, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars and Ginobili. In my mind, none of those guys compare to Ginobili from a balance perspective — not even Wade (because of his still awful jumper). Gervin may have been a better pure scorer, Allen a better pure shooter, Dumars a better pure defender, Wade a better pure athlete. But none of those guys were as versatile as Ginobili.
Others may have better overall numbers but base statistics don’t capture Ginobili’s overall value to the Spurs. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich recently said that Manu’s impact on the Spurs is equal to the importance of Magic and Bird to their respective teams, a significance that doesn’t always refer to on-court production. On top of that, Ginobili’s incredible selflessness, evident not only by him accepting the role as the sixth man role in two of his peek seasons but also accepting fewer total touches and shot attempts throughout his entire career so as to create and preserve team chemistry, has rendered his averages moot. Ginobili has never taken 16 shots per game in a season; Wade took 18 and 17 shots a night over the past two seasons, respectively, even with LeBron on his team. If you delve into advanced statistics, you’ll notice that Manu is one of five shooting guards to have at least two seasons with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) above 24 since 1980. His company: Jordan, Bryant, Wade and Gervin. Of those four, only one player matched Ginobili’s assist rate, true shooting percentage and rebound rate from his 2007-08 campaign in a single season: MJ.
Oh, and in case you forgot, Ginobili has been an interval part of three championship teams in San Antonio. Basketball is easily the most title obsessed sport, so Ginobili scores major historical points there, even if he played with an all-time great like Tim Duncan to get them. Manu has had five post-season runs of at least 10 games in which he put up a PER above 20, putting him third amongst shooting guards since ‘80 behind only Jordan and Kobe. Ginobili’s post-season success only further cements his legacy as one of the greatest shooting guards of the modern era. And if I were making a list of the five best two guards since 1980, Ginobili would definitely crack it.
Aside from flopping, which is neck-and-neck with the Eurostep for the title of Ginobili’s most prominent international import, there’s not a single reason to not like Ginobili. He’s a humble person while maintaining extreme confidence in himself, he’s got a congenial personality while remaining natural, he’s tough as nails with a desire to win every time he laces up his sneakers and he’s a hell of a basketball player. Even if you don’t like the Spurs, it’s hard not root for a player like Ginobili, someone who has clearly put their heart and soul into the game and plays with a very aesthetically appealing style.
The former 57th overall pick came to San Antonio in 2002 as a 25-year old with a storied history playing overseas, eagerly awaiting his opportunity to add to his already impressive resume on the biggest stage of them all. And though Ginobili’s floppy mop from a decade ago has thinned out over the years, Manu’s production has remained incredibly efficient, even improving in certain regards. The fluidity with which he plays the game is still so soothing, his every other move still filled with enthusiastic traces of adolescence, his celebratory fist pumps still transmitting a jubilance that only sports can create.
Whether Manu is about to enter the final season or the final phase of his career, time is wearing thin for everybody to fully grasp the brilliance of Ginobili’s game. But even though the end is likely near, that doesn’t mean it will come with a whimper. Ginobili has always been one for showmanship and I’ll be watching as intently as ever to see what he has in store for his final act.
Because Lord knows how fun of a ride he’s given us so far.