At the 2011 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, I met Manu Ginobili in the bowels of Staples Center as the two-time All-Star met with an international media scrum to discuss his place in the game at that time.
Full disclosure: Over the years, I had grown disappointed with my media brethren and fellow fans at the lack of respect I felt the basketball public generally gave the San Antonio Spurs shooting guard.
In my mind, Manu was every bit as good as any of his All-Star peers, and I felt more emboldened as every new efficiency and plus-minus metric of the day clearly supported my opinion.
Indeed at the time, the San Antonio Spurs’ veteran was one of the rare modern guards who posted career 22-plus Player Efficiency Ratings—as only Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul could do—while also leading all guards in the various plus-minus metrics of the day.
But Manu, a math aficionado himself, did not want to get involved in all the numbers over himself.
He quickly put me in my place, telling me that type of recognition was not important to him.
Manu, he explained, was just happy to make the All-Star team in 2011—his second and last one in his career— just as he was back at the 2005 All-Star Game when he earned such honors the first time around.
In our group’s long talk, Manu never compared himself to Kobe, D-Wade or CP3.
He was just happy to be at the party, even if he did come via the back door, finally making the game as a San Antonio starter after serving most of his career as the Spurs’ sixth man.
Manu explained, “I have a real sense of appreciation of being in the NBA with all that I’d gone through. I started playing pro in Argentina. Then I went to second division in Italy. Then after a lot of work, I made it to first division. And at 25, I got here in the NBA.
“It’s not like I was a one-of-a-kind talented guy at 18 who made it to the NBA and have been playing in All-Star Games ever since. It’s really hard to make it to this room. There are some guys that you see all the time on that have been here forever, like TD or Kobe. But in my case, it’s different. So that’s why I appreciate it so much.”
As we now reflect on Ginobili’s 16-year NBA career after his retirement Monday, it is time we give proper respect to the man who just turned 41.
Perhaps the best way I could think to honor Manu would be for Commissioner Adam Silver to rename the NBA Sixth Man award in Ginobili’s honor. It’s a role that he has put his stamp on. Ginobili has torn his warmups off midgame 708 times out of 1,057 games, earning NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2007-08. While Ginobili might’ve been the consummate spark off the bench during the Spurs dynasty, he was always one of the team’s closers at the end of games.
There would be no better way to pay tribute to the selfless Spur who sacrificed star shine and acclaim than by naming the supersub award in his honor.
After all, Manu made being a supersub sexy—actually influencing fellow basketball standouts Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Eric Gordon to likewise follow suit for the good of their teams.
Indeed, Manu loved leading San Antonio from whatever seat he took—playing alongside or behind future fellow Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and head coach Gregg Popovich—while leading his troops to four NBA Championships and 16 NBA Playoff appearances in his 16-year career as a Spur.
Then, during rotating summers, Manu also relished his role on the Argentina national team, leading the famed Golden Generation squad (“La Generación Dorada”) to a 2004 Olympic gold medal, a 2002 World Cup silver medal and the first victory—in 2002—over a USA Basketball squad since the Dream Team’s inception in 1992.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford recalls the memory of the Argentinians celebrating their 2002 FIBA World Cup, laughing with the highs and crying with the lows.
“I saw them at dinner afterwards,” says Buford, “and I had never seen a team share so much love, joy and tears as I saw that night.”
As for me, I will never forget talking on the phone with David Robinson shortly thereafter, prior to David’s final season with the Spurs—a campaign that would culminate in a 2003 NBA Championship.
David told me over the phone that summer, “We’re bringing in this kid, Manu, who obviously has been the best player in Europe the last couple of years. We’re definitely excited about him, especially seeing him lead his Argentina team at the 2002 World Championships [now called the FIBA World Cup] and giving Team USA its first ever loss in these games.”
Ah, the optimism.
Even for a old vet like David.
That is exactly what Ginobili annually brought to San Antonio for the next 16 years—that same never-say-die, winning spirit.
That is how Manu became the most beloved Spur.
Make no mistake: Duncan is undoubtedly the best player.
David Robinson is the most influential big brother of the group.
And George Gervin may even be the father of this NBA dynasty that connects so many generations of Spurs, as dynasties are supposed to do.
But nobody will argue that Manu is definitely the heart of San Antonio.
From 2003 through 2018, no NBA sixth man or starter gave more of his self, body and spirit than the man Charles Barkley so vociferously called “GI-NO-BLEEEEE!!!”
What enthralled Charles was how effective the still-relatively-unknown-at-the-time guard’s game was. The global phenomenon in the NBA was in its nascent phase and Ginobili was still just pegged as a top international player in the NBA rather than one of the game’s top talents.
Another man who took notice was Kobe. Throughout the Mamba’s career, he’s been pitted against many foes. Contemporaries like Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter; followed by the next generation chomping at the bit—Wade and LeBron—but his best and most consistent adversary might be Ginobili. The two battled for Western Conference supremacy as the Lakers and Spurs were regular playoff foils to one another. The rivalry extended into the summer as the two were regular fixtures representing their countries in international competition. The battles over two decades prompted the ultimate respect from the Laker legend, as he effused the rare praise upon an opponent, “That’s a bad man,” he said about Ginobili in Bryant’s documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work.
When Ginobili announced his retirement, Kobe made sure to shout out the Argentinian.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 28, 2018
While Ginobili didn’t match Bryant in championships or points, he did beat him in on-court creativity. Where Kobe was a master tactician and far superior in technical execution, Ginobili was one of the best at court improvisation. Especially earlier in his career (although it never waned much in his older years), Ginobili was a whirling dervish with a basketball, flinging passes at every conceivable angle and contorting himself in the lane for a sliver of daylight to unfurl a shot. Little about Ginobili’s game was conventional. He thrived on the unexpected and carved a career out of being one of the most instinctual players. He might’ve made Pop cringe at times, but more often than not, he turned them into looks of amazement. He didn’t invent the move, but Ginobili put the eurostep—the now-a-fixture herky-jerk change of direction on the gather steps to flummox defenders—on the NBA map. He’d say otherwise, but Ginobili was a nasty dunker. Even at 40 his sneaky bounce would show itself from time to time, catching a rim protector underestimating Ginobili’s hops.
Back in 2008, I wrote a Hoop Magazine story—titled “Well-Guarded Secret”—that featured Spurs guards Ginobili and Parker, with the subhead describing the article as such: “You might not be aware of it, but Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili just may be the NBA’s best backcourt. Ever.”
I find it funny to think that 10 years after I wrote that piece, Tony and Manu would add yet another decade of accomplishments to their unparalleled body of work.
What other backcourt combination of All-Star guards won four NBA championships together? What other NBA duo at any position won 132 playoff games together?
Nobody did it like these two.
Perhaps it is only fitting that Manu chose to retire in the same summer when Tony Parker also left San Antonio to sign a free-agent contract in Charlotte for the upcoming season.
It is safe to say they both leave San Antonio simultaneously in a blaze of glory together as the undisputed best.
Now, I can already hear Warriors fans out there staking their claim that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have become the game’s best backcourt ever … and indeed their time may come soon enough.
But remember, our 2008 Hoop feature was written a decade ago on a mound full of accomplishments that the Splash Brothers still have not surpassed. And nobody—but nobody—in NBA history can supplant their place at the top until they have put in similar time.
To recall how great Ginobili and Parker were back then, the greatest power forward ever at the time had told me, “The level that they’re playing at now is an incredibly high one,” said Duncan. “They’re very confident. This season is easily the best they’ve played, especially as a pair. They’ve found their niches. They’re comfortable with their niches. I think that’s the biggest part of it. In doing that, I think my part of the offense is down a bit, but what are you arguing with?”
In typical Ginobili form, Manu did not want to be compared to the best.
He rejected my All-Time Backcourt claims, claiming it was something he was not interested in.
“Well, I don’t know about that, and I don’t even want to think about that,” said Manu, swatting the compliment down like a bat appearing in his no-fly zone.
Ten years later, however, after a stellar 16-year career, there is no denying Manu’s place as an elite partner, nor his role as the greatest sixth man in NBA modern-day history.
After all, Ginobili’s regular season and postseason plus-minus numbers now rate higher than all other guards in the 21st Century.
That is the legacy he now leaves behind.
It’s simple mathematics.
Simply the Manu.