SAN ANTONIO — It’s Sunday afternoon at the San Antonio Spurs’ practice facility, the day before they are set to take the court for what would become the last time this season in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and David Lee sidelined by injuries, the Spurs know there is a good chance their season will end Monday. And it does, with a 129-115 loss to the Golden State Warriors at AT&T Center that sends the Warriors to a third straight NBA Finals.
So when Manu Ginobili meets with the media Sunday, with this outcome all but assured, the conversation naturally centers on one topic: the 39-year-old Argentine legend’s basketball mortality. Ginobili, as he always does, answers every question thoughtfully, mixing in jokes and keeping a smile on his face. But after a while, even he has to admit the bizarre nature of the situation.
“Are we having the retirement conference?” Ginobili asks, laughing along with the group of reporters surrounding him. “Are you guys wanting me to say something here?
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just go game by game. We’ll see if is the last one of the season. We’ll hope that it’s not and that we have a few more. Once it’s over, then I’ll start thinking about what the future brings.”
From the moment he signed a one-year deal for $14 million last summer to remain with the Spurs for a 15th season, it was expected to be his last. The contract felt like an early retirement present, a final send off at the end of a remarkable career in which Ginobili has accomplished more than virtually anyone in NBA history.
And it certainly looked like Ginobili was headed for retirement after going scoreless through the first four games of the Spurs’ first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies. But then he had 10 points in a decisive win in Game 5 of that series, one the Spurs would win in six games. He added another 12 in a decisive Game 5 of the following series against the Houston Rockets, a 110-107 win in overtime that Ginobili wrapped up with a block of a potential game-tying three-pointer by Rockets star James Harden at the buzzer. And he had his two best games of the playoffs against the Warriors — scoring 17 points in Game 1, and 21 in Game 3 — before putting up 15 points and seven assists in a starting role in Game 4.
As usual, he did everything he possibly could Monday to get the Spurs a win and try to keep this season going for at least another game. There’s a reason, after all, that Ginobili has won wherever he has been, including becoming the second player (after Bill Bradley) to win an NBA title, Olympic gold medal and EuroLeague championship.
“Well, he’s a special player,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said before Game 4. “A special human being. I’ve probably said it many, many times before, but he’s one of those guys that becomes the heart and soul of your team just because of his exemplary competitiveness.
“He is really an anomaly in that regard. He has that same attitude that Kobe [Bryant] and Michael had, those kinds of guys, Magic [Johnson] and Larry. He’s got the same attitude and plays with that same fire. He always has. He’s been a huge part of any success that we’ve had.”
There were plenty of signs that this might be it for Ginobili. And, if it was, the Spurs did their best to send him off properly. Popovich moved him into the starting lineup — the first time Ginobili had started a playoff game since 2013, and the first time he’d started a game at all since 2014 — and the Spurs introduced him last to a standing ovation from an adoring crowd. Then, as Ginobili was headed to the scorer’s table for the opening tip, he and Popovich shared a long embrace.
“We started him tonight out of respect,” Popovich said. “That was the whole reason for starting him. Before the game, you think it may or may not be his last game that he ever plays in, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to honor him in front of our home fans for his selflessness over the years.
“I mean, this is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for, I can’t even remember now, the last decade or something, because it would make us a better team overall. So, obviously, he’s a big reason for our success, and he deserved to have that night of respect so that he really feels that we appreciate everything he’s done over the years.
“If he decides he’s going to play again, that’s up to him. But I won’t try to convince him one way or the other. I don’t think he needs that.”
Ginobili scored the game’s opening basket — a floater along the baseline — to give the Spurs one of two brief leads they held, and every time he did anything he was serenaded with cheers and chants of his name. And while the Spurs clearly didn’t have the horses to keep up with the Warriors without three rotation players, Ginobili turned back the clock one last time.
Eventually, Popovich subbed him out of the game for the final time with 2:25 remaining to a thunderous ovation and hugs from all of his teammates. Then, as the game ended, he was serenaded with more cheers as he made his way through the handshake line, sharing long greetings with Kevin Durant, Warriors interim coach Mike Brown and, eventually, Stephen Curry.
Ginobili then walked to the tunnel, raising his hand to the crowd and then blowing the fans a kiss along the way before disappearing into an offseason in which he’ll decide whether to come back for another year.
“It felt like they wanted me to retire,” he said with a smile. “Like they were giving me sort of a celebration night. And of course, I’m getting closer and closer. There is no secret, for sure. It’s getting harder and harder. But, I always said that I wanted to let it sink in for three weeks, four weeks, whatever, and then I will sit with my wife and see how it feels.
“Whatever I decide to do, I’ll be a happy camper. I have to choose between two wonderful, and truly wonderful, options.”
It’s easy to see why it meant so much to everyone here to make sure Ginobili was given a proper send-off. Ginobili has been in San Antonio so long — like Popovich, like Parker, like the already-retired Tim Duncan — that the idea of him not being in a Spurs uniform is hard to comprehend. But for as much as he is part of everything the Spurs are about, and part of what has made this the model franchise in all of sports, he’s always felt a little out of place.
For a franchise that is defined by the bland professionalism of Popovich, with his military background, and the often robotic way Duncan, and now Leonard, go about their business, there has always been something startling and refreshing about the way Ginobili plays, by comparison. Fittingly, for a player from a country known first in sports for the exploits of its soccer team and stars like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, Ginobili plays basketball with a reckless abandon and creativity that simply must be seen to be believed.
He is, after all, the man who once caught a bat out of midair. He also is the man who, even at 39, managed to perfectly execute a dribble between Warriors forward David West’s legs during Game 3 — a play that few, if any, other NBA players would even dare attempt, let alone pull off.
“When you see the position in which [West] was and the way he was guarding the pick and roll, I went for it,” Ginobili said.
He then smiled and added, “It’s not that I planned it the whole day.”
It’s that level of spontaneity and creativity that has long made Ginobili one of the favorite players of others around the NBA. His arrival in the NBA coincided with the prevalence of the Eurostep, a move that’s now employed by virtually every ballhandler in the league. And, between his dominance with the Spurs and the heights to which he lifted the Argentine national team — including winning that gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, stunning the United States while ushering in a newfound commitment to his national team from its biggest names — he’s earned the respect of everyone in the league, and an appreciation for the way he plays the game.
“You can just tell his love for the game is deep,” Durant said. “A lot of us grew up watching Manu and really respect his game, played against him and had battles with him year in and year out. Pretty epic.”
Monday night, Ginobili took the court for quite possibly the final time in what can accurately be described as an epic career. If he decides to come back, the Spurs will happily welcome him for a 16th season.
But if he doesn’t, and this is it, he’ll be able to ride off into the sunset just as Duncan, his longtime teammate, did: on his own terms.
“Everybody don’t go out on their own terms,” Draymond Green said. “He’ll have that opportunity, and that’s great.”