Manu Ginóbili stood inside Oracle Arena’s visiting locker room in late April, in the wake of seeing the strangest of his 16 NBA seasons come to a close in a first-round loss for his San Antonio Spurs to the Golden State Warriors.
“I’ve been contemplating retirement forever,” Ginóbili said with a smile. “Nothing has changed. I just don’t know. I will let one or two months go by, and then see how I feel. … I will let it sink in, and see how it feels.”
It look a little longer than that — almost four months to the day — then came a midafternoon tweet Monday that announced to the world that his NBA playing career is over.
Ginóbili has long been at the center of the basketball universe — even if it wasn’t immediately obvious.
When people think of the Spurs, Ginóbili isn’t the first to come to mind — that would be Tim Duncan or Coach Gregg Popovich. When people think of the best international players in basketball history, he isn’t at the top of the list, either — that would be Dirk Nowitzki or Hakeem Olajuwon. He made an all-star team only twice and earned the same number of all-NBA selections, both times to the third team.
But looking at Ginóbili through a narrow lens obscures the bigger picture. There are few players of the past generation who have made a larger impact on basketball.
Ginóbili was the face of the Argentine national team’s “golden generation,” leading the only country other than the United States since the Dream Team in 1992 to an Olympic gold medal. Argentina’s victory over Team USA in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament in Athens in 2004 led to the overhaul, and eventual revival, of the U.S. program.
Playing for Popovich, Ginóbili’s desire to put the team before himself, in his willingness to come off the bench in well over half of the games he played, revolutionized the way teams looked at bench players. Ginóbili could have averaged huge numbers had he played typical starter minutes. Instead, he put up more pedestrian ones and was rewarded by being part of one of the most consistent winners in basketball history.
When Steve Kerr became the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he cited Ginobili, his former teammate, as an example in successfully selling Andre Iguodala on the merits of coming off the bench. Iguodala’s signing helped turn the Warriors into a juggernaut. The same goes for Sam Presti — a former Spurs executive — envisioning another smooth lefty, James Harden, as a sixth man during his first few NBA seasons in Oklahoma City.
“He had this perfect balance to the way he played: confidence, humility, fearlessness, competitiveness and joy,” Kerr said in a text message Monday. “He never shied away from a shot, even on his worst night, and never seemed restricted in any way.
“I wish I could have played and felt that way on the court.”
But it wasn’t just Ginóbili’s unselfishness that made him such an iconic figure; it was also the way he played the game. Nothing embodied Ginóbili’s swagger on the court quite like his use of the Eurostep, a move he didn’t invent but perfected to the point that nearly every player has incorporated it into his game. His ability to slip past virtually any defender to get to the rim and score helped spark a stylistic revolution in the sport.
That, along with being a Spanish-speaking player in a market with a heavy Spanish-speaking presence, forged a connection with fans across the league.
Growing up in a soccer-crazed country had an obvious impact on his game. The ferocity and intensity he brought to the court was in stark contrast to his incredibly friendly and easygoing nature off it, and it also led him to attempt audacious things on the court, something Popovich has repeatedly admitted it took some time getting used to.
“As time went along I learned to not speak as something was contested or a shot was contested or a defensive play he wanted to make to get a steal or whatever,” Popovich once told the Associated Press, “because he does things that win games.”
And it is that — Ginóbili’s consistent part in winning games — that ties together everything in his remarkable career. He and Bill Bradley are the only players in basketball history to have won an NBA title, a EuroLeague title and an Olympic gold medal. The 575 games he won playing alongside Duncan and Tony Parker are the most by any trio in NBA history. His four titles are the most of any international player in NBA history, as well, an honor shared with Parker.
All of that winning also helped turn the Spurs into a factory of future head coaches and front office executives. Progeny from the staffs of both Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford have been installed across basketball over the past 15 years, and Ginóbili’s presence helped make it happen.
Now, his departure officially marks the end of that glorious run. Yes, Popovich and Buford are still around. But with Duncan having retired two years ago, Parker now playing for the Charlotte Hornets and Kawhi Leonard — who was expected to be the new face of the Spurs — forcing his way out of town via a trade to the Toronto Raptors, this will be the first season in almost 30 that one of David Robinson, Duncan, Parker or Ginóbili isn’t playing in San Antonio.
Ginóbili’s impact on the game, however, will continue to reverberate.