The Three Burials of Manu Ginobili

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OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 6: Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs dunks two points against the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

Manu Ginobili defies summation.

His career was too unorthodox, too sprawling, too exemplary to be explained succinctly. The easiest way to tell the next generation about him is to simply say: It’s all true. Every word of it.

Those stories you’ve heard, the stuff of legend masquerading as biography? Oh no, that all happened. Much like Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian, everything you’ve heard about Ginobili is true.

He really led a group of his closest friends past the vaunted Team USA and on to Olympic gold. They came to be known as Argentina’s Golden Generation, and they forced USA Basketball to reevaluate the way it competed for the first time since the original Dream Team demonstrated its dominance to the rest of the world.

Yes, he once swatted a bat out of midair in the middle of a game on Halloween. Absolutely, he threaded a bounce pass through a running defender’s legs in an NBA Finals game—no, I don’t know how Gregg Popovich didn’t have several heart attacks coaching him. He exploded a shoe before Zion and, to my knowledge, he is the only NBA player to actually give his right [portion of the male anatomy] for his team. 

He dunked on Yao, blocked 7-foot Kevin Durant and Garnett, and tried every conceivable pass or shot his considerable creativity could conjure. He did these things routinely, as a matter of course. Ginobili dealt in the fantastical the way most of us muddle in mundanity. He was maddening and delightful—one part What The Hell Is He Doing to two parts How The Hell Does He Do It—but never, ever boring. 

But even that barely scratches the surface. What about Ginobili the person, Ginobili the competitor? What drove the man behind the magic?

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

The above is from Salt, a book of poetry by Nayyirah Waheed. As the Spurs prepare to retire Ginobili’s number to the rafters, it feels especially fitting. Where would Ginobili be if he paid attention to endings? Looking back, his career was full of them.

June 18, 2013

The San Antonio Spurs enter Miami’s American Airlines Arena with a 3-2 lead over the Heat in the NBA Finals.  

That makes this Game 6. The Game 6. The event that will make the hitherto harmless phrase “Game 6” as good as an expletive in San Antonio—the game that shall not be named—for years to come. Only it isn’t that, yet. 

For now, it is an opportunity—a chance to clinch the fifth title in franchise history, the fourth of Ginobili’s tenure and the first in six years. With 28.2 seconds remaining, it’s looking like a very good chance. 

Ginobili has just stolen an errant pass by LeBron James and is going to the line for two free throws. He misses the first, makes the second. The Spurs lead by five. 

You know how this story ends. How it all falls apart. The second split pair of free throws. The rebounds that slip from fingertips. The backpedaling three from a legendary shooter. The coveted trophy that is backed away from courtside and hidden from view, like a hostage when negotiations go south.

Ginobili commits his seventh and eighth turnovers in the final minute of overtime. The latter is stripped away by Ray Allen with just three seconds remaining in a one-point game, and with it goes the last best hope for celebration on this night.

It feels as bad as any non-elimination loss can. Two nights later the devastation is complete. It is the first time the Spurs have ever lost on the Finals stage, the method as heartbreaking as one could imagine. 

In the aftermath, talking heads will mention Ginobili’s age, the mileage from all those international games and deep playoff runs, the style of play that has no regard for the health of his body. Maybe he just doesn’t have it anymore. Questions abound: Should he come back? Do the Spurs want him? Should they? Can he still play? He wonders too.

The End.

June 15, 2014

The Finals, again. The Heat, again. Another potential clincher.

Manu came back and the Spurs did too. Now all that stands between them and the kind of redemption people confess their sins for is one more win. 

Maybe it’s jitters or the force of one last melee attack from a dying champ, but the Spurs find themselves in a 16-point hole before the game is even seven minutes old. They steady themselves and take their first lead of the game on a Kawhi Leonard three-pointer with 4:47 remaining in the first half. 

Two minutes later Tim Duncan pulls a rebound off the defensive glass and outlets to Ginobili, who pushes the ball across the timeline along the right side of the floor then crosses to his left as he nears the arc. 

Allen meets him at the elbow. The Miami guard reaches for another strip but Ginobili shrugs him off. Pushing off a right leg the world will later learn was slightly fractured, Ginobili rises over Chris Bosh and throws down a signature lefty dunk. Duncan tousles his hair. Patty Mills waves a towel from the bench. 

On the following possession, Ginobili comes off a Duncan screen, steps back from Udonis Haslem and swishes a three. It caps a run of eight straight points he’s rattled off for the Spurs since they took the lead. They will never trail again.

Confetti falls. The trophy is raised.

“I felt like something was still stuck in my leg from last year,” Ginobili describes it, “And I felt like I healed.”

The End.

May 22, 2017

Ginobili tends to attract a following wherever he goes. He pairs a style of play that captures the imagination with a personable humility that makes him seem somehow within reach. Even an exercise as rote as a pregame workout becomes must-see when Ginobili’s involved, and his is usually the center of attention. 

Tonight is atypical. 

Ginobili takes the court more than an hour before tip to comparatively little fanfare. The majority of the population in the building this early are surrounding the visitors’ tunnel. The two-time MVP is in town, looking to complete a sweep of the Spurs en route to his third consecutive trip to the Finals, and his pregame workout just so happens to coincide with Ginobili’s. 

Not even Ginobili’s array of floaters and finger rolls are enough to distract from Stephen Curry’s ritual handling drills and halfcourt shots. On this rare occasion, the Argentine is relegated to second billing in his own building. 

The Spurs are underdogs and undermanned, having lost Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, then David Lee to injury during their playoff run. Once game time rolls around it isn’t long before the score gets out of hand. Late in the fourth quarter, the Warriors enjoy a double-digit lead, another conference title all but assured.

That’s when it happens. 

Somewhere in the arena, the chant begins. A few people rise. Before long the entire AT&T Center is on its feet. Those in attendance could well be witnessing the greatest team in NBA history, but this isn’t the time to acknowledge that. Now all eyes are on Ginobili. 

If it is to be his last the veteran guard has turned in an unassailable performance, shooting 6-of-12 for 15 points while dishing seven assists and swiping three steals. He started the game and, by the time he leaves it for good, he’s played more minutes than any other Spur. Perhaps Coach Pop is not ready to stop watching him either.

With 2:25 remaining in their season, Popovich subs Kyle Anderson in for Ginobili. The standing ovation that has been going on for the last minute of game time is allowed to take center stage. Many Warriors join in the applause. Even Curry—who is on the foul line—takes a step back, elongating the moment. The crowd would have taken it anyway, but it is a generous gesture. 

As Ginobili takes his seat on the bench, Patty Mills leans over his right shoulder. “What’s everyone standing up for?” Mills deadpans. Ginobili shrugs.

Ginobili hasn’t said he’s retiring, but San Antonio knows better than to take that as some sort of guarantee. The ovation is more Thank You than Goodbye and at least a little supplication to continue. San Antonio would gladly cheer him again next year, or for as many years as he cares to show up, but they couldn’t forgive themselves if they never let him know what he’s meant.

In moments the game is over. The Warriors will celebrate their upcoming return to the Finals away from the floor in a staging area not far from their locker room, but Spurs fans stay put. As far as they are concerned, the night belongs to Ginobili. They continue to chant the name “Manu” as if hoping it will earn them an encore. They aren’t ready to leave. They only hope he isn’t either.

Ginobili waves as he passes into the tunnel and out of sight. 

The End.

Only it wasn’t. None of them were. Each time Ginobili faced the end then walked right through it. Good thing, too. How much would he—all of us—have missed out on had he not?

The final season was a gift. 

Sure there were ball fakes and finger rolls, blocked shots, game-winners, nutmegs, even a few dunks; all the things we’d come to expect in a season with Ginobili were present. At one point, despite the aforementioned unfortunate run-in with Ryan Anderson’s knee, he even led the league in charges taken by players of a certain age. Ginobili could never change the way he played, no matter what it cost him.

As special as his play still was, what happened off the court was even more so. It had become clear that Ginobili, like Duncan before him, would have no Farewell Tour. Likely wanted none, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, his people came to him.

The pilgrimage had gone on for much of Ginobili’s career. Fans from his native Argentina would make the trip, at no small expense, to the AT&T Center or other NBA arenas to see the living legend play live while they could. When he returned for the 2017-2018 season the influx only intensified. 

For every home game it seemed there were at least 30 fans from Argentina in their sky blue jerseys, chanting “Ole!” for Manu and all of the Spurs. For his part, Ginobili always dedicated as much time as he could to meeting as many of the fans as possible. 

It must have been incredible pressure, knowing the lengths people had gone to see him, just once or twice, in the twilight of his career. He never wore it though, just kept signing, and selfie-ing, and hugging, trying to reach as many as he could. The scenes are indelible and incredibly human. 

One woman throws her arms around Manu when she sees him, kisses his cheek. He poses for a photo and talks with her a bit. After, she puts her arms around the neck of the man she came with and cries into his shoulder. She is hardly the first person to be overwhelmed by meeting her hero. Her response is so genuine, so unfiltered, that it feels almost wrong to witness—to intrude upon that moment in her life—but it’s nearly impossible to look away. 

Then there is Leandor Cisterna, who sold his car to make the trip. He wonders if he’ll still have a fiancée once he returns home but has no regrets. “Everything for Manu,” he says. Not “anything” but “everything.”  

It makes sense that a fan of Ginobili’s would think in these terms. The man himself never gave in half-measures. Why wouldn’t those who appreciate him express their gratitude the same way? It goes on and on, Ginobili’s countrymen pouring into the AT&T Center to celebrate one of their greatest athletes, every game right up until the end.

April 22, 2018

Round One. The Warriors, again. Another potential sweep.

With the Spurs staring down the barrel of another 0-3 deficit to the now defending champs, Ginobili is asked about the impromptu farewell he received eleven months prior.

“I’ve said many times,” he replies, “It was awkward.”

Despite the fans’ best intentions, he would prefer to avoid that type of sendoff altogether. A win would be great. The Spurs are facing more uncertainty in the coming summer than they have at any time in the last two decades, and all they can do to stave it off for one more night is beat the best team in basketball. 

Challenge accepted. They jump out to a lead and even stretch it to double digits. The home crowd cheers pure catharsis while anxiously awaiting the inevitable Warriors run. Midway through the fourth quarter, it arrives.

Kevin Durant knocks down a three-pointer to cut the Spurs’ lead to a mere two points with 5:57 remaining. Ginobili responds with a couple of free throws. Two minutes later, with the difference at five, he takes a pass from Mills, shot fakes, sidesteps Klay Thompson, and hits a left wing three. 

Andre Iguodala trims it back to six. As Ginobili drives to answer, the worst happens. A collision with Nick Young’s knee sends Ginobili to the ground, clutching his quad in pain. The building holds its breath and waits.

After a moment, with the help of his teammates, the 40-year-old rises, limps around. The crowd, San Antonian and Argentinean alike, get to their feet. A crescendo begins to build to a deafening roar. “MA-NU, MA-NU, MA-NU,” they implore. As he’s done so many times in his career, Ginobili answers the call.

He responds with two more buckets in the final 1:25. The first comes out of a pick-and-roll with LaMarcus Aldridge. Ginobili attacks the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, throws a fake, pivots, loses the ball, regains it, and throws up a hook shot that finds the bottom of the net. He pumps his fist in celebration. The lead is ten again and yes, this is much better than any curtain call.

When he takes the extra pass from Mills with 29 seconds remaining and pulls up in front of the Golden State bench there’s not a soul in the building who doesn’t expect him to bury the open three. When he does, the margin blooms to 13 and the game finally feels safe, even from the Warriors. The crowd voices their appreciation as Ginobili jogs back down the floor, the clock running down on an improbable win. 

How could we have thought that a wave from the bench in a game long since out of reach would have suited Manu? He finishes the game on the floor, on his terms, and when he walks off his home court for the final time it’s as a winner. 

The End.

Of course, the truth is the actual ending never matters so much as the manner in which one arrives. The collection of endings Ginobili accrued is a perfect encapsulation of the way he attacked life in basketball. 

He possessed the perseverance that allowed him to make the same shot in double-overtime of Game 1 in 2008 that he missed at the end of regulation of Game 7 in 2006. He recklessly disregarded fear to attempt a game-sealing block on James Harden in 2017, despite the fact that the same fearlessness yielded agony on a similar play eleven years earlier. He understood that sometimes you only get to the morning by living through what once seemed like the end of the world.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the pressure,” he once said, “but I do it anyway.”

Ginobili experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows and, while it was clear that he felt them keenly, he never dwelled—never mourned too much or celebrated too much either—while there was still game left to play. He kept going because there was always the next play, because one day there wouldn’t be. 

Ginobili gave everything he had to his 23 years of basketball. He played with a broken leg, arm, nose. He risked a brush with rabies, many of his follicles, and probably at least a little of his sanity but he kept coming back because, in plain fact, he loved it dearly. Loves it always. But basketball was never the most important thing, even if he played every possession as if it were. 

Before his last season ,Ginobili called legacy as a great player “overrated,” preferring instead to be remembered as a “good dude.” The person he’s been to teammates, reporters, and fans ensures that, but his legacy as a player is about more than his brilliance with the ball or where he ranks on some arbitrary list of all-time greats. 

Occasionally during that last year, Ginobili had time to sit with his family at the corner of the court while pregame workouts wrapped up. At least once he started up a game passing the ball back and forth with his youngest son, Luca. The ball got by Luca and the youngest Ginobili hurried along the baseline after it. Instead of turning around to deliver a chest pass to his father, Luca whipped the ball backward over his head. Manu smiled.

It was a sure sign that the spark of madness Manu shared with the world had taken on a life of its own, that his legacy need not be tied merely to his many accomplishments on the hardwood. It lies in the way he’s inspired others to look for a new angle, to attack the path populated with defenders, to shoot the low-percentage shot rather than let the clock run out, to rock that bald spot with confidence. The best way to honor his legacy is to have the courage to follow through when that inspiration strikes.

Tonight another ending looms, as Manu’s #20 jersey takes its place in the rafters of the AT&T Center. It will take time to turn mourning his loss from the court into the morning his play and competitive spirit inspire, but his fans will never want for an example of how to get there.

Anyway, it’s not the end of the world. It only feels that way now.

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