The Golden State Warriors and its squadron of All-Stars rode an unrelenting offensive wave to the NBA Finals on Monday night in San Antonio, dispatching the Spurs 129-115 to complete a four-game sweep in the Western Conference Finals. For Spurs faithful, this last game of the season belonged to Manu Ginobili, who finished the night with 15 points and 7 assists amidst billowing chants of “Manu, Manu” and “one more year.”
Often considered the most selfless player in franchise history and the most beloved Spur outside of Tim Duncan, Ginobili reflected on his career in San Antonio heading into the season closer.
“It’s easy to remember the wins, the good moments, the highs,” Ginobili told reporters after the team’s final practice. “But even the lows were great too, in a different sense of connection, of camaraderie, of doing it together. Not pointing at anybody. We win it together. We lose it together. So even the bad moments, the tough ones, I’m proud of them too. Those moments get you better, smarter, make you grow. I think the whole trip is incredible and it’s been incredible.”
So often the catalyst for San Antonio’s postseason success, Ginobili was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 4 by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, perhaps sensing that the curtain was closing for one of the most decorated international players in the history of the game.
“We started him tonight out of respect,” said Popovich after the game. “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. 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.”
Very hard to find the words to describe my feelings after yesterday's game. Still overwhelmed. Thank you SO very much!
— Manu Ginobili (@manuginobili) May 23, 2017
Ginobili’s NBA journey began with the Spurs’ 2002-2003 season, when he touched down in San Antonio with a bum ankle and elevated internal expectations despite being the 57th overall pick in the draft. After overcoming that injury, Ginobili excelled in the 2003 playoffs, contributing off the bench to help close out the Kobe & Shaq dynasty in Los Angeles and capture the NBA crown–his first, and the team’s second.
Manu followed up that performance with a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Athens the following summer, defeating Duncan, Popovich, and Team USA to lift his nation. Coach Pop often speaks of humility, and Ginobili’s triumph on the Olympic stage in Greece was one of the first instances that proved Popovich was not infallible. Argentina’s Golden Generation triumphed against their North American rivals with Ginobili as their unquestionable leader, cementing their basketball legacy for the ages.
By the 2004-2005 campaign, Ginobil had convincingly exceeded his reserve role, a fact recognized by coaches leaguewide when they voted him as an All-Star in 2005. He would go to help San Antonio win another NBA title that season, coming one vote shy of claiming Finals MVP while capturing the hearts of San Anto’s predominantly Mexican-American population along the way.
“Que lindo es esto,” said Ginobili in his native tongue back then, acknowledging the Raza who had gathered to celebrate San Antonio’s third NBA championship. “I guarantee one thing. I’m not leaving this town without another one.”
Manu doubled down on his promise, delivering championship rings to Spurs enthusiasts in 2007 and somehow, seven years later in 2014. Through it all, he remained the ultimate competitor, never abandoning the chaotic magic that defined his play and inspired his teammates.
Off the court, Ginobili remains one of the best interviews in professional basketball, particularly if you speak Spanish. Whether visiting young Spurs fans at Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital during the Christmas holiday or after an emotional loss, Ginobili was always approachable, generally upbeat, and genuinely sincere. Although his answers are thoughtful in any language, Manu’s entire demeanor was more conversational en español where responses appeared to flourish more fluidly.
It’ll be hard to find another competitor quite like Manu.
Back in Ginobili’s prime, loaded phrases like “English Only” and “Show Me Your Papers” were occasionally heard in the Spurs locker room, usually spoken by the team’s gatekeepers. Today, a decade and a cultural shift later, Latino journalists who descend upon San Antonio are emboldened to ask questions in Spanish, despite the sighs and sideway glances they receive from their English-speaking counterparts, because of Manu.
“I do feel like I can still play,” said Ginobili from the podium in San Antonio on Monday night. “But that’s not what is going to make me retire or not. It’s about how I feel, if I want to go through all that again. It felt like they wanted me to retire, 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.”
If Ginobili indeed walks away from the game this summer, he leaves a void that Latino stars like Carmelo Anthony, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Al Horford will be hard pressed to fill. As San Antonio’s unapologetically brown fan base serenaded him after the final horn, the realization sank in that this was likely the end of an era for the Spurs, because it’ll be hard to find another competitor quite like Manu. As Ginobili would often exclaim in interviews, “fue un placer.”