Manu Ginobili might be the most unique, engaging, and adored player of his time, a breathtaking southpaw whose competitive aggression and boundless ambition co-existed to create someone who redefined what it meant to play free.
At 41 years old, this legend retired from the NBA on Monday afternoon, turning an otherwise placid day into one of mourning, appreciation, and joyful nostalgia. Ginobili sustained his unpredictable savagery until the end, a man who embodied unselfish tendencies and successfully harnessed his flair inside Gregg Popovich's culture of conformity. He's one of the greatest passers ever and for it the Spurs were basically always better when he played.
Ahead of his time in numerous ways, Ginobili rarely attacked from the mid-range, instead choosing to gut defenses at the rim and with a three ball that seemingly always found the bottom of the net when it had to. (He defied stereotypes and established himself as a rugged defender, too.) Ginobili didn’t invent the Eurostep, but shoved it beneath the spotlight in a way that made a strange move look necessary.
The now famous and endlessly hilarious "I am Manu. This is what I do" quote really defines how audacious (in the best ways) Ginobili was. There were times Popovich probably felt like he let go of the rope, but always had a voice in the back of his head reminding him you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.
Ginobili played like a wounded shark—dangerous, wild, and compulsive. Sometimes he was the best player on the floor (he was almost named Finals MVP in 2005). Sometimes he over-competed, as cautious as a tornado hunter. As an iconic elder statesman—think the NBA’s version of Fast Eddie Felson—Ginobili honed a timeless confidence that refused to acknowledge his date of birth. He made over half of his two-point shots in 2018, playing more minutes than he had in the previous two years.
And as one of the standout, somewhat-overlooked facts from his Hall of Fame career, Ginobili entered the league as a 25-year-old who'd already conquered Europe. (Try and comprehend that: in another universe we get seven, maybe eight, prequel NBA seasons added onto the 16 glorious ones already there.) The Spurs drafted Ginobili in 1999 and then watched him become the Euroleague’s best player, fully formed as a vital contributor who helped them raise another banner as a rookie. (Ever modest, here was Ginobili’s reaction to getting drafted 57th overall: “Someone woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me. I said, ‘They’re the defending NBA champions. Are you sure?’”)
Over the last couple seasons, I’ve caught myself being pleasantly surprised by something he did, which is flat out disrespectful in numerous ways. What reason beyond “old age” did I have to doubt his ability to drive past someone who wasn’t even born when Ginobili was 14? Ginobili played with a giddy exuberance and usefulness until the very end. He came into the league as a talented oddity and exits as a paragon.
It’s recency bias, but writing this the morning after Ginobili announced his retirement, the memory I’ll most cherish came from last winter, sitting on my living room couch, trying to get into a sluggish League Pass night. I landed on a random Spurs game, scanned the floor, and immediately considered changing the channel. But the sight of Ginobili kneeling at the scorer’s table made me stick around.
Nothing lasts forever, but in those first moments after he checked in I let myself believe Manu Ginobili could be the exception.