Whether he retires or not, Manuís legacy set in stone

Whether he retires or not, Manuís legacy set in stone
San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) signals to fans as he walks off the court after Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

SAN ANTONIO — As he walked off the floor with 2:25 left in the fourth quarter, the crowd rose to its feet with the roar of a jet and the kind of sentiment that could lift one right off the runway without help from engines on the wings.

Ma-nu!  Ma-nu!  Ma-nu!

“It shakes your world a little bit,” he said.

Which was entirely appropriate since Manu Ginobili has spent the past 15 years rocking the basketball world to its core.

We forget what the NBA was like in 2002 when he first ran all over the court with crazy legs and wild arms and that long dark hair that danced in the breeze to a rhythm that it seemed only he could hear.

Now, a decade-and-a-half later, he slung in one more three-point shot from the right wing, made one more hellbent drive into the teeth of the Golden State defense for a twisting layup and then was subbed out for Kyle Anderson while his head filled with the noise and his chest the emotion.

Ginobili has not yet said Monday's (Tuesday, PHL time) 129-115 loss to the Warriors was his last game on the stage that he has filled with so much joy and passion. But it felt like it. He will be 40 in July and the calendar employs a fast break that nobody has been able to outrun.

“We started him tonight out of respect,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “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.”

It was Ginobili's first start since March 24, 2014, which is all part of the legacy he will either take into next season or the next chapter of his life.

A fierce, fearless, frenzied competitor, a wild bull of the pampas from Argentina, who is a dead-solid lock as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, he stuffed his ego down deep into his gym bag to come off the bench for the Spurs. All that did was form a bond and a core with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker that would produce four NBA championships.

“I mean, this is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for…the last decade or something, because it would make us a better team,” Popovich said.

The Spurs sneaked Ginobili in through their sly backdoor as the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft. He was so unsure about how he’d fit into the NBA that he slept through draft night and had to be told that he was picked by a coach on his club team. He did not arrive in San Antonio until three years later, but became an instant hit with his flair and his aggressive, attacking moves as the Spurs won the 2002-03 championship in his rookie season. His Euro-step drives became the stuff of online video legend. He proved that international players were not just spot-up shooters or big men that thrived in the low post. He showed the American game a flamenco dancer’s flair.

“He’s obviously been great for the game of basketball, great for the NBA, great for the Spurs organization,” Stephen Curry of the Warriors said. “I want to see where that fountain of youth is so I can see if I can get a hold of that for the rest of my career.”

“A lot of us grew up watching Manu and really respecting his game,” said Golden State’s Kevin Durant. “So to play against him, have battles with him year in and year out is really epic.”

In the summer after his second title in 2005, I was with Ginobili on an NBA-sponsored trip to his native country and during a visit to an indigent hospital in Buenos Aires, patients came out of their rooms to storm the hallways just for a glimpse or for a chance to touch him.

“Manu! Manu! Heal me!” shouted one man.

Inside a Spurs organization that traditionally treats the media with disdain and the suspicion of Cold War interrogators, he patiently answered questions, gave thoughtful analysis and traded jokes anytime he was asked, in English or Spanish. Not just friendly, but joyful.

Ginobili had become a virtual worldwide basketball god when he led Argentina to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, taking down the United States Dream Team.

He also became a San Antonio legend. If power forward Duncan was the backbone and point guard Parker the heart, then Ginobili was the soul of the Spurs. Together they became the winningest trio in the history of the NBA.

When Kawhi Leonard suffered a sprained left ankle and left the Western Conference finals for good in the third quarter of game one, the already-depleted Spurs never stood a chance against the Warrior machine and Monday’s 129-115 defeat completed a 4-0 sweep. But in the last two games, the older man with the now short hair and bald spot shot 13-for-20, scored 36 points and looked like there was something still left in his tank.

“You know, for moments I felt like I didn’t in the [first round] Memphis series,” Ginobili said. “This series I played better. I felt more energetic, more needed, more useful to the team, so I ended up feeling better than the way I started. But, yeah, I do feel like I can still play. But that’s not what is going to make me retire or not.”

He signed a one-year contract worth $14 million to play this season and will become a free agent on July 1 with a decision to make while the thankful memory and full-throated roar still dribbles around inside his head.

“It’s about how I feel, if I want to go through all of that again,” he said. “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.

“Whatever I decide to do, I’ll be a happy camper.  I have to choose between two truly wonderful options. One is to keep playing in this league at this age, enjoying every day, playing the sport that I still love. The other is to stay at home, be a dad, travel more, enjoy my family. So there is no way I can be sad, because whatever I decide, it’s going to be great.”

Duncan left the Spurs a year ago, just walking out a tunnel in Oklahoma City raising his hands above his head and then issued a perfunctory announcement a few weeks later.

At home in front of 18,466 at the AT&T Center, Ginobili got the loud, loving salute that he’d earned on what seemed like an historic night.

“As crazy as it sounds, I know that I’m looking forward to the day to tell my grandkids that I was there for his last game,” said Warriors acting coach Mike Brown, making an assumption. “To hear the crowd serenade him like that was fun.”

Yes, it was.  All of it.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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