When Manu Ginobili was named the penultimate pick in the 1999 NBA draft, he was asleep. He was with the Argentina national team at the tournament in Brazil, not even knowing that the draft would take place. The coach woke him up with the news. “Are you sure?” he said. He was only 21 years old and was an attacking defender of Reggio Calabria in the Italian second division. He couldn’t believe it.
Ginobili’s professional career had just begun. He had talent, but he was so off the radar of the NBA that Rod Thorne, announcing the selection, didn’t know how to pronounce his name. That anonymity was part of the appeal of the Spurs, who had just won their first NBA title and wanted international prospects to “draft and save.”
So with the No. 57, San Antonio took on the energetic southpaw from Bahia Blanca, a basketball-obsessed coastal city in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. ESPN awarded them a D for their draft, which also went to a Croatian guard named Gordan Giriček who wrote, “We admit we don’t know much about these guys because the boss won’t be hunting for scout trips to Europe.”
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has said many times that the key to his success was the selection of Tim Duncan in 1997. This is generally true, but perhaps it downplays the importance of the Spurs’ choice two years later.
Arguably the best draft pick of all time he was drafted, this pick became the heart and soul of the century’s most successful professional basketball team. Manu won four NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal, became one of only three winners in NBA history, and left an indelible mark on NBA history. He popularized the Eurostep, revolutionized the sixth man role and played with a unique style that transformed the Spurs champions – and eventually, the rest of the NBA. He is loved in San Antonio, in Argentina and beyond. And on Saturday he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Spurs CEO R. Buford said the first time he saw Manu play, “he was like a wild colt, just doing shit. Some of it made sense, some didn’t.” It never changed even when he lost his mane. But the more you watched it, the more it made sense. At first he seemed almost out of rhythm, teetering on the edge of control, until you realized that he had his own rhythm.
Manu joined the Spurs in 2002, after three more seasons in Europe. The “wild foal” ended up on a team that prided itself on order. His “break the stone” guiding principle was adapted from mason’s creed, a quotation from a 19th-century Dutch-American social reformer that hung in the dressing room, reinforcing a firm commitment to process and solidity. Pop, a former Air Force major, led the attack from a low stance and preached defense. Their best player was nicknamed “The Big Foundation”. signature move there was a 12 foot bank shot.
Manu, on the other hand, was known for nutmeg fools. It was sleek but incoherent, making it hard to defend. Raja Bell once said that he was the hardest player he ever had to defend. “I made a living studying strikers,” Bell said, now call podcaster. “I couldn’t understand him. Manu was unable to understand; he seemed to have a slightly different relationship to space and time than everyone else on the court. The course of basketball is not necessarily predictable, but it flows with a certain frequency and rhythm. Good players understand how to flow; it is dictated by the great players. But Manu had his own way of subverting it – to act outside the flow without disturbing it.
Clips of his best plays don’t tell the whole story. The YouTube superframe may capture some of Ginobili’s creativity, but it won’t show how he shook up the game or to what extent he could. turn an ordinary cut into a bucketor a seemingly innocuous interception into toe tapping, nutmeg, and -1 quick break alone.
One of my favorite pieces by Manu comes from a casual regular season game suited to a player who synthesized effortless grandeur and recklessness whenever he took the floor. Having missed 3, he is about to receive a half court pass from Thiago Splitter. Instead of dropping the ball, Manu approaches the ball like a third baseman attacking a slow hitter; he starts the shot before he catches the pass, and with the same motion launches a rocket through a thicket of arms for a wide open layup. (I will always remember this play, but it’s not even his the funniest in the category.)
The quintessence and climax of Manu’s play is his expressive soak over Chris Bosh in the deciding game of the 2014 final. Like so much of Manu’s greatness, it came out of nowhere. He was 36 at the time, but the play had all the makings of Ginobili’s old-time drive—a north-south attack; collection; long steps as he approached the ring; and fearless end.
(Since Manu’s highlights are not enough, I’ll just leave the following: pass the fake who taught Kevin Garnett that anything is possible, or it’s on Kevin Durant; choose your favorite passing between the legs; Shutdown James Harden the playoffs used to be cool; hit the bat in the air and taking him off the court ON HALLOWEEN; and, of course, his band game winner at the 2004 Olympics, the most iconic throw of his career.)
In Manu, perseverance and creativity come together to create beautiful fast-paced movements. Talent and recklessness collide to create eye-popping moments, but also head-spinning mistakes.
Manu threw rash passes, bet on defense, and fired 3-pointers at the very start of the shot clock. All of this annoyed his coach, who coached him diligently in his early years and struggled to get him to fit the established Spurs style, which in turn frustrated Manu. “It was not easy to adapt to a manager like him, to having to be a definite part of that game plan,” Manu. said after. Friction between player and team could break Mana or ruin the Spurs.
But in the end, Popovich realized that Manu, being Manu, was more often than not working, not working—that the occasional turnover or controversial cast was a small price to pay for his genius. He realized that Manu’s game was fueled by a deep desire to compete and that it would be a mistake to suppress him. “He’s a damn winner,” Pop said. “I came to the conclusion that it must be more of his than my path.”
The path of Manu has become an integral part of the path of the Spurs. His competitive spirit gave them ferocity on the court, while his leadership and fun brought them together off the pitch. When Manu agreed to come off the bench at the expense of his individual stats and star power, he cemented the team values that led Spurs to lasting success. When Pop held his tongue when Manu’s freelancing went awry, he gave him the opportunity to operate outside the rigid confines of the Spurs’ plan.
Over time, the tensions that characterized Manu’s early stint with the Spurs developed into the secret sauce of the Spurs dynasty. Manu’s improvisational feats, set in a system like Spurs, burst forth. And in Manu, the Spurs found the excitement and unpredictability that made them truly great.
Another favorite highlight contains this symbiosis. It’s a fitting pass that comes in on the attack in what looks like a thoughtful play, but only Manu would consider Patty Mills open here. Manu steps up to meet the initial pass, effectively opening up more space along the baseline, then goes behind him because the base side is the only side that this pass could be realistic from, given the positioning of Mills’ man and assistant guard. Delivery so perfect that Mills seems to catch the ball on his way to the rim rather than catching it and then throwing it himself.
However, to truly appreciate Manu, it’s important to remember that his daring plays and wild passes didn’t always work and never went away. It presents an alternative to the classic sports story about an athlete who gets rid of his bad habits and becomes great. With Manu, you never forget mistakes – and if you do, he will inevitably remind you soon – but thanks to his exceptional willpower and genius, you always overcome them.
Perhaps no episode captures the duality of Manu’s experience—the swing between frustrating games and spectacular ones, and his courage to try the latter despite the former—better than Game 1 of the 2013 Western Conference semi-finals. After Manu seemed to cost the Spurs the game with a rash shot, winning three-pointer in double overtime. And perhaps no quote conveys what he felt watching Manu better than the one Pop said after the game: “I went from wanting to trade him on the spot to wanting to cook breakfast for him tomorrow morning. This is true. When I talk to him and say, “Manu,” he replies, “That’s what I do.”
Manu made a lot of stupid decisions on the basketball court, and he didn’t always get a chance to correct his mistake after 45 seconds. But he never stopped playing hard, he never played with fear and he never changed. In that sense – in a sense that matters – he really “knocked on the rock.” And after enough hits, the NBA’s toughest system flexed to reflect its most creative and determined force; because with a player and a person like Manu, that’s really the only choice. You can’t split a rock with one blow, but if you turn your hammer at a different angle, you just might rip something off.