With apologies to Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and George Gervin, Manu Ginobili will go down in history as the greatest Spur who ever lived. He wasn’t on their level when it comes to sheer basketball prowess—while Ginobili has a strong Hall of Fame case, there’s a chance he never makes it to Springfield. But Ginobili, who retired this week after 16 seasons and four NBA titles, embodied the vaunted Spurs culture like no one else. He didn’t just sublimate himself—he gave something up.
Ginobili was way under the radar when he entered the league in 2002. He’d been selected with the 57th pick in the 1999 draft, a deep sleeper even as the stock of international players had begun to skyrocket. Ginobili then opted to spend another three seasons in Italy. When he first suited up for the Spurs, he was already 25 years old. There were flashes of brilliance during his rookie year and enough of an output that Ginobili was named to the All-Rookie Second Team. But it was in the playoffs that he emerged as a dynamic scoring threat, adding another weapon to a Spurs squad that rolled to a title.
Heading into 2003-04, Ginobili was regarded as an integral part of the Spurs’ future and potentially one of the league’s liveliest talents. Younger fans who know him primarily as a canny soldier with a sparkling basketball IQ may be surprised to learn that, early on, Ginobili was flashy, chimeric, and impulsive. He wasn’t just speedy—he was crafty and astute at light-speed, experimenting with changes in direction and odd angles in a way that kept defenders in a perpetual state of flux. His fabled Eurostep, which has since become a staple of any elite scorer’s arsenal, was then only the tip of the iceberg. Everything Ginobili did traded in disorientation and sleight of hand. As a scorer and sometimes playmaker, Ginobili was that inspired. That he was also a lefty seemed downright unfair.
But as the rest of the sport swooned over Ginobili, his own coach had reservations. Gregg Popovich would yank him out of games after ill-advised turnovers; Ginobili’s minutes fluctuated, he was in and out of the starting line-up, and his role on the team was never entirely clear. The tension between the two was nearly comical. Of course Popovich, at that time perceived as a grouchy authoritarian, would butt heads with a swashbuckling young guard whose style of play—and the obvious place for him in an offense—ran counter to the Spurs’ unglamorous, meat-and-potatoes approach to the game at the time.
What followed was, in retrospect, perfectly predictable. Ginobili, who despite his dazzling play always seemed strangely ego-less, reined it in. Popovich came to trust him, and by 2004-05 he was, along with Duncan and Tony Parker, a key piece of a perennial contender. While there were still plenty of inspired moments, including and up to his final on-court appearance in April, Ginobili’s game was, in comparison to what it had been, muted. At the same time, whenever he displayed less-than-optimal judgment, Popovich was inclined to laugh it off rather than bristle. If Ginobili had at one point been perceived by him as a liability, he was now a consummate pro given to occasional, forgivable lapses.
Ginobili’s evolution is inseparable from his relationship with Popovich and the Spurs writ large. In 2004-05, he made the All-Star Game; two years later, he and Popovich determined that he was most valuable coming off of the bench, which is what he did for the rest of his NBA career. There’s an alternate version of things where Ginobili was a perennial All-Star who put up numbers and cranked out a steady stream of highlights. To imagine this Ginobili is to extrapolate out, almost literally, from those first couple of seasons. At one point, he looked like one of the top guards in the league. He had that level of talent and played with real passion. But he eschewed that path and never once looked back. That Ginobili never existed because the man himself did everything to marginalize, downplay, and frequently quash, that part of himself.
This may sound like a criticism of Ginobili, or frustration with the fact that he never really lived up to that early promise. There was for some time a belief out there that Popovich broke him, somehow robbing him of an essential quality that would no longer define him going forward. This is, of course, idiotic. Ginobili wanted rings, he knew Popovich could get them, and his titles make it impossible to question his actions. But even basketball romantics who wonder what could have been, what was taken away from us, are missing the real dynamic at play here.
“Instead, Ginobili is a testament to the fact that maturity doesn’t lessen us. It focuses our energies as a means to an end.”
In the past, I’ve written about the Spurs as a particularly rosy metaphor for maturation: Working with Popovich, players figure out where they fit in, what they do well, and are put in a position to thrive in that capacity. Popovich doesn’t limit them or make specialists of them—he creates a system, often in response to the personnel at his disposal, that optimizes their skill-sets. No one is forced to do something that doesn’t suit them but in return, they are expected to really excel at the task put in front of them. In Ginobili’s case, though, it’s not clear he needed this treatment to succeed, even with the Spurs. It felt at times like we were robbed of a great show just because Popovich has a distaste for aesthetics.
Instead, Ginobili is a testament to the fact that maturity doesn’t lessen us. It focuses our energies as a means to an end. Youth is freedom but it’s also aimless and frequently disastrous. Your life as a grown-up may be less exciting but it makes sense. There’s cohesion and a routine that hold things together, a finite beginning and end to things, and the reassurance that you’re not starting from scratch (or potentially facing an all-out collapse) every time you wake up in the morning. Ginobili isn’t a martyr, or a vital flame that was snuffed out. Probably because of his age, he saw that changing his game to suit the Spurs was part and parcel with changing it to suit himself. And that’s why the fit, far from being dissonant, was in fact ideal.
What’s more, the entire Manu Ginobili narrative hinges on a single, specious point: that Gregg Popovich hates fun and Ginobili had to choose between two extremes. If you view the Spurs sympathetically, though, it’s hard to sustain this reading of events. Popovich isn’t a tyrant. He’s not trying to inflict his vision of the sport, which is surprisingly malleable, on anyone else. He has no ideological bone to pick. What he will do, though, is force a player to prioritize. It’s not as hackneyed as a simple “team first,” either. Popovich asks everyone, sometimes explicitly, who they want to be. The championships provide leverage. But ultimately, he can’t force anyone’s hand.
Manu Ginobili could have had a different career, but he chose exactly the career he got—the one he wanted. That it panned out in spectacular fashion is almost beside the point. Ginobili will be remembered not as someone who lost his individuality but as someone who gained it exactly by squandering what some might mistake for individuality. He became a less superficially creative player but in the process created himself. If Ginobili was low on ego in the beginning, it wasn’t out of humility (there was no reason for it) but because he didn’t know who he was or what he wanted. He found it and became the universally beloved figure being celebrated this week. Here’s hoping we can all be that lucky.