This Might Be It For Manu

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Spurs’ season will be over soon. Their reward for eking into their 21st-straight playoffs is a likely sweep at the hands of the defending and presumptive champion Warriors. The impending loss would be completely forgettable if not for the potential retirement of one of the league’s elder statesmen, 40-year-old Argentinian Manu Ginobili.

Ginobili has been basketball-old for a while now. He’s been with his wife longer than Lonzo Ball has been alive. We thought he might retire five years ago. He was “old and broken” in 2009, balding in 2007. Hell, when he debuted in 2002, three years after the Spurs selected him with the second-to-last pick in the draft, he was a 25-year-old rookie at a time when the most desirable prospect profile was a high schooler with long arms. Manu was ancient upon arrival.

But now he is actually old, and might actually be finished playing. It’s as good a time as any to remember how magnificent he was.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

But first, the flopping. That’s how most will probably remember him, but not you. Manu’s been known to embellish a reaction when necessary, drawing more ire than fouls. American fans detest “soft” soccer tactics, and while Manu wasn’t the first to do it in the NBA, he’s probably responsible for sparking the league-wide epidemic that is now simply part of the game.

Manu's influence spread so quickly that he soon encountered some two-Spider-Mans situations.

But just because Manu often invented contact out of thin air doesn’t mean he shied away from the real thing. At his reckless peak, Manu slashed to the hoop as violently as anyone. Mouth open, eyes elsewhere, he rammed opponents’ chests with his shoulders and bruised their arms with his face. The only person in the arena who had any clue what he was doing was him, and even then only sometimes. (Jon Gruden voice) In the lane I call him Snowflake, because he never finished the same way twice.

On his drives, the defense either collapsed or scattered. Manu used timing, leverage, and deception better than most. A convincing fake sent them looking and leaning, a slithering move combo brought them smothering. If he didn’t float (or slam) it with his left hand, he dropped it off to the nearest post man or found the open shooter across the court. Manu was king of the kickout.

The truth is, Ginobili was as creative a passer as Kidd or Williams. No-looks, behind-the-backs, over-the-shoulders, whipped wraparounds, bounces with comical English, sometimes all in one game. Manu was a fearless gambler: If they kept track of such things, he would almost certainly be the all-time leader in passes and dribbles between opponents’ legs. Playground ball was hiding in plain sight on the “boring” Spurs dynasty.

His creativity wasn’t always for the sake of flash. Manu effectively confused two or three defenders at a time with this pass-fake/jump-pass off a pick to his roll man.

It’s common now, but they lifted it from Manu.

Speaking of lifting moves: The now-ubiquitous Euro step. Again, Manu wasn’t the first to do it (I mean, he’s not even from Europe), but just about every star ball handler has incorporated it into his arsenal since his rookie year. From a 2010 New York Times article on the move:

In the recent preseason, several Nets practiced the Euro step in their layup line. DeMar DeRozan, a second-year guard for the Toronto Raptors, said he started using the move in high school in California after watching Ginobili pull it off.

The Euro step, like the dunk, the crossover, and the fadeaway before it, changed the way offense is played. Indeed, Manu is the Dick Fosbury of our times.

But more than the thrashing and lunging, Manu should be remembered most for coming off the bench.

A year and a half after starting every game he played and dominating the 2005 NBA Finals, Manu was asked to relinquish his spot in the starting lineup and lead the backups. Coach Greg Popovich felt Manu would be even more valuable to the team by providing a jolt of energy to the bench rotation. And without Tim Duncan and Tony Parker absorbing possessions, Manu could control the offense as the best player on the court.

This was radical thinking then and now. After a legendary international career and at a time when he would have been the best player on probably half the teams in the NBA, Manu accepted a role as the Spurs’ sixth man. He would only be a full-time starter once more in his career.

Manu’s sacrifice cemented the team-first culture that would keep San Antonio relevant long after their “sell by” date. With Manu Goddamn Ginobili coming off the bench, other players had no room to gripe about their roles. As Tim Duncan said, "You can't say shit. It set a precedent."

Manu might be the only Hall of Fame player to spend his prime years as a reserve. Thankfully, with reduced minutes (and collisions), the decision probably helped extend his career. We were lucky enough to witness a balding old man contribute to a playoff team and, every now and then, remind everyone of the days long hair and championships.

When he dunked in the playoffs last year, he was "turning back the hands of time":

It's similar to this dunk over Chris Bosh in the Finals four years ago. Even then, a Manu jam was "turning back the hands of time". (Amazingly, he may have had a stress fracture in his right leg when he pulled this off.)

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Here's Manu's incredible, game-saving block of this year's probable MVP James Harden in last year's playoffs:

San Antonio Express-News

San Antonio Express-News

Forty-year-old Manu had not one but two game-winning this season.

Manu didn't block many shots, but when he did, they were spectacular. Here's Manu risking life and limb to stuff a who's who of this generation's superstars:

One time Manu swatted a bat in the middle of a game like he was in a Dos Equis commercial.

Perhaps most memorable of all was his performance in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Manu led Argentina to a gold medal that year, including a stunning upset of Team USA in the semifinals. It remains the only time the United States failed to win the gold since they started bringing professionals to the Games in 1992. Basically Manu is indirectly responsible for the reconstruction of USA Basketball

Below, Manu's insane touch runner to beat Serbia and Montenegro in pool play.

Manu might retire this summer, and he might not. Either way, ha sido un infierno de paseo. |ES|