BOSTON — Gregg Popovich was telling a story. It was a familiar tale, about one of his favorite subjects: Manu Ginobili. Pop has delivered the punch line a couple of different times, but it’s a good line and you want him to tell it again because it makes him so happy to tell it.
“In the beginning he would do some things that I thought were unnecessary,” Pop said. “Until that point came when he came to me and said, ‘I am Manu. This is what I do.’”
Only a singular genius like Manu could get away with such basketball heresy in the early days of Pop’s program. Through the force of his strong personality, Ginobili’s jackknife layups and dangerous passes became as much a part of the Spurs gestalt as the corner three.
So, Pop and Manu came to a compromise where Manu would think twice every once in a while before trying some recklessly heroic gambit and Pop would keep his loud opinions to himself every now and again. “It’s been lovey-dovey ever since,” Pop said.
It was always more than brazen passes and defensive gambles that made Manu so integral to the team’s culture. While he provided the necessary dramatic flair on top of the foundation established by Tim Duncan, he was also steady and unwavering while Tony Parker flirted with fame.
Manu came off the bench and never complained. He started and didn’t say a word. In either capacity he was both brilliant and unselfish, a virtuoso and a great teammate.
“For us he’s like the fiber and the background and the spirit of the team along with Patty Mills and Tony and Timmy,” Pop said. “Now it’s shifting to LaMarcus (Aldridge) and Kawhi (Leonard), that kind of thing. In the meantime he’s like a pacifier. You know how your kid looks for a pacifier? I look for Manu. When I see him in the gym I feel better.”
Seeing Manu back on the court for his 16th season, at the age of 40, makes a lot of us feel better. We may be living in the age of unicorns where absurdly talented big men do extraordinary things, but it should not be forgotten that Manu is one of their spiritual heirs. Doing what he does, being who he is, carving out a space for individual expression in a league that fetishizes repetition and routine helped keep the door open for all manner of weirdness and eccentricity to flourish.
He is Manu, and there has never been another. The league is a much more enjoyable place with him in it.
It felt so final last spring after the Spurs were swept by the Warriors in the conference finals. They were overmatched without Kawhi Leonard and even more shorthanded without Tony Parker. In their absence, Manu played valiantly in the final game and was serenaded with standing ovations and curtain calls from the San Antonio faithful. No one wanted to risk letting the moment pass without expressing their admiration.
As the offseason progressed, and their competitors in the West made bold moves for superstars, the Spurs were content to add ancillary players. Their biggest offseason splurge was veteran Rudy Gay, who joined 26-year-old rookie Brandon Paul, first-round pick Derrick White, and vagabond big man Joffrey Lauvergne as the only new additions. Manu remained unsigned.
Finally in late August, Ginobili decided to return for two more seasons. As he told the local press on media day, “Why not? I can. I have the opportunity. They expressed that they needed me again and I still enjoy what I do.”
His teammates, even his new ones, did not have much doubt he would be back.
“From watching him, being around the league, I knew that’s not how he wanted to go out,” Gay said. “It’s one of those situations, you don’t think of the Spurs without Manu.”
Gay has learned a lot from Ginobili, who took it upon himself to aid the veteran’s transition to his new home.
“He’s a guy that knows the game like the back of his hand,” Gay said. “He’s been playing since the turn of the century.”
Literally, I interject.
“Literally,” Gay laughs. “He’s a been really good for me because he’s been forever.”
Ginobili’s return comes at a pivotal time for the franchise. Not only are they transitioning toward a present that depends on Leonard and Aldridge as their cornerstone players, they have also added younger players bit by bit over the last few seasons. The truth is, they needed Manu.
“Worried? No, I wouldn’t say worried,” Danny Green said. “We all know there’s going to come a time, we just never know when that day’s going to come. He’s a great player, he’s a good coach for us too. He’s helped the young guys a ton. I think he’s necessary and we definitely need him, especially with the group we have right now.”
Outside of Parker, no other member of the Spurs has played with Manu for as long as Green. From the crafty way Ginobili uses ball screens and footwork to keep defenders off balance to the sublime understanding of his own pace, Green has absorbed so much knowledge. He shakes his head whenever Manu pulls off the Eurostep to his left hand and chuckles to himself whenever a hapless defender gets caught reaching.
“I’ve learned a ton from Manu,” Green said. “And I’m still learning.”
The Manu moments, such as they are, come in fleeting bits and bursts these days. In a game against Miami last week he scored eight of his 14 points in a three-minute stretch late in the third quarter, which turned a competitive game into a blowout.
His shotmaking has been a matter of some concern in the early part of the season, but the fluidity and grace with which he creates space remains exquisite. Ginobili has always been an expert and reading angles and understanding leverage. He can create more movement with a head fake than most players can summon with a dribble.
Cherish these moments. They are every bit as wondrous as 7-footers draining threes and long-armed wings taking off from outside the lane. Don’t wait until it’s all over to appreciate the fact that there is still a place for Manu to do what he does and still be Manu.