When basketball has been such a huge part of your life for the better part of over 30 years, you start to grow less concerned with the loss of actual basketball games than you are with the loss of players who you grew to love while coming of age. I’m not ashamed to express my emotional connection to the game and the players who I’ve grown to identify with and how difficult it is to watch them in the latter years of their careers. It’s not the diminishing athleticism or the playing time that gets whittled down as each season passes. It’s the understanding that the end is near and the idea of time left means so much more now than it did a decade ago.
We all struggle with these kinds of losses, some more real and impactful than others. It’s simultaneously maddening, and weirdly comforting, to know that nothing lasts forever. Aging puts our mortality into the kind of perspective that forces you to appreciate the good now so you can use memories as souvenirs from the journey you were brought along by your favorite players. If nothing else, Manu Ginobili played in a way that left a trail of keepsakes for us to hold onto as he approaches retirement.
If you were given the latest NBA lines three years ago, you could not have predicted that we’d get three more years of Ginobili playing one of the most unique brands of basketball in NBA history. Tim Duncan was nearing his own retirement, and Ginobili was insistent that he was going out with his big brother. After the Spurs were eliminated from the postseason last year, his exit was rather ambiguous, yet he remains a Spur and a fixture of the most consistent organization in basketball.
The irony of Ginobili’s career lies on the thin line separating consistency with constant change, his career can be defined by both. The Spurs were able to remain so consistent in the win column because they embraced the nature of the league’s fluctuating philosophies. The Spurs often ran counter to the direction the league was heading only to master those very changes in ways that innovating franchises could only imagine. The 2003 Spurs compared to the 2014 title run is the apotheosis of this dichotomy, and Ginobili’s willingness to transform his role was one of the driving forces behind the Spurs success over the past two decades.
On the flip side, Ginobili has been able to make slight adjustments to his game, but he’s never lost who he really is a the core of his hoops identity. You don’t have to peel back multiple layers to understand Ginobili’s soul. When his heart is at its purest, his is a showman, and his desire to entertain always ran counter to the idea of who the Spurs were at their core, but was more in line with the team’s reality than we were ever willing to give them credit for.
There is a level of drama in the stoicism passed down from Duncan through Kawhi Leonard that is frustratingly way more entertaining than it should be. Even LaMarcus Aldridge is able to effortlessly adopt the archetype as he plays in San Antonio. Duncan’s expressionless persona in any given situation is as hilarious as Leonard’s unwillingness to smile. The idea of robots are fun until they decide to take over the world, and the Spurs have done just that and we really haven’t talked about how fun their perceived lack of personality really is.
Ginobili has always been that change of pace, and watching the Spurs has always been about waiting for the pace to change. The number of ways Ginobili learned to score is only overshadowed by the number of ways he was able to put his unique stamp on a Spursian culture that was seemingly instituted from the top down. His euro step, his step back jumper, his willingness to play at the rim in his younger years have all given credence to the idea that the Spurs were way more fun to watch than almost any other franchise over the last decade.
But it’s Ginobili’s vision that separates him from his positional peers. He wasn’t the only great passer who was a natural two, but shooting guards rarely cared about the aesthetics of their dimes in the way Ginobili did. There are multiple clips of Ginobili throwing passes between defenders legs and separate montages of passes that leave you wondering how the idea of the pass was even possible.
Ginobili doesn’t just make basketball fun, he makes it beautiful. He’s looked good in his 40th year of life, but there is no guarantee that we’ll see him in a basketball jersey for the entirety of his 41st year. It’s hard not to think about the end, but it becomes easier when we can inhibit these moments of brilliance, live in them, and capture them as our own until there aren’t any left. He’s going to move on from basketball, but the experience of watching him will last forever.
Phillip Barnett featuring Phillip Barnett.