On Monday morning, I received an ESPN notification that I had been preparing myself for years. I poked my phone out of my pocket so I could read that after 16 years in the NBA, Manu Ginobili had announced his retirement. I sat back in my office chair and took a deep sigh and went back to work. After the 2013 Finals loss to the Heat, I thought Ginobili was done. It was the first time I noticed that he had lost a step and as great as he was in Game 5, I thought he was running on empty and wouldn’t be able to maintain it for another year. I wanted to see him retire, because I didn’t want to see him washed up. Five years later, it feels strange to imagine any version of Manu that is washed up.
I declared myself a Spurs fan after the 1995 conference finals when the Spurs lost to the Rockets. It was the first major sports event that really had an effect on me and whether I knew it then or not, this team became a part of me that year. Two years later, the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan and he immediately became my favorite player. Two years after that the Spurs won their first championship and later that year drafted some dude from Argentina who I immediately forgot about.
Somewhere in the midst of the Lakers 3-peat at the turn of the century, I lost interest in basketball. I’d watch the playoffs and major games, but I wasn’t as into it as I had been during that 1999 season. It wasn’t until Ginobili started lighting up the floor with his creative passes, unorthodox Euro step, and outright gameplay ability that I started taking notice again. He was so fun to watch and continued to be fun to watch right until his coup de’ grace in Game 4 of Golden State’s Gentleman’s Sweep of the Spurs this past season. We knew we were outmatched, we knew that they had more talent and we knew we were going to lose the series, but in that game, Ginobili wasn’t going to potentially end his career by being swept and I (and all of San Antonio) love him for that.
Before Tim Duncan retired, Shea Serrano wrote a piece wherein he mentioned he was glad he didn’t retire after winning the championship in 2014. Sure it was nice that The Admiral got to ride his career off into the sunset after the 2003 championship, but Shea contended that he liked to see his favorite players go out like Leonidas in 300, taking a million arrows to the heart and leaving everything out on the court. Timmy did just that in the Game 6 loss to OKC in the Western Semi-Finals in 2016. I cried when I watched him walk off the court, because I knew that was the last time I’d see him playing in a Spurs uniform. That’s how I felt when I saw Manu pour his heart and soul in Game 4. I told all my friends that I thought he’d do one more year, but I knew at the end of that game that this was his final opus.
My favorite Manu moments are probably very similar to any other Spurs fan’s list. My all time favorite is his poster on Chris Bosh in Game 5 of the 2014 finals. It’s been the background on my Facebook page since the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs this year and is one of my all time favorite dunks (alongside Kawhi’s put back dunk that same series). My second favorite has been mentioned quite a few times in the 24 hours following his retirement announcement: Game 1 of Western Semi Finals in 2013 against a much less experienced Golden State team on the rise.
The Spurs were a mess that game, falling behind by 18 points in the second half. I was watching the game at 54th Street Bar and Grill with one of my oldest friends fresh out of the Navy. The Spurs were still down 16 with less than five minutes remaining. We were both tired and weren’t sure if we wanted to stay until the end just to watch the Warriors celebrate. My buddy tells me okay if we don’t cut the lead to single digits by the two minute mark, let’s just go. I agreed. He also said that if the Spurs come back, he’d go streaking and I just laughed.
We watched as our Spurs clawed their way back making it a game and by the time two minutes came around we were so hyped, even if the lead hadn’t been cut to single digits, we wouldn’t have noticed. This energy gave us a second wind and we stayed glued to our seats as the first overtime passed. The restaurant had already closed, but they let us all stay and watch the game. As the second overtime entered its final minute, we felt a lot more confident that the Spurs were going to pull it off. Ginobili said nah let’s make this more suspenseful and took an unnecessary three-pointer with a lot of time left on the clock. I remember some dude at the bar yelling “SHOOT IT” right before he shot it and everybody in the bar looking at him in disgust when the Warriors got the rebound and immediately scored. Some old dudes in the corner of the bar yelled “ay pinche pendejo!” and my buddy and I were too stunned to react.
The Warriors scored again taking the lead. We all looked at each other in horror. Did we really stay out for this kind of heartbreak? Ginobili drove up again. Still upset with him, we all yelled for him to pass it. Ginobili said “Nah, I got this” and drained a game winning three with seconds left. It was that rollercoaster ride of emotions that defines Ginobili. He could be frustrating at times, but he never failed to turn that frustration into the utmost joy you could ever experience watching a professional basketball game. There’d be moments where he’d make an idiotic turnover then turn around and get the block on the other end to compensate. You would curse at him and declare he was having your babies all in the same breath. That night we went from some old dudes calling him a pendejo to my buddy streaking down my neighborhood yelling GINNNNOOOOBIIIILLIIIIII!
It took minutes of reading tweets from NBA players around the league paying tribute to him on Monday to reduce me to a teary-eyed mess. I had been preparing myself for this moment for five years and I knew this was it and yet saying goodbye was harder than I ever thought possible. There are so many moments I’m going to miss. Whether it be watching a live game and having to replay to see how he made the ball do what it just did – nobody nutmegs opposing players like Manu, NOBODY! – or him breakaway and throw his body into a sporadic monster dunk that leaves the defender shaken from being disrespected by a 40-year-old man, or even the bat, it’s amazing how much more fun being a Spurs fan was while he was a Spur.