In my years of watching basketball, no player has ever surprised me as much, or as often, as Manu Ginóbili. Among the whole remembered reel of leg-threading bounce passes, teleporting dribble moves, and life-and-limb-indifferent drives to the rim, the Manu moment that most sticks in my mind came during his last title run with the San Antonio Spurs, in 2014.
The aging Spurs were up against the Miami Heat, fresh off of two championships of their own (the most recent won in 2013’s seven-game heartbreaker between those same two teams), with the best player of his and most generations, LeBron James, in full flight. But by the fifth game, San Antonio had built a 3–1 lead, and in the second quarter Ginóbili gave the series its capstone. He crossed the half-court stripe and spotted a crease. He revved into the lane. At 36 years old, with a widening bald spot lending his head a saintly aspect, Ginóbili summoned what spring was left in his legs, leapt from the floor, and hammered a left-handed dunk past the outspread palm of Chris Bosh, five inches taller than Ginóbili and six years his junior. Forty seconds later, Ginóbili had the ball again, and he dipped a shoulder and shuttled his sneakers backward like a beetle before swishing a three-pointer. In the span of a minute, he’d bent space and turned back time.
This weekend, Ginóbili will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor less meaningful on its own—the vote in his favor was a formality—than as an occasion for remembering what led to it. He’ll join a club composed overwhelmingly of members with gaudier statistics than his, with his scoring average of just over thirteen points per game tamped down in service of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s conviction that a title-worthy team needed an ace up its sleeve who would open each game on the bench.
The lack of neon-lit numbers befits a player whose influence was stranger and subtler than what a scoresheet can capture. Over Ginóbili’s sixteen seasons in San Antonio, the Spurs operated less like a basketball team in the conventional sense than like a single organic structure. Popovich was the brain, the totemic big man Tim Duncan the heart. But for it to succeed, to the tune of four championships across a dozen years, it needed someone who could not only master a regimen but disregard it. Sportswriters have a few words for this element, when it’s given to lesser teams by lesser players: verve, magic, spark. What Ginóbili offered was something like a soul.
When the Spurs selected Ginóbili with the second-to-last pick of the 1999 NBA draft, the Argentine lefty entered a league that didn’t expect, or think, much of him. The NBA of the early aughts held players reared outside the United States in general contempt and deemed them useful for one of two purposes: to knock down standstill jumpers (at which they were acknowledged to have a kind of wimpy proficiency) or, by failing to import the success they’d had in various European leagues, to affirm Americans’ place atop the sport. In 2002, after finishing out his contract with a team in Italy, Ginóbili touched down in Texas, a six-foot-six-inch beanpole with wide eyes, a sweep of jet-black hair, and—the first intimation of something heartier—a jaw that clamped his teeth into a mid-play snarl.
The Spurs had one championship to their credit, from 1999, won by way of what general manager R.C. Buford called “a very rigid program.” In his pre-coaching days, Popovich had served in the Air Force and been a candidate for the CIA; David Robinson, the franchise icon who by his late thirties had stepped back into a supporting role, had matriculated at the U.S. Naval Academy. “In the beginning, I’m trying to be Mr. Coach,” Popovich said in 2019 of Ginóbili’s arrival, “and he’s doing things that are, let’s say, a little too mustardy for me.”
Ginóbili spent the first stretch of his rookie season limping on an injured ankle and flubbing overelaborate maneuvers while Popovich rubbed his temples. Still, the coach felt a kinship with his new player. “We knew we had a wild, competitive young man who was in love with basketball and was quite athletic,” Popovich said earlier this year. “And just fierce—seemed to have no fear, and would do whatever it might be that he needed to do to win.”
That cliché—whatever it takes—almost always refers to an athlete’s fortitude, not his intellect. Conventional wisdom in American sports holds that one quality comes at the cost of the other; if you can think of how to scale the brick wall, you’re not tough enough to run through it. Ginóbili had both. From the start, his game rebuked the notion of international players’ meekness; he was forever crashing to the floor, swallowing an elbow, rubbing but refusing treatment for an aching muscle or ligament. (His practice exploits were funnier. Former Spur Michael Finley remembers one later session where Popovich piped James Brown through the gym speakers and Ginóbili, amped up by the music, exerted himself to the point of lightheadedness. After making sure his player was okay, Popovich laughed: “Everybody can’t handle this funk.”)
But once Ginóbili got accustomed to the patterns of the NBA, he proved adept at cutting back against them. In the last game of the 2003 finals his rookie year, with the Spurs trailing late and girding themselves for a defensive stand, Ginóbili timed the dribble of New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson, leapt out of position to pluck the ball loose, and raced downcourt for a dunk. It was the tensest moment of the season, and he turned into a cartoon rascal nicking a pie from a windowsill.
The dynamic held, as one of the NBA’s best-coached teams was first enlivened and then, increasingly, defined by one of its least coachable players. “His intelligence, his fearlessness, just allowed him to grow exponentially,” said Joe Prunty, an assistant coach who spent four seasons with the Spurs in the aughts. “Pop had this willingness to let him be, to let him make a mistake here and there. He knew one turnover was going to lead to ten more points.”
Though the Spurs never matched their rivals for glitz—their golden age overlapped first with Kobe Bryant’s and then with James’s—Ginóbili amounted to a one-man montage of mischief. He threw passes behind his head and against the full momentum of his sprinting body. His drives to the basket evolved into miniature epics: a scamper between two defenders, a shot faked against a third, a dip and hop-skip under some seven-footer’s armpit (the malaprop’ed and widely imitated “Euro step”) for a layup spun off the edge of the backboard. At his best, Ginóbili did not just complement the Spurs’ textbook but added chapters to it. Prunty remembers one of Popovich’s pet plays, which sent point guard Tony Parker slipping behind the defense to the rim and called on Ginóbili—always and only Ginóbili—to bounce a pass through whatever inches of space were available. “He could make the ball curve, he just had a special ability to control it,” Prunty marveled. “It would pop right into Tony’s hands.”
As titles mounted—2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014, with Ginobili pacing the Argentine national team to a historic 2004 Olympic gold medal in the interim—the Spurs’ reputation softened. Duncan remained their statistical lodestar, but the team at large came to play less like Duncan and more like Ginóbili, stocking up on international talent and adopting a style that seemed, at its whirring best, somehow neural. In four sublime seconds during one 2014 playoff game, the ball pinged midcourt-to-corner from Ginóbili to Duncan to Patty Mills to Boris Diaw—Argentina to the U.S. Virgin Islands to Australia to France—the last of whom drained a three-pointer while NBA Twitter started typing in tongues.
The approach demanded smarts and selflessness. On flights and at the Spurs’ wine-fueled team dinners, Ginóbili peppered his teammates with mathematical riddles and talked geopolitics with Popovich. At game time, he contented himself with coming off the bench, as more than a half-dozen shooting guards started ahead of him over the years, none of them his equal. “Once you get that ego thing out of the middle, I understood that was my role,” Ginóbili said. “That it was going to be better for the team.”
It makes all sorts of sense, on one level, that the Spurs became the organization that franchises around the league now seek to emulate, piling up trophies with neither major-market glamour nor the locker-room drama that often consumes modern “super teams.” But San Antonio’s run atop the league across the 2000s and 2010s has proved pretty much impossible to replicate elsewhere. Leaders like Duncan emerge once in a decade, if it’s a lucky decade; ditto an all-time-great coach like Popovich. Those close to the organization contend that Ginóbili was the truly sui generis piece. “He sacrificed for the club, to allow Pop to play him off the bench and create these incredible competitive advantages,” Buford told me. “As well as the passion, the flair. People look at the plays and see ‘flashy.’ Manu didn’t make those plays to be flashy; he made those plays because that’s how his imagination saw the game.” At Ginóbili’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2019, Popovich was direct: “Without Manu, there were no championships.”
Athletic geniuses tell you something about their approach to their game even when they aren’t playing it, with their stride into a stadium or the patterns of their speech. Ginóbili had iron nerves and an elastic mind. On Halloween night in 2009, a bat that had nested in the rafters of San Antonio’s AT&T Center flapped down and flew frantic circles above the court. Annoyed by the delay, or enlivened by the novelty, Ginóbili swatted it out of the air with his palm. He reached down, scooped the bat from the floor, and carried it over to an arena worker stationed on the sideline. The impromptu pest control was good for a laugh, but it also distilled something essential about Ginóbili’s stature, within the sport and on his team. What did he do for the Spurs? Whatever they needed, and whatever worked.