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Manu Ginobili Colored Outside the Lines

The Spurs legend is heading into the Hall of Fame due to his savant-like skills and on-court selflessness.

There’s a story that Bruce Bowen, one of the best defenders in his era and a beloved ex-Spur swingman, enjoys telling to explain the impact of former teammate Manu Ginóbili.

The year was 2012, and Bowen was in London to watch the Summer Olympics. As he was walking through the historic city with Carl Lewis, who held nine Olympic gold medals and stood as the most decorated American track star of all time, a slew of sports fans in the area with heavy accents ran over to request photos with the men.

But of the 50 people who approached Bowen and Lewis, surprisingly only five seemed interested in being photographed with Lewis. The other 45 or so wanted pictures with Bowen. “I looked at Carl and laughed, telling him I could get back to him in a second,” Bowen recalls with a laugh. But the reality was, these were all people who basically knew me and wanted a picture with me because they’d spent so much time watching and adoring Manu play basketball.”

Ginóbili, an Argentinian who won MVP in the EuroLeague and eventually led his home country over the U.S. en route to a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday in Springfield, Mass. But in perhaps the greatest nod to his play as an NBA star, he will become the first foreign player to make the Hall through the North American committee, meaning his play in the NBA—as opposed to his international contributions—was enough to merit inclusion on its own. (Ginóbili pointed out Thursday that a handful of others—Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and longtime teammate Tony Parker—are surely on the way.)

On the surface, it might seem odd the now 45-year-old Ginóbili, someone who averaged just 13.3 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds over his NBA career, will receive that distinction. Yet Ginóbili was so much more than the sum of his stats in San Antonio.

Early on, Ginóbili—the 57th pick in a 58-player draft back in 1999—was almost more than the Spurs bargained for when he finally joined the team three years later. San Antonio, which boasted all-time greats in big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson, was arguably the most buttoned-up team in the league. The Spurs were also coached by Gregg Popovich, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a man who wasn’t into the idea of coloring outside the lines.

In that sense, Ginóbili was both a six-year-old and a savant: someone who often went outside the lines—and made occasional mistakes by taking ill-timed risks—but often had a tendency to make it look beautiful when he did things differently.

“I don’t wanna say he drove Pop out of his mind, but I’m sure there were times he did. I mean, there are those times when he takes a wild chance at the most inopportune time, and you’d wanna trade him or kill him,” says P.J. Carlesimo, who began a five-year, three-title run as a San Antonio assistant in 2002, the same year Ginóbili began his career with the Spurs. “But Pop also gave him more rope than just about anybody else would have, and certainly 100 times more than I would’ve given him. And it usually paid off, which shows in how many games [the Spurs] won with him.”

It was nearly impossible for Popovich, Carlesimo, or anyone, really, to stay frustrated with Ginóbili. He played with a motor that never stopped, one that kept his once-long hair flopping as he sped up and down the court.


Even as his hair thinned considerably over the 16 years he spent in the NBA, Ginóbili’s intensity and competitive spirit remained. “And his mind matched how hard his body worked,” recalls Joe Prunty, a longtime Spurs assistant coach who’s now with the Hawks. “You were just amazed at all the things he saw and all the things he could make happen.”

Prunty spoke of Ginóbili’s ingenuity and improvisation, outlining how much offense it created for the Spurs over the years. “He had this play with Tony that every two or three games would yield us a backdoor basket like clockwork,” Prunty says. “And it wasn’t even a play call, per se. It was just those two guys being able to read the defense and having so many counters to where defenses really couldn’t stop them when they ran it.”

The same was often true of Ginóbili’s Eurostep, which is perhaps what he’ll be remembered for most on an individual scale. While Ginóbili is quick to acknowledge he didn’t invent the move—Šarūnas Marčiulionis is widely credited for bringing it to the NBA—he undoubtedly popularized it in a league that now showcases the smooth, long lateral step toward the basket several times per game these days.

“I couldn’t exactly explain [how to do a Eurostep],” Ginóbili told reporters Thursday, ahead of his induction. “Some of the basics of it, yes. But it was super natural; it was super instinctive.”

The lovable lefty, one of the first guards in the NBA to marry both a high free-throw rate and a high three-point attempt rate, had an unmistakable quirkiness to him on and off the court.

On it, opponents—Kobe Bryant included—said they could never quite pin down how to defend the two-time All-Star, that he played off-rhythm, changing speeds and directions in a way that almost made no sense. Teammates say Ginóbili got endless enjoyment out of pulling small-time pranks on the bench, leaving paper cups on players’ chairs just before they’d sit down.

Aside from Ginóbili being able to talk directly to the team’s legion of Spanish-speaking fans in Texas, Spurs supporters—some of whom went as far as to get Ginóbili’s face sprayed onto the back of their heads by local barbers—readily recall he played the role of Batman on Halloween back in 2009. That night, Ginóbili swatted down a bat that was flying through AT&T Center before picking up the animal and handing it off so San Antonio’s game could continue. (Bats flying through the venue is a common problem at the arena, which sits between a pair of the world’s largest bat colonies and the bats’ migration path to Mexico.)

Above all else, though, Ginóbili put aside his ego to play the role that was asked of him in San Antonio. Despite having the skill and talent and accolades abroad to be a starter, when Popovich decided he wanted Ginóbili to serve primarily as a sixth man, he accepted that role and made something of it by being an ace with second units and finishing games instead.

In a way, his on-court selflessness was reminiscent of something Popovich often refers to with Duncan, who’s widely considered to be the best power forward of all time. Duncan had no problem letting Popovich coach him hard at times—something that, almost by definition, forced the rest of the Spurs players to accept being coached since Duncan, a two-time league MVP, himself was willing to accept it.

The trio of Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker won 575 regular-season games together—more than any other trio in league history—and took four NBA titles, in 2003, ’05, ’07 and ’14. And in that last title run, in particular, Ginóbili redeemed himself after having a brutal Game 6 in the ’13 NBA Finals, a contest in which the Spurs could have won the championship over the Heat if not for Ray Allen’s historic triple late to shift the momentum in the series.

Ginóbili uncharacteristically had a game-high eight turnovers that night in Miami, and the following day had an hourslong conversation with Bowen about how unbelievably close the Spurs had gotten to winning the whole thing. Then the Heat took the deciding Game 7, too, flushing what had been a golden title opportunity for San Antonio, particularly for Ginóbili and Duncan, who were 35 and 37, respectively.

“Of course it was devastating for him,” says Bowen, adding that Ginóbili is like a brother to him. “But he understood that the only redemption he could get at that point was to come back a little more determined the next year. And then you saw what happened.”

The result was a rematch with the Heat in the 2014 Finals, which the Spurs dominated in five games. In the close-out showing, Ginóbili looked 10 years younger than he actually was, including a memorable sequence in which he drove through the lane and threw down a dunk in traffic over Chris Bosh, then one play later hit a triple during an enormous San Antonio run.

Between the unpredictability of the throwdown and the fact that it would help the Spurs to yet another championship, the clinching performance that year was quintessential Ginóbili.

“He just seemed to have no fear, and would do whatever it might be that he needed to do to win,” Popovich said ahead of Ginóbili’s induction. “He was a force of nature.”

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