After Game 4 of this year’s Western Conference finals, with the Spurs eliminated at the hands of the Death Star Warriors, a Spanish-speaking reporter asked Manu Ginobili how it felt to play in a game that could be his last. Fans had chanted his name, cheering him as he exited the floor, and afterward Gregg Popovich gave a glowing soliloquy about the 15-year vet. Ginobili responded with recognition and appreciation for the moment.
"Fue raro, pero muy lindo vivir."
"It was weird, but very wonderful to live."
It was a fitting, understated Manu-ism to describe his final game and punctuate his memorable career.
"You didn’t just retire in Spanish, did you?" an American media member asked. Manu laughed, shook his head, and said no.
Retiring wasn’t a certainty then, but the San Antonio fans’ desire to pay their respect back was a sign of how beloved he had become. Now they get one more year (at least?) to cheer him on. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Manu will return for a 16th season in San Antonio.
In 10 days, Ginobili will turn 40 years old, joining 25 other players in NBA history to play the game at that age. The Argentine is delaying his inevitable entrance into the Hall of Fame by a year, and both basketball fans and the Spurs are that much better for it.
"I felt more energetic, more needed, more useful to the team," Ginobili said after that game. "I do feel like I can still play."
It’s easy to look at Manu and think he’s washed. Statistically, he had his worst shooting year of his career last season. It represented his lowest scoring output ever, and his lowest assist- and rebound-per-game numbers since his rookie year. Yet part of what has made Manu such a legendary figure among the basketball community is his ability to transcend the stat sheet. He makes the intangible feel and look easy in his own graceful way. He thrives off his instinctive passing and his effort, which is seemingly never-ending despite his long, successful career.
On a team that prioritizes culture, Manu’s position is paramount. He provides not only continuity, but also certainty; he’s a known quantity who can lead if not always win you a game.
This offseason, the Spurs struggled to make a franchise-altering move. It’s fair to ask if they even wanted to. After all, their struggles against the Warriors began only when Kawhi Leonard went out with injury; they were up by 20 points in Game 1 before he left. There might be full faith in running it back and adding only Rudy Gay and hoping that LaMarcus Aldridge improves. Yet losing out on Jonathon Simmons to the Magic and Dewayne Dedmon to the Hawks may create stress points in their lineups, which didn’t have many last season. Ginobili has at least the potential to alleviate some of that. He works within the system as a product of it and not in spite of it. After Duncan retired, he became Pop’s guy who was there from the start. All of those factors work in his favor, even if his age doesn’t.
Of course, Ginobili could play next season without having much impact. He could continue to flame out gracefully because it’s the only way he would ever do such a thing. Many observers have incorrectly doubted the Spurs as a whole, but I’m not ready to doubt Ginobili. Not yet. Continuity has its value.