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A Story About Manu

San Antonio’s first-round elimination could spell the end of Ginobili’s storied tenure on the team. But whether he stays or goes, it’s worth reflecting on his impact on the league—and one die-hard Spurs fan.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is a short anecdote about one of my sons, but really it’s about Manu Ginobili, but really it’s about what Manu Ginobili means, and has meant, and can mean.

There is a video somewhere, and I can’t say with certainty whether it’s way down in my Facebook history or if it’s on an old phone in a messy drawer in my house or maybe it’s on an old laptop or an even older desktop. I’m not sure. But I know there’s a video, and it’s SOMEWHERE, and it’s of my youngest son playing basketball on one of those Little Tikes basketball goals.

In my memory, his arms are short and fat and his legs are short and fat and his torso is short and fat and his head is big and fat, so he can’t be more than, I think, 3 years old in the video. He’s playing basketball (or, more specifically, he’s picking up a ball and then walking to the forehead-high rim and then dropping the ball into it, which is how tiny children “play” basketball), and every time he puts the ball in the rim he shouts, “MANU!” It’s a cute thing and a charming thing, and if I’m remembering it correctly, he’s also wearing a Spurs T-shirt, which makes it an on-brand thing for him, too.

The reason that I’m bringing this up right now is that he (obviously) didn’t teach himself to shout “Manu!,” same as he didn’t buy that T-shirt for himself. I taught him to do it. (I bought him the shirt, as well.) I made it a specific point to make sure he did exactly that. I was watching him put the ball in the rim over and over and over again, and as I was watching him, I said something to myself close to, “It’d be really great if he was shouting ‘Manu!’ each time he did that,” and so I got his attention and told him to do it and showed him how to do it and then he started doing it. I felt compelled to do so because—and anyone who has watched basketball for a long time and has played basketball for a short amount of time will recognize this—I felt compelled to do so because when I was in middle school (and all the way up through literally right now, today, 2018) I would shout an NBA player’s name occasionally when I’d shoot a jumper.

For me, back starting around the seventh grade, it was “Reggie!” that I shouted, which I of course did as a way to honor Reggie Miller, the first basketball player I ever loved. There were other names that snuck their way into the rotation for various periods of time—there was a “Van Exel!” phase, and a “Peja!” phase, and even, very briefly, a “Steve Nash!” phase—but, as a ritual, it always eventually wiggled its way back to “Reggie!”

When I saw my son playing on the Tikes goal that day, I viewed it as a teachable moment. “Now is the time to begin to train this boy,” I probably said to myself in a way-too-serious voice, because young dads always think they’re starring in a movie about fatherhood. And listen, what I’m about to write out right now is no great revelation, and honestly I’m even a little bit embarrassed that I have to include it in this text because it’s very much a cliché and an obvious thing and clichéd and obvious things are what you look to avoid when writing, but it has to be said to help really give context to the larger point:

I love my son. A lot. A great, great deal. A tremendous amount. I care about the things he sees and feels and experiences and eats and understands and everything. All of it. Every single part of every single piece. And so, in that very tender father-son moment, and in that very sacred father-son space, when I was talking to him and uploading information to him and he was looking at me with his giant toddler eyes and just 100 percent believing everything that I was saying to him and expressing to him, me choosing to say Manu Ginobili’s name to him was no mistake or impromptu decision.

There are a bunch of Basketball-Reference numbers that I can set into a paragraph or bulleted list right now to help convey the magnitude of Manu Ginobili as an impactful and influential basketball player. For example, did you know that Manu has scored more points than any other left-handed player in postseason history? It’s a weird thing, but also a true thing. He’s up to 3,054 points. Second place is Bill Russell, and he’s nearly 400 points behind Manu (2,673). Third is David Robinson (2,221). And fourth is Derek Fisher (2,146). Or here’s another thing: Of all of the players to ever play 300 or more games in the league, only seven have ever averaged 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists per 36 minutes while maintaining a true shooting percentage of 55 percent or better. And I know that’s a lot of data and a lot of qualifiers and so it’s easy to wash over it, but just know that the other names on the list with Manu are Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, LeBron James, and James Harden, which means it’s very impressive.

Here’s a good one: Manu has the best plus-minus per 100 possessions of anyone who’s played at least 20,000 minutes since 2000. Literally the best of everyone these past 18 years. Or another: He’s one of only two players ever to win a European title, an NBA title, and an Olympic gold medal (Bill Bradley is the other). Or how about this: If you take all of the most successful duos that have ever played in the playoffs together and arranged them by number of wins, Manu has two of the top three spots. (He and Tony Parker have won 132 playoff games together. They’re first. He and Tim Duncan won 126. They’re third.) (For context: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have 117.) It just goes on and on like that.

But there’s never really been a time when someone was talking about how great Manu is and felt compelled to bring up stats. He’s just not one of those types of players. His basketball essence has always felt more cosmic; more mystical; more indescribable; more enchanted; always threaded into a move he did, or a pass he tried, or a shot he took. You wouldn’t describe him with numbers for the same reasons you don’t describe how beautiful a painting is or how magnificent a song is with numbers.

(The best, most complete, most encapsulating quote about Manu came from Gregg Popovich. He said it during the NBA TV special Champions Revealed: 2014 San Antonio Spurs, which aired a couple of months after the Spurs won the 2014 title. The whole show was just Pop, Manu, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan all sitting around in a half-circle talking about all of the things they’d been through together. While going over having to learn how to coach Manu and live life with Manu as a part of it, Pop, talking to Tony and Tim, said, “At some point, in that first year, or two years, or third year, whatever it might have been, I said, ‘Why do you do that? Why? What are you … what are you … ?’ He goes, ‘I am Manu. This is what I do.’ And from that day on we pretty much let him do what he does.” That’s Manu. He’s just … Manu. His name carries its own implied definition, and its own implied magic.)

And of course, all of this is important right now because the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday, meaning the basketball universe is grappling with the idea of an NBA that no longer includes Manu Ginobili. The same thing happened last year too, after the Warriors swept the Spurs out of the Western Conference finals. They were getting beat by more than enough and there was a little more than two minutes left in the game and they were playing in San Antonio and everyone understood it might be his last game ever as a Spur and the stadium was chanting “Ma-nu! Ma-nu! Ma-nu!” and it was wonderful, and powerful, and telling, and here we are again, wondering those same thoughts, and navigating those same feelings.

But so: Me telling my son to shout “Manu!” when he was playing on his little goal is no different from me telling him, “Hey, be like Manu when you play basketball,” and me telling him, “Hey, be like Manu when you play basketball,” is no different from me telling him, “Hey, be like Manu as a person.” It’s the highest, biggest, most intense compliment, and a parent saying it to his or her small child is the highest, biggest, most intense way to give it.

If Manu decides to retire, it’ll be fine. If Manu decides to come back for another season, it’ll be fine (and also better, please God). Either way, he’s given us what we’ve needed.