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Manu Forever: Reflecting on the Retirement of a Legend

Nobody who has ever worn a San Antonio jersey has ever been more beloved than Ginobili, an unassailable cultural figure

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There will be a longer, more thorough piece on Manu Ginobili here in the future. But for right now, on the day he’s announced his retirement from the NBA, a tiny story:

A few weeks after the Spurs lost the 2013 Finals to the Miami Heat, I found myself in San Antonio tending to some family business. It was a semiserious thing that nobody was happy to be dealing with, and so one night, as a way to ease some of the pressure, my father decided to host a barbecue. He sent a group text to the heads of each of the extended families that frequent such events, letting them know that a barbecue would be taking place the next evening in his backyard. That next evening my mom, two of my three sisters, several of my uncles, one of my aunts, and an uncountable number of young and old cousins gathered together to sit in weathered outdoor chairs and eat barbecue and be around one another.

It was a nice night and a good night and exactly the kind of night everyone needed. And there were a lot of different conversations that happened on that patio, but one of them all of a sudden feels especially relevant.

Late in the evening — this was a couple hours after everyone had eaten and only the adults were still sitting outside — someone brought up the manner in which the Spurs had lost to the Heat. It was just a tiny comment (something like “Man, Game 6 sucked so bad”), and it was a conversation that had already taken place among the same people several times since the end of the playoffs, but it turned into a big thing.

There was lots of yelling and commiserating and hand-wringing and SMH-ing and so forth. And I very clearly remember one of my uncles talking about Manu Ginobili at length to anyone who would listen (and also to several people who wouldn’t), saying many, many, many unflattering things, the gist being how poorly Manu had played in that postseason and how he “single-handedly cost the Spurs the championship.”

I bucked back at the idea out of instinct (I said something close to “Saying Manu ‘single-handedly cost the Spurs the championship’ is an overestimation of the effects of Manu’s play,” to which a separate uncle replied, “Nobody thinks you’re smart here like they think you’re smart on the internet, so stop talking like that”), but the case against Manu was too overwhelming for me to sway the voting bloc back in Manu’s favor. He had, after all, put up the lowest playoff shooting percentage of his career in those opening rounds in 2013, and it somehow dipped even lower through Game 4 of the Finals. And sure, he was solid in Game 5 (24 points, 10 assists), but Game 6 was a total disaster. He was 2-of-5 from the field, missed a late-game free throw, and had a career-high eight turnovers, any one of which could’ve swung the game away from the Heat and toward the Spurs had he not turned it over. It was, and would go on to remain, the worst all-caps IMPORTANT GAME of his … ever, basically. It was easily the lowest, most devastating, most crushing moment of his basketball life in San Antonio, beating out when Derek Fisher hit the 0.4 shot over him in 2004 (this was 0 percent his fault) and when he fouled Dirk for an and-1 at the end of Game 7 during that brilliant Mavs-Spurs Western Conference semifinals series in 2006 (this was 100 percent his fault).

But so everyone was fussing about Manu and saying this and saying that and pointing out how bad he looked and yelling about how much he hurt the team (“DANNY GREEN WAS PLAYING LIKE AN MVP AND MANU COULDN’T MAKE A LAYUP?!”) and blah blah blah. And it was all very bad and very negative. And so finally, after what felt like six hours of talking but was probably somewhere nearer to 10 minutes, one of the younger cousins asked, “Do you think the Spurs can get anything good for him when they try to trade him this summer?” And the first uncle, the very vocal leader of the Anti-Manu Coalition that had formed in the backyard, looked at him. He looked as dead at him as anyone has ever looked dead at someone. And he said — and I will never forget this — he said: “You can’t fucking trade Manu Ginobili. He’s Manu Ginobili!” Then he took a big breath. Then he yelled, “HE’S MANU GINOBILI!”

And if we’re trying to figure out ways to explain how much Manu means to San Antonio, and has meant to San Antonio, and where he sits in San Antonio’s heart, that, I think, is maybe the purest representation of the type of relationship the city has with him.

He is, in all ways and in every way, beloved in San Antonio: an untouchable, unimpeachable, unassailable cultural figure. Nobody who has ever worn a Spurs jersey has ever been more beloved than Manu Ginobili. (Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were also both supremely beloved, but Tim, a savant so gifted that he always existed above the fray, was a basketball god we worshipped from afar, and Tony, the little brother of the trio, always seemed just out of reach.) Even in Manu’s extra-worst moment, and even after having been deemed the reason his team lost the most coveted thing in professional basketball, the idea of trading him was simply too outlandish, too dumb, too inconceivable to tolerate for even one second. That’s Manu in San Antonio. That’s San Antonio with Manu.

And of course what ended up being so beautiful about the whole thing is that not only did the Spurs not trade him, but they won the title the next year, with Manu providing the signature play of the series (the dunk on Bosh) and also what symbolically became the title-securing 3 (the one that he hit at the end of their big third-quarter run, after which Mike Breen shouted, “What an avalanche from San Antonio! A 21-point lead!”). It was great and an exactly perfect arrangement by the universe.

Manu has retired. But Manu is forever.