Irrepressible Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, whose grit, passion and competitive ferocity inspired his teammates and earned a special place in the hearts of NBA fans around the world, has played his last game with the Spurs.
Ginobili announced his retirement Monday via Twitter, ending a 16-year career with the Spurs, the only NBA team he played for after becoming a star in European basketball. He had one year left on a contract that would have paid him $2.5 million for the 2018-19 season.
Ginobili’s announcement comes five days after Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported on Aug. 22 that Ginobili was “seriously considering” retirement, and planned to meet with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Ginobili, who turned 41 on July 28, was the second-oldest active player in the NBA last season. He had considered retiring after each of the past three seasons, but his love for the game extended his career far longer than he thought he would play when he joined the Spurs as a 25-year-old rookie in 2002.
A lock for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Ginobili won four NBA championships with the Silver and Black. He was a two-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA pick, and he was named Sixth Man of the Year once. He came off the bench throughout most of his NBA career.
Ginobili, a native of Argentina, is one of only two players who have won an NBA title, an Olympic gold medal and a Euroleague championship. The other is Bill Bradley.
Ginobili averaged 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 25.4 minutes during a career that spanned 1,057 games. He played in five NBA Finals with San Antonio.
Even in the twilight of his career, Ginobili’s impact on the Spurs’ success was undeniable. His contributions on both ends of the court transcended stats. Popovich missed the team’s last three playoff games in April after his wife died, so he wasn’t on the bench for Ginobili’s finale.
With the Spurs down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals the previous season, and speculation running high that Ginobili might retire then, Popovich reflected on his stellar career.
“He’s a special player, special human being,” Popovich said. “I’ve probably said it many, many times before. He’s one of those guys who becomes the heart and soul of your team because of his exemplary competitiveness. He’s really an anomaly in that regard.
“He has that same foot-on-your-neck attitude that Kobe (Bryant) and Michael (Jordan) had, those types of guys. Magic (Johnson) and Larry (Bird). He’s got the same attitude and plays with that same fire. He always has. He’s been a huge part of any success that we’ve had.”
A fearless playmaker whose serpentine drives to the basket befuddled opponents right to the end of his career, Ginobili could affect a game with a timely assist, three-pointer or steal. His staying power became the stuff of legends.
“Ginobili, he’ll be trying to drive it to the basket when he is in his casket,” New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said after a game against the Spurs in March. “That’s just who he is. I don’t know if there has been another guy in this league that’s more competitive than he is.”
Popovich, who joked during the 2016-17 season that he never was going to let Ginobili retire, marveled after Ginobili came off the bench to score 21 points in a 103-89 victory against Phoenix in January.
“He’s something else,” Popovich said. “Whatever he’s drinking, I want some of that. I’m serious. There’s got to be a fountain of youth someplace.”
In scoring 21 points against the Suns, Ginobili became the first player in NBA history to score 20+ points in less than 20 minutes at age 40 or older.
Ginobili had a season-high 26 points in a one-point loss in Portland two nights later, hitting 6 of 9 three-pointers. He was the first player in NBA history to score 20+ points off the bench in back-to-back games at age 40 or older, and the first NBA player age 40+ to score 25+ points with at least six three-pointers. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan scored more points in a game at 40 or older than Ginobili.
After Ginobili scored 10 of his 16 points in the final six minutes to spark the Spurs to a 103-90 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series in April, teammate Pau Gasol was asked where he thought Ginobili got his energy from so late in his career.
“His heart,” Gasol said. “Either you have it or you don’t. Players like Manu, they bring the competitiveness, the edge, the spirit, the pride. That’s something he’s had all his career. That’s something that he still brings to the table every single second he’s out there. It’s nothing new.
“It’s remarkable that he continues to have that passion and competitive edge at this point of his career. I think it’s something to commend him for, something to be proud of as a team, as a teammate, as a fan of this team. That’s Manu.”
All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge also praised Ginobili after that Game 4 victory.
“Manu is Manu,” Aldridge said. “He is the ultimate competitor. As I’ve said, he makes things happen. He has no quit in him and he definitely made some big shots tonight and some big plays.”
That game turned out to be the last of Ginobili’s career and his final appearance as a player at the AT&T Center, which became the Spurs’ new home his rookie year.
Ginobili’s charisma and affable nature made him a fan favorite and an exemplary ambassador for the NBA. Fans from Argentina, where Ginobili is one of the most popular athletes in the country’s history, often made the pilgrimage to San Antonio to cheer him on. But Ginobili’s popularity extended beyond Argentina and San Antonio.
It was not unusual to see fans from other countries holding homemade signs supporting Ginobili during games at the AT&T Center. Ginobili also had a loyal following when the Spurs played on the road, with fans proudly wearing No. 20 jerseys as they cheered on their favorite player.
Ginobili always accommodated his fans, going out on the court before warming up to sign autographs and pose for photos.
A consummate team player, Ginobili was a leader on and off the court and earned the respect and admiration of players and coaches throughout the league.
After the Warriors eliminated the Spurs with a win in Game 5, Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Ginobili, who were teammates in San Antonio for one season, shared a special moment on the court. Kerr encouraged Ginobili to continue playing, comparing him to 36-year-old tennis star Roger Federer.
“Keep going, OK?” Kerr said as he embraced Ginobili. “Why not? We met Roger Federer this year in China. I said, ‘Why do you keep playing?’ He said, ‘I love it.’ If you love it, keep going. What the hell. You remind me of him.”
The Spurs selected Ginobili late in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft with the 57th overall pick, but he didn’t join the team until three years later. Ginobili began his pro career at 19 and played seven seasons in Argentina and Italy before joining the Silver and Black. The Spurs won their second title in his rookie season (2002-2003).
Ginobili quickly became a fan favorite with his passion, hustle and ability to make big plays at key moments in games. That he is Hispanic and embraces his heritage made him a perfect fit in San Antonio.
Always humble, Ginobili shrugged his shoulders when he was asked during the series with Golden State what he thought made him so popular with fans.
“I don’t know,” Ginobili said, smiling. “All I know is it’s been a long time, 16 years, and I was welcomed from day one. I guess from my Latin background, speaking Spanish, and playing in kind of a different way than the way they were used to, and we created a very cool and rewarding bond.
“And it’s been growing consistently, so it’s mutual. I guess we both appreciate each other, me playing in front of them in this arena and them seeing me and us playing consistently with the same jersey and all that. I think it’s meaningful for the people and the players, so it’s been both ways.”
Ginobili was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award after the 2007-2008 season. He made the All-NBA Third Team in 2008 and 2011, and was an All-Star in 2005 and 2011.
“He’s just the ultimate competitor,” said Danny Green, his Spurs teammate for a number of years before being traded to Toronto this offseason. “Doesn’t need any coaching. He’s the type of guy who coaches himself and has intensity. That’s one thing you don’t need to tell Manu to do, and that’s bring intensity, or bring intensity, bring juice or passion.
“He might make a turnover here or there or shoot a wild shot that Pop might not like, but you don’t have to teach him or coach him to be intense or into the game. That’s one thing he brings night in and night out, regardless of how old he is.”
Ginobili is the last of the Big Three to ride into the sunset. Point guard Tony Parker, who played 17 seasons with the Spurs, became a free agent after the season and signed a deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Tim Duncan, the only player to suit up for all five of the franchise’s championship teams, retired after the 2015-16 season.
Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili won 575 regular-season games as teammates, ranking them No. 1 in NBA history for most victories by a trio.
Parker and Ginobili won 132 playoff games in their 16 seasons as teammates, more than any other tandem in league history.
Ginobili ended his career as the NBA’s all-time leader as a reserve in points, rebounds, assists, steals, three-pointers, field goals and free throws. Until this postseason, no player age 40 or older in NBA history had scored double figures off the bench in a playoff game. Ginobili did it three times. He also became the first player in league history to score 2,000 points in the playoffs as a reserve.