Today is Manu's birthday. He's 37-years-old now and we've been debating whether he should play for the national team or not because, against all odds, Manu is still an impact player at the highest level. Ginobili was always expected to have a short shelf life because of his reckless style. The many injuries he has sustained over the years have made him look done. Just a couple of seasons ago, as his contract was up and Manu had disappointed in the finals, even Spurs fans were saying maybe it was time for Manu to hang em up.
But Ginobili has been beating the odds his whole life.
This has been part of the Manu lore for a while and most Spurs fans reading this know it. But Manu was at one point shorter than most of his peers growing up in Bahia Blanca. He was super skinny as well. It was unclear whether he was going to have a career in basketball, as his older brothers did. Ginobili wasn't the best player in his home, let alone Argentina when he was a kid. We are not talking about a guy that seemed fated to make it.
But Manu persevered. Those weekly measurements in his kitchen marked his continuing growth. As a part of a basketball family he was surrounded by coaches who taught him how to dribble properly and his playground was the court of the neighborhood club. He started showing talent that was uncommon in Argentina at the time.
When he turned 18, he made the decision to become a pro, to the chagrin of his mother, who wanted his youngest to be something normal, like be an accountant. But Manu packed his bags and moved 850 miles away to live and play in La Rioja in a time when there was no such thing as Skype.
After wining Rookie of the Year, he made his way back to Bahia Blanca where his talent was apparent but his thin frame still presented question marks about his future.
The Argentine league was at its best then, with the old generation of players still relevant and the seeds of what would become the Golden Generation emerging. But for Argentine basketball to continue to grow, the young-uns needed to play against the best possible competition. The NBA was a distant dream back then. So one by one the talent emigrated to Europe.
Manu didn't land a role on a European giant. He played in the Italian second division for Reggio Calabria and was selected by the Spurs with the 57th pick in the draft almost as an after thought. After helping his team get to the first division, he made the jump to Bologna to play for Virtus, formerly Kinder. And that's when Manu made the leap.
Coached by Ettore Messina and surrounded by talented players like Marko Jaric and Antoine Rigaudeau, Ginobli led Kinder to two Italian Cup trophies, an Italian league championship and a Euroleague crown as the MVP in all but one Italian Cup win.
The NBA finally started to look like a real possibility but first he had to explode in the international stage by leading the Argentine national team to the highest place in FIBA basketball.
Argentina, with Manu leading the way, became the first team since the 72' Soviet Union to beat an American national team comprised by NBA players in Indianapolis in 2002. A heartbreaking loss to Serbia and Montenegro in the finals left a bad aftertaste but only increased the hunger of that team.
Then in Athens, as an up-and-coming NBA star, he reached the top of the mountain, winning Olympic Gold after defeating the US once again and avenging the loss against Serbia with a fantastic buzzer-beater.
As an NBA player, Manu had to start over. He wasn't a star who had the trust of his coach yet and most of the NBA wasn't ready for his unconventional style. Fortunately for him, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan were. Pop loosened the reins on Manu as time went by and he became an integral cog on three championships, all while putting his ego aside and coming off the bench for the better of the team.
But then things changed, as Tim Duncan began to age. The Spurs needed to adjust and the focus shifted from the inside to the outside and more responsibility rested on Ginobili's shoulders. Those late 2000 teams were too flawed to win it all but a lot of people forget that Ginobili stepped up with a bigger role and murdered teams on the pick-and-roll.
The loss in the first round in 2010/11 with Manu nursing an injury brought about doubts about how effective that style could be but those concerns were proven wrong in time. After some personnel changes that shored up their defensive weaknesses, the Spurs finally found themselves as legitimate contenders. But even with Manu playing well, the young role players weren't ready to beat OKC in 2012.
The clock was ticking for Duncan and Manu, with Ginobili having to play fewer minutes and often on a smaller role to be effective. Then in 2012/13, after struggling with injuries throughout the season, Manu had his first sustained sub-par performance in the playoffs.
Retirement was a serious option, he later admitted. But with the Spurs committing to him, he began training for a bounce back season that even the more optimistic fans were a bit skeptical about. But Manu once again looked like Manu, even after hamstring injuries limited him at times. He was the biggest part of the Spurs' secret weapon, a second unit that could hang with most teams' starters. He only had one poor series (a forgettable five games against the over-matched Blazers) but was instrumental to the Spurs' fifth title, his fourth individual crown.
People wanted Manu to understand his limitations and act accordingly, to either retire or accept that his days as a difference-maker were over. But that's not in Manu's DNA. Ginobili has always striven for things that were supposed to be beyond his reach, as this indelible play will always attest to.
As of today, Manu Ginobili is 37-years-old. Guards that rely on quick first steps don't age well. Players that throw their body around simply can't withstand the abuse for long. Former stars don't usually learn how to pick their spots. The worst thing that can happen to an older player is not understanding that he can't do the things he used to be able to when he was younger. Manu has suffered injuries for years and will play for the national team*, putting more miles on his legs. Smart money is on him not being a factor next season for the Spurs; he's just too old and frail.
But because I know my history, I'll never bet against Manu Ginobili.
How about you?
*yeah, about that...