I have a confession to make. I didn't see any of this coming.
It was the summer of 2009 and I was sitting in a 3rd floor bedroom of the 100-year old house I lived in with a dozen close friends who came from all over the state and country to attend the university. They brought with them allegiances wide-ranging and, at times, deplorable. It was on this lazy summer afternoon that a pair of 21-year olds, enjoying the respite that only a dark cavernous room lit by the the sunlight that crawls around the blinds can supply, discussed the state of the NBA. My view promulgating Spurs-bias and his, bless his heart, marked with an obvious Lakers skew.
I waxed poetic about the promise of Tiago Splitter, who would instantly become a Dwight-Howard-like defender with the potential to emulate some of Tim Duncan's pick-and-roll and post game. I talked about how a 32-year old Duncan showed no signs of slowing down and led his team in win shares, and the emergence of Tony Parker as potentially the best PG in the league with 6 years of prime left. I talked about Derek Fisher fouling Brent Barry the year before and what a travesty it was that Michael Finley's 8 points-per-game were the most any Spur could muster after "Timmy and Tony" were essentially bested 2-on-5 against a potent Mavericks team.
All the while, he sat back smug and content, in a way that only the fan of a champion can, with the unshakable confidence that only an in-his-prime all-time-NBA-great (like Kobe Bryant circa 2009) can give. He bandied about some things regarding Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza that I don't really recall, but then he dropped the truth bomb:
"Would you trade Manu Ginobili for David West, straight up?"
If you notice, I hadn't mentioned Manu even once. He had a very average season the 44 games he was healthy, and had missed the (one round of) playoffs entirely. But for my money, no matter what the other two South Texas Titans had done, he was my favorite Spur since David Robinson. I thought long and hard. We sat in what seemed like hours of silence. Finally I explained.
"West is a solid rebounder and an elite scorer...future "4th international Hall-of-Famer" Splitter is a few years away because of that damned Barcelona...and Manu...well he's 31 and destined to lose a step...and his athleticism is his most important attribute...so, sentimentality aside...[LONG pause]...yeah I guess I would."
I made the critical mistake that defenses have made for years against Manu Ginobili. Not inexplicably forgetting that he is left-handed, but assuming that he beats you with he legs or his hands or his feet or his guile.
Manu Ginobili has always won the game of the basketball with his eyes.
Even in his youthful days when a behind-the-back dribble bled into a Euro step and ultimately an athletic finish at the rim, it was setup by a preternatural ability to see the road less traveled to get there. He is a master of angles, a master of bounces, a master of feints and pump fakes and contortions with a direct path to the end goal. Former Sacramento Kings point guard Jason Williams was a treat, but Manu has always been economical where other "creative" players embellished.
That is because, like his countryman and fellow sports icon Lionel Messi, Ginobili sees the play well before the rest of us, and if it can't be accomplished solo, is simply waiting on everyone else to catch up. He has no time for extraneous motions. Each step to an end.
It may be that the game so ravenously devoured in his home country best explains the things he does on the hardwood that are otherwise inexplicable. The "through ball" passes thrown to a spot instead of a player, the "nutmeg" between an opponents legs, the one-touch passes, the English on the ball that would make Beckham jealous, the shifting of body weight to either create or avoid contact (this also where you would insert a flopping joke). It is also an occurrence--not common, but evident among the most talented--to move from a more explosive, attacking position on the soccer pitch to a more deep-lying playmaker. Think late career Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Riquelme, or Andrea Pirlo. All of those players excelled at something else early in their career, but their vision and ability to read and direct the run of play lasted beyond the expiration of their fastest twitching muscle fibers.
He's already stepping into this audacious pass before he receives the ball
We are well beyond peak-athleticism Ginobili, and this transition into the mature phase of his game hasn't always been seamless. There were times in each of the past two seasons that were only forgivable pending an understanding that his mind was making plays that his body could no longer execute. This at times could be a drag on the overall team, but it was worth wading through to reach the final evolution of an all-time great.
Since his 2011 tour de force, Ginobili has kept a very solid 6.9, 7.1, 6.8, 6.7 assists/per 36 minutes, trailing only LeBron in that category among non-PGs. As his overall scoring has declined, he has been a plus ball handler. Before the Rodeo Road Trip he was averaging a career-high assist percentage of 31.6% (according to Basketball-Reference), and provided essential play when the second unit looked listless at times. It's evident how important his playmaking remains, as the bench went dormant during the four games he missed with an ankle sprain. While nearly all stats point to him having a smaller overall impact on the game, his wow-per-48 is the best in the league.
He simply still sees things that others cannot, like a basketball Haley Joel Osment.
Six years and a championship later--with hindsight being infallible as always--it is blindingly obvious that David West was simply having a career year, and despite being an effective piece on pretty good teams, was never 1/100th the player Manu Ginobili was. But that year, not unlike this, saw a franchise with an anxiety that the best years of our lives could be coming to an end. Sure there could be a Saved By the Bell, College Years (or maybe even a Better Call Saul), but it would never be the same. This desperation to keep it going may have even derailed a lesser franchise, but for Spurs fans, it is time to sit back and enjoy the glimpses, however brief, where Manu allows us to see the game through his all-seeing eyes.