Like many of you, I spent Wednesday afternoon watching the Olympic basketball game between the United States and Argentina. And, like many of you, I had no guilt or compunction in rooting for the Argentina despite my nationality. It never even crossed my mind to pull for the Americans.
I was rooting, hoping against hope, for Manu Ginobili, the same way I have the past 13 years, fully aware that I was, in all likelihood watching his final game in Argentina's colors.
That Ginobili and other "Golden Generation" bandmates such as Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino got to thrill us with another encore was a pleasant surprise. We all thought 2012 in London would be the end of their run. Heck, they thought that was going to be it. But the Argentine federation begged them to keep going because there weren't better options coming up through the pipeline. The veterans agreed, one by one, essentially because they're friends, they enjoy each other's company and, well, why the hell not?
As such, we had the unexpected pleasure of watching Ginobili, a month past 39, compete on the international stage one more time. Not only did he not embarrass himself out there, but he more than held his own against opponents 10 or 15 years his junior. Though Argentina wound up getting blown out by the formidable American squad, as expected, Ginobili wound up enhancing his legacy if anything. He and the team received a proper send-off from their peers and celebrated journalists across the world, and in the end Ginobili was so overcome by emotion that he wound up breaking down during a live interview.
Manu talks about playing with the Golden Generation: Part 3 pic.twitter.com/7M3HlvoT55— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) August 18, 2016
It reminded me, in a way, of the love and admiration the Spurs received from the basketball community after narrowly losing the 2013 Finals to the Heat, attention and praise on the level they'd never received in capturing four championships from 1999-2007. It took playing LeBron James in his prime to basically a draw for the Spurs to get their due, which wound up making the following "Beautiful Game" season even more special.
None of this was supposed to happen, you know. Ginobili was supposed to be done by 30, remember? His playing style was deemed so reckless that plenty of pundits (and quite possibly some people within the Spurs organization) predicted his body wouldn't hold up for long. Ginobili indeed underwent two major operations in 2008 and 2009 on each of his ankles and has suffered numerous dings since, from a broken nose in 2010, to a fractured right forearm in 2011, a fractured right hand in 2012, a strained left hamstring in 2013, a stress fracture on his right leg in 2014 (which kept him out of the FIBA World Cup), to ... well you get the point.
Through it all, he kept coming back, undaunted, his love of the game an unquenchable thirst.
Recently, during my cross-country excursion back home to California, I had a chance to witness what quite possibly was Tim Lincecum's last major league start. He was pitching for the Anaheim Angels at Seattle, and he got absolutely shelled, allowing six runs and nine hits in 3.1 innings with two walks and just one strike out. It was a pitching line typical of most of his nine starts for the Angels, for whom he'd compiled a 9.16 ERA, giving up 68 hits and 23 walks in just 38.1 innings. To translate those kind of stats for non-baseball fans, they're terrible. In fact, they're worse than terrible. Imagine an NBA player getting 20 minutes a night, taking 10 shots per game and averaging, oh, 12 percent or so from the floor. That was Lincecum for two months. Not surprisingly, the Angels waived him after the game.
I'm guessing most of you don't care about Lincecum. But I need you to understand what a big deal he was to me and millions of other people not too long ago. From 2008-2011 he was one of the best pitchers on the planet, plying his trade for my beloved San Francisco Giants. He almost singlehandedly ushered the team from irrelevance, at least every fifth day when he pitched, and lifted the black cloud the team was under due to ... eh, it's not important.
The point is for a while in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lincecum was every bit the big deal that Ginobili is in San Antonio and Argentina, if not more so, as hard as that is to imagine. And like Ginobili, his rise to superstardom was just as unpredictable. Here was this guy, 5'10 and maybe 170 lbs., with a completely unorthodox throwing motion, throwing 97 mph. It made no more sense than Ginobili, playing in the Italian League second-division in 2000 as a 22-year-old, being drafted with the 57th pick by the Spurs and blossoming to one of the best 10 or 15 players in the world, a four-time NBA champion and the leader of an Argentina team that upset the Americans in the OIympic semi-finals en route to a gold medal in 2004, bringing about a seismic shift in how the U.S. federation approached international competition.
Lincecum was drafted 10th overall by the Giants in 2006, made the majors midway through 2007 after dominating in every minor league level, and won the National League Cy Young Award (like the MVP, for pitchers) in 2008, his first full season; the first pitcher to ever do that, to my knowledge. Then he won it again, in 2009. The Giants weren't very good overall those years, but on the days Lincecum pitched, they were practically unbeatable.
By 2010 the organization eventually put some talent around him and Lincecum, who'd been growing his hair out (sound familiar?) became an icon, leading the team to its first championship since 1954, back when they played in New York. These clips should give you an idea of what he could do. They're playoff games from the 2010 season, the first of a 1-0 shutout in Game 1 against the Braves and the second of the Game 5 World Series clincher at Texas.
Little did we know back then we were watching the beginning of his decline. Lincecum had one more good season, in 2011, and that was it. His velocity was steadily declining each season, his average fastball dipping from 95 mph to 93, to 91 and so on, to the point where he was throwing 87 mph or so when the Giants shelved him with a hip injury last season. His numbers were quite poor from 2012-2015, but the team kept running him out there every fifth day, especially at home where he was an attraction and a fan-favorite. Even with limited "stuff," he was still capable of occasional moments of brilliance, throwing no-hitters in 2013 and 2014. But more often than not, he got drilled.
The point of this biography you didn't ask for and don't want is this: Lincecum is 32. He hasn't been an effective pitcher since he was 27. We still get to watch Ginobili play --and relatively well at that-- at 39. He he's been on scholarship with me -- meaning he can do no wrong to tarnish his legacy -- since 2005.
Maybe Ginobili's tearful goodbye was a preview for Spurs fans for next spring. We've already had to say so-long to Tim Duncan recently, but that was different. Duncan, a first overall pick, was supposed to be incredible all along. He wound up being even better and certainly showed more longevity than we had any right to expect, but his greatness was something many took for granted, and his persona was such that he preferred to stay detached from his adoring public, fiercely guarding his privacy.
Ginobili is different. He's always been the underdog, has always revealed more of himself on and off the floor to the media and the fans, and his meteoric rise and ability to sustain it has never made sense. From the beginning, we've gravitated to him and rose and sank as one through all his highs and lows.
So enjoy him next year. Take in every dribble, every pass, every shot, every grin or grimace from the bench. It's not going to last much longer, and it's amazing that he's still going strong.