I pretended I wasn’t crying last month when Manu Ginobili walked off the AT&T Center court as the crowd chanted his name.
I was sitting on a couch between two people who were not Spurs fans -- people who would have been absolutely uncomfortable with someone silently sobbing between them. But I couldn’t help it, and after a while the part of me that’s still 10 years old wound up quiet-crying in the kitchen.
The chants made me miss San Antonio and at the same time realize my favorite player could retire in a month. Even after he blocked the religion right out of James Harden; and after he nutmegged David West; and after an efficient 2016-17 campaign, we are faced with the possible retirement of another Spurs demi-god.
I don’t want to list every unforgettable moment the wily Argentine has given basketball. I’d love to run down a highlight reel, but that feels too final--like we’re already in mourning. I firmly believe he has 2 or infinity seasons left.
I want to talk about the real reasons we love him as deeply as barbacoa and Big Red – the little pieces of Manu that aren’t measurable during a basketball game. 87
I was born in San Antonio in 1994. That means Manu was Obi-Won Kenobi to me in 2005. I literally had an “Obi-Won Ginobili” T-shirt. You probably remember the shirt with Manu wearing a Jedi cloak and holding a lightsaber. I wonder if my parents bought that from a roadside stand and just told me they bought it from a real store.
Anyway, a kid didn’t even have to care about basketball. Manu was a Jedi. And as soon as I realized a human could be as cool as Star Wars, to me he was a hero who fought his enemies with whirling eurosteps and half-sweaty Fabio hair. I think a lot of people in San Antonio felt that way in 2005. But growing up watching him play, It became more than just a fleeting juvenile fantasy.
Before any talk of a dynasty, and before Manu became a cultural icon in San Antonio, I got a firsthand glimpse into what would make him so unconditionally loved in the city.
I was the Spurs “Pizza Hut” Ball Kid for a 2004 preseason game. You know, those young kids who awkwardly wave into the Jumbotron camera before games and pass the ball to the players during warm ups. My aunt won the tickets at a raffle, and I remember being so excited to see a team that was becoming cool when I started to care about being cool.
So, I showed up at the AT&T Center like royalty. A Spurs staff member gave me an adult small T-shirt reading “I was a Spurs Pizza Hut Ball Kid,” and I remember feeling like a big idiot when it came down to my knees. Then I saw the Spurs trot onto the court one-by-one and suddenly nothing mattered.
My two handlers—who hovered over me to make sure I didn’t get weird around Tim Duncan – told me I had to stand in one spot under the hoop to pass to the players. On top of that, I could only throw bounce passes. On top of that, most of the players were standing at the three-point line.
In other words, I felt like a big idiot all over again. I basically rolled basketballs to Bruce Bowen because I had zero strength. I was completely embarrassed. The previous night, I dreamt I passed to Tim Duncan and he told me, “Wow, Julian, you’re a pinpoint passer. Let’s hang out immediately.”
That image had been crushed into a thousand tiny little pieces.
Then Manu, who had been in the locker room, ran out onto the court and swiped a ball from my hand. Before I even registered what was happening (I initially thought the handlers decided my lack of strength made me unfit to serve as ball kid), Manu dunked the ball in the hoop above me. He threw it back with a smile and gave me a quick, “Hey.”
It was perfect. It was my very own “Thanks Mean Joe” moment. All the anxiety and the perceived judgement melted instantly. It defined my entire experience, and I think it defines Manu.
He’s commonly known as a man of the people. It’s not unusual to catch him in the middle of a conversation with a random fan. In a city where most residents literally speak his language, one could argue he’s more loved as a person than Tim Duncan, who is the godfather of the team, but an undisputedly distant one.
Manu is creative and complex. He runs his own blog. He loves math. He writes a column for an Argentinian newspaper. He probably accounts for about 70 percent of the team’s total humor output. And he’s the most Twitter-savvy Spur of all time.
His chaotic heroics on the court in the early to mid-00s are how he earned his way into our hearts, but these seemingly small pieces of his personality are why he’ll stay there.
It all comes rushing into our minds when he does something unbelievable, like ninja-swat a bat out of midair, or ultra-pass to Matt Bonner against the Lakers in 2012, or hit the game-winning three-pointer in double overtime against the Warriors during the 2013 Western Conference semifinals, or revenge-dunk over Chris Bosh and every other Miami resident in game 5 of the 2014 Finals.
If he is retiring, I’ll miss the little things the most ... but of course, he’ll never truly go away.