If you ask pretty much any Spurs fan about Manu’s foul they’ll know exactly what you’re referring to. No further elaboration is needed. Something about the truly blessed run of success this franchise has been fortunate enough to enjoy over the past two plus decades has only seemed to crystalize the moments where things haven’t quite gone to plan. Derek Fischer with .4 seconds. Ray Allen in Game 6. Manu fouling Dirk. The wins can start to blur together in a haze of happy memories after a while, but these are wounds that somehow still feel fresh. They might as well have happened yesterday.
Manu’s storied career is filled to the brim with beautiful experiences and amazing plays, but I always seem to come back to this one first. It’s seared into my mind like a recurring nightmare. It was probably the dumbest thing that Manu Ginobili ever did in a Spurs jersey and I think he’d be the first one to tell you that. However, in maybe his worst moment he somehow managed to make a play that truly encapsulates the very essence of who he was as a player. For good or for ill, Manu was always trying something.
I love him for that. I mean, how can you not? He’s easily one of the most fascinating players to ever play the game of basketball. His accolades and accomplishments are astonishing but, beyond that, he was just so damn fun. He was the most fun Spur by a mile. He saw the game on a different level from everyone else. It was almost as if there were angles that were only ever available to Manu, passes that only he could make, shots only he would believe could go in.
Gregg Popovich often talks about how he spent the first couple years of his time with the young Argentine learning how to back off him and let him simply play the game. There was something wild and untamable about his spirit that was essential to making the whole operation work. You don’t get to enjoy him pulling off the perfect no-look touch pass without also dealing with him whipping one into the stands across the face of a teammate who, you know, wasn’t looking at him. It would be ridiculous to try and reconcile the good and the bad with the Manu. The same precocious fire that made him one of the greatest to ever do it would occasionally lead him down a path that would just leave you shaking your head. Sometimes it would happen in the 4th quarter of a random game in March and, well, sometimes it happened in the waning seconds of a Game 7.
The circumstances under which the foul happened have sort of been lost in the sands of time. All we can ever remember about the 2006 playoffs was Manu flying over out of nowhere and slapping the big German on the wrist and then everything just fades to black. It’s hard to fully articulate why the foul mattered so much but, come on, yada yada the foul yada yada the Spurs lost. Let’s move on. It’s like we know it’s horrible, but none of us can bear to really look directly at it.
The stakes were obviously very high. I mean, this was a game 7 in the Playoffs, of course the stakes were high. The details are somehow even more brutal than you can imagine though. The Spurs had battled back from a 3-1 series deficit, including a 30 point performance from Manu in game 6, in order to bring things back to the AT&T center for this deciding game 7. Then, in all their infinite wisdom, they decided that they’d had so much fun digging out of that particular hole that they ought to go ahead and go down 20 in the first half. You know, just to give themselves a challenge.
Still, the Spurs fought back into it behind an otherworldly performance from Tim Duncan and, as the fourth quarter drew to a close, the momentum was squarely in the their corner. Watching the game back, I can’t emphasize enough how much much it seems like the Mavericks are just wilting right in front of your eyes. Game 6 had seen them blow a similar lead and you could almost see everyone in blue with “oh no, not again” plastered across their faces. The crowd was rocking. Timmy was in the zone. Everything was lining up for San Antonio to pull this off and head back to the conference finals.
With 1:32 left in the game, something really important happens. The Mavs are up 1, clinging to their lead but definitely on the ropes. Jason Terry dribbles around out on the wing desperately trying to get into a pick and roll with Dirk, but he’s stymied by an active Tony Parker and a peak Bruce Bowen in his element. Manu, you’ll notice, is hanging out on the other side of the court near the baseline. He’s watchful and on his toes, ready to fly over and help at a moment’s notice. Finding no joy against Bowen, Terry decides to drive baseline and, of course, Manu immediately gets over. He and Tony get their hands up, Terry’s shot rims out, and the Spurs have the ball, down 1, with 1:26 left.
Back down the court we go. Duncan gets fouled and splits the two free throws (remember when he was kind of liability at the stripe?) and now we have a tie game. Another great defensive possession, including Manu helping Tim stop Devin Harris at the rim, and the Spurs can take the lead for the first time with under a minute to play in the game. Tim gets the ball, sitting on 38 points mind you, and then kicks it out to Manu who steps up and just drains a three in rhythm like a damn hero. Spurs by three.
It’s a classic clutch shot from Manu, something we’d seen from him before and would continue to see from him right up through the end of his career. The moment was never too big for him. Tim Duncan, in the middle of a career performance, hands the ball off to Manu for this pivotal situation and he doesn’t even blink. In a less cruel world, the only thing we’d take away from this game is the image of Manu spinning away down the court with his fists raised in the air and the crowd losing their minds.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even remember this shot happened until I started writing this.
The foul in question is the result of a series of unfortunate events. The Mavericks are looking for a quick bucket and in order to get it they isolate Dirk Nowitzki out on the wing against Bruce Bowen. Bruce is about as on his game as possible, but even a great defender like him is going to have a hard time making up the height and weight difference he’s giving up in this matchup. Dirk is in cornered animal mode too, furiously trying to will the Mavs back from the brink. He dribbles right, spins back at the lane, and uses every ounce of his physicality to pound his way in towards the basket as quick as he can. Every other Spurs defender is lined up on the other side of the court, keeping an eye on their man and watching the inevitable unfold. It’s all happening so quick that there’s not time to even really plan a defensive maneuver to counteract this. Dirk’s two points are a forgone conclusion.
That’s not how Manu works though. He never just let things happen. The last two possessions are fresh in his mind. Remember? The ones where the sudden, lightning strike appearance of an extra defender forced the Mavs out of their “forgone conclusion?” Watching the replay, you can see him just itching to help. Itching to get over. As soon as Dirk spins towards the basket, Manu bursts forth at him. It’s definitely too late to take a charge but, what if he could get in there and poke the ball away? There’s an opening, he can sense it, if only he can just . . . get . . . there . . .
The irony is that this play is by no means the end of the game. Dirk hits the free throw to tie it up, sure, but then the Spurs end up getting two pretty decent looks at a winner down at the other end.
You can just feel the wind go out of their sails though. Overtime is a slog. Duncan goes 1-7 from the field, everyone is running on fumes, and the Mavs end up winning by eight. Manu thought that if he could just make a play on Dirk that he would be able to end the game for good.
In a way, he did.
In this iconic piece from 2016, ESPN’s Zach Lowe charts Manu’s journey from the courts down in Bahia Blanca, Argentina all the way up through his time in the NBA. It’s full of glowing praise from pretty much anyone who has ever spent any time near him. They talk all about his passion, his intelligence, and the strong sense of camaraderie he formed with his teammates on both the Spurs and the Argentine national team. No matter where he went, Manu made sure you knew that if you were on his team, you were his family and, more than anything, Manu hated letting his family down:
Every Spur wanted to win, but no one suffered losses harder than Ginobili -- especially when he felt at fault. [after the foul in 2006] Ginobili was inconsolable. He felt he had cost Michael Finley and Fabricio Oberto, the Golden Generation center who signed in San Antonio largely because of Ginobili, their best shot at an NBA title.
Duncan was so worried, he contacted Malik Rose, a former Spur and close friend of Ginobili’s, and asked Rose to call and check on him. “I don’t say this lightly, but we all told each other: We have to stick with Manu,” said Sean Marks, the Nets GM and a Spurs reserve that season. “We had to talk him off the ledge. We had everyone calling, texting, trying to hang out with him.”
He moped all summer. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person so hard on himself,” Buford said. “He is maybe the greatest competitor that we have ever witnessed here.”
This is the part of the whole saga that really sticks with you. Mistakes happen all the time. Tim Duncan cost the team games. Tony Parker cost the team games. Gregg Popovich has cost the team games. Go on down the line throughout the entire history of sports and you’ll find any number of examples where a great player has made a mistake and cost their team dearly. With Manu though, you could always feel how much he internalized this loss. How he felt it with every fiber of his being and, heartbreakingly, how much he blamed himself.
Here’s the thing, though.
It would be easy to call what Manu did a mistake. In a technical sense, yea, sure, hitting a dude on the wrist is against the rules and, yea, if he just stays at home then maybe none of this happens. Shoot, if he just hits Dirk a little bit harder then maybe the ball doesn’t even go in. There’s a million different Sliding Doors scenarios in which Manu’s foul doesn’t cost the Spurs this win but, unfortunately, we’re all stuck in this reality where it did. Jumping in to try and help on Dirk was brazen. It was wild. It was probably inadvisable. It was a lot of things.
It wasn’t a mistake.
Something hardwired into Manu’s DNA compelled him to push the edge of what was possible in basketball. His coaches and teammates always talk about how his instincts were virtually unparalleled in the game and in order to take advantage of them, he needed to give himself over to that pull and simply trust that his body would be able to take him where his mind and heart needed him to go. More often than not it worked. He followed those instincts to a hall of fame career, four championships, a gold medal, and near universal acclaim from anyone who’s ever been around the game. It all comes from the same place. The same instinct that got the team two crucial stops down the stretch and drained a clutch three to take the lead, drove him in that split second to flash up towards Dirk and try to make something happen. He couldn’t help it. It’s who he was.
Manu Ginobili was one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. He was also one of the most achingly human ones to do it. The passion, the pain, the brilliance, the tears . . . it’s all wrapped up into what made him the player we fell in love with.
I hope he knows that we don’t mind the foul. We may never forget it, but that’s because we’ll never forget him.