SAN ANTONIO — The packs of tissues stuffed in the seat cup holders proved purposeful for the sellout crowd at the AT&T Center, as the San Antonio Spurs sent off future Hall of Fame guard Manu Ginobili with a tearjerker of a jersey retirement ceremony.
“I’m telling you, I’m one of the lucky ones,” Ginobili said during a speech delivered partially in English and in Spanish. “I’ve been dealt amazing cards. I just had to play them O.K. That was all I had to do.”
In an arena packed full of fans from all over the world, the Spurs lifted Ginobili’s No. 20 jersey into the rafters, right next to the No. 21 jersey of Tim Duncan.
Duncan, former Spurs point guard Tony Parker, Fabricio Oberto, and coach Gregg Popovich all delivered speeches at Thursday’s ceremony, which took place 25 minutes after San Antonio’s 116-110 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and likely vied for a place among sports’ longest jersey-retirement ceremonies.
Many of Ginobili’s other former teammates were also on hand for the highly anticipated night in which fans lined up outside the gates at the AT&T Center for more than four hours before tipoff.
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And while DeMar DeRozan wore light blue Nikes during the game with a gold swoosh in honor of Ginobili and the Argentinean flag, it was Ginobili’s best friend on the team, Patty Mills, knocking down a 3-pointer with 13.5 seconds remaining to put away the game.
“It’s a special day, a heartfelt day for a lot of people in the San Antonio community and far, far beyond,” Mills said. “He’s left a legacy that goes beyond what happens on the court. It’s been his passion, his energy, his competitiveness for the game that has really affected teammates, coaches, and fans across the world. I’m very honored to be in a situation of being his teammate and being a close friend of his for many years.”
Former Spurs Boris Diaw, Bruce Bowen, Beno Udrih, and Nazr Mohammed were also on hand to support Ginobili, as well as Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks, New Orleans Pelicans interim general manager Danny Ferry, Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley, and Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego.
Other attendees included Federico Susbielles, president of the Argentine Basketball Federation and Argentine journalist Adrián Paenza.
All witnessed several highlights from Ginobili’s illustrious career, which were played on the scoreboard during breaks in play.
Ginobili took in all the sights early on from a seat next to Marks, while the night started off with the Argentinean national anthem. Ginobili was later seated in between Duncan and Parker.
Once halftime hit, seven of Ginobili’s former teammates from the Argentinian National Team’s “Golden Generation” took part in a roundtable discussion that included translators and subtitles on the scoreboard. Those former Ginobili teammates included Gabriel Fernandez, Alejandro Montecchia, Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni, Luis Scola, Pepe Sanchez, and Oberto.
During a professional basketball career spanning 23 seasons, Ginobili captivated fans, teammates and opponents with a smooth, free-flowing style of play. Diaw believes several players in the NBA now are still trying to mimic some of Ginobili’s moves, including his famed EuroStep.
“He was the first one I think playing this way and bringing a different type of basketball when everybody was kind of playing the same way,” Diaw said. “Manu brought something new, something different, and a lot of young guys looked at him and tried to copy it, and saw that it was working. I think the guys that we see now, of course, are those young guys from years ago.”
Ginobili used Twitter on Aug. 27 to announce his retirement, capping a career in which he captured four NBA titles, an Olympic gold medal for Argentina and a EuroLeague MVP award.
Ginobili turned 41 on July 28 and only came to the decision to retire after taking careful consideration, despite playing last season believing that it would likely be his last.
Popovich tried one last time over the summer to convince Ginobili to return, but that exercise proved futile.
That left San Antonio to open training camp on Sept. 24 without a single member of the franchise’s vaunted Big Three composed of Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
Similar to Duncan after his retirement in 2016, Ginobili still spends time around the team’s facilities, and has attended a couple of Spurs games this season. Ginobili played 16 seasons for the Spurs, and became one of the most decorated international players in basketball history. Ginobili played 1,057 regular-season games and 218 playoff contests with the Spurs, and ranks in the franchise’s top five all time in games, points (14,043), assists (4,001) and steals (1,392). Ginobili averaged 8.9 points and 20 minutes a game for the Spurs in his final season.
Still, Popovich admitted to feeling some trepidation early on in Ginobili’s career about the guard’s wild and fearless style of play.
“He showed the folly of me trying to coach him too much for sure,” Popovich said. “In the beginning, he was like a mustang out in the field someplace. That’s how he lived his life on the court. He was fearless, wild, and did things that won games. So when I step back and look at, ‘Manu, I think that pass could have been a little bit better.’ That’s a pretty inane comment when he just did seven other things to help us win the game. So I basically learned to zip it as his career progressed. He’s someone that his constant activity would try your patience at times. But over time, you realize that he was gonna get a lot more done by just playing, and didn’t really need a whole lot of instruction from me.”
Ginobili retired with one year remaining on his contract.
Over the years, San Antonio developed an affinity for bringing aboard international players, and Mills, who is a native of Australia, said Ginobili played a major role alongside Duncan and Parker in establishing the franchise’s culture.
“That was the best thing about our team, and he was the head honcho of that,” Mills said. “We had so many people from all around the world, and he was the one that really focused on getting to know everyone so that we could get along as a team, and grow as a team in the locker room so that we could trust each other on the court. He figured out that we can’t go anywhere on the court unless we know about each other off the court. For him to really hone in on that was huge, and that’s something that we obviously still do today.”
“When you think about the memories of what happens, you’ll never forget the big 3-pointer, the big left-handed dunk, the magic pass or anything that happens on the court,” Mills added. “For me, you’ll never forget those moments that we had off the court. He has been such a role model to myself, and having an impact on my professional career. That’s all been done off the court: at dinner, at restaurants, at coffee places. We’ve created a very unique bond through that.”
Ginobili entered the NBA in 2002 with the Spurs, and played an integral role in the team’s most recent NBA championship in 2014. Ginobili was the last Spur tied to the franchise’s title years to depart, after Parker joined the Charlotte Hornets last summer as a free agent, while Kawhi Leonard was traded to Toronto in a deal that brought DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to San Antonio.
Even coming off the bench, Ginobili still managed to put together stellar postseason numbers.
“He was able to play as the starter, but [he knew] coming off the bench would bring something on the court for the second unit,” Diaw explained. “So he understood that it was better for the team. That’s somebody that understands that it is a team sport, and the importance of the team is more important than [the] individual.”
Parker called Ginobili “the definition of Spurs basketball because he always put his ego last.”
Ginobili joins LeBron James as one of just two players to tally more than 800 rebounds, 800 assists and 300 3-pointers in their playoff careers.
Popovich said the organization was immediately drawn to Ginobili’s competitive nature during the pre-draft scouting process.
“He was a skinny little guy, and wiry strong, frenetic, fearless, physical and threw his body everywhere,” Popovich said. “He’d run into 7-footers. He’d get knocked down on the floor and get back up. Just the ferocity with which he played was infectious when we first saw him play as a youngster. That’s the first thing you see with Manu. Then, over time, his skills got better to where he became a 3-point shooter. He was always a fantastic passer. But he always had a knack for understanding what needed to happen to win a game. An offensive rebound, or a steal in the passing lane, that type of thing that you wouldn’t expect. And it would be not out of the normal course of the game or gameplan. He just did it on his own because he saw it and read it; just a really intuitive knack for the game of basketball.”
Ginobili is the only non-American to win an Olympic gold medal and four championships or more, joining a distinguished list of players to accomplish the feat in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, K.C. Jones and Bill Russell.
“You saw things before anybody else did,” Duncan told Ginobili during the ceremony. “You did things nobody else would. You were unbelievable.”
Ginobili played his last game for the Spurs last April 24, when the team was bounced from the Western Conference playoffs by the Golden State Warriors, after falling 4-1 in that series.
Marco Belinelli, who played with Ginobili on San Antonio’s last championship team said “I think so” when asked if the guard opened the door for the NBA to bring in more international players.
“A real champion, he won everything,” Belinelli said. “With the international team, when he was in Bologna, he won everything here with the San Antonio Spurs. It was pretty tough when Manu came to the NBA compared to right now. Right now, we have a lot of European guys or guys from all parts of the world. But for sure, a lot of guys dreamed about playing in the NBA because of Manu.”