When tribalism and basketball intersect, this is what happens.
No Spur will ever wear Number 20 again. At some point in the next few years, Manu Ginobil’s name will get the rafter raising treatment and with it, an accompanying ceremony replete with big lights and a standing ovation by the San Antonio faithful. After that, who knows? It’s likely he and his story will fade away into the retired player abyss of forgotten memories.
Truth is, that’s unfortunate. Ginobil was a great player, not quite transcendent, but undoubtedly one of the most impactful players so far of the 21st Century.
But he won’t get that level of appreciation. Why? Because the optics are bad.
All this time Manu’s career has been a study on how tribalism works. And you didn’t even know it.
Tribalism is roughly defined as a strong feeling of identity and loyalty to one's group. Can’t really say there’s anything wrong with that. For those who follow this way of thinking, it doesn’t mean they are bad people. Humans are social creatures, and thus predisposed to grouping with like-minded people. That includes language, culture, age, religion and race. Most of us know that there is a line of varying width between tribalism and racism. The ones that don’t recognize are, through entirely their own fault, forced to carry that hatred burden around with them.
It makes a mess outta life for the rest of us. These are the people that just found out that Senator John McCain’s son is marrying a black woman, and have commenced to make his online life hell. People have images in their minds of what works and when it doesn’t fit, all hell can break loose.
For a large contingent of black men in America, the sport of basketball and everything in its purview belongs to us. It doesn't matter that it wasn’t created by a black man – we grew it from a seed into the massive cultural extravaganza it is today. We own it. We hold tight to it and grip hard enough to cause callouses on our fingers. For those out there who pray at the altar of political correctness, this might sound perilously close to stereotyping. If that’s the case then close your ears. Just because something doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t matter. What does matter if it is right. As soon as you understand that, you’ll understand why Manu never had a chance to be fully embraced.
To be a star in the NBA, you gotta get that black man co-sign. No negotiating with that. If you’re not black, it’s gonna be rough. A few white guys slide in every couple of years. Larry Bird, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, Jason Williams, Kirk Hinrich, even the Birdman (Birdman!) You can’t get in, if you can’t play. And even once accepted, there are still gonna be doubters. But the eyes are cutting a little bit closer if you’re a dude from another country. You’re not black or American? Pfftt, that’s a tough one. It doesn’t matter that Manu is Argentinian and not “white” or even a “European.” The racial specificity needed here only matters that he’s not black.
In the last ten years, you name the shooting guards who have been better than Ginobili. I got Kobe, Wade, Allen, McGrady and Iverson. That’s it. Honestly, the last two are a bit of a reach. In total career output, Iverson and TMac blow Manu away, it's not even close. But from the mid ‘00s on, there’s an argument to be made. Iverson started falling off around ’07, ’08 and McGrady about the same time. Those dudes weren’t out there putting up impactful numbers on championship level squads. Meanwhile, during Ginobili’s peak from ‘05 to ‘11 he was as deft scorer. With playoff averages of 20.8, 18.4, 16.7, 17.8, 19.4 and 20.6, respectively. The rest of his resume includes two All-Star appearances and two All-NBA selections. He was the ‘08 Sixth Man Of The Year and made the Second Team All-Rookie back in ’02. He’s also only the second player ever to win an NBA title, Olympic Gold and a Euroleague title and he made the euro-step the behind the back pass of this generation. He also once mollywhopped a bat.
McGrady is now a shell of himself, and Iverson’s been outta the league for a minute and they’re all in the same age range. If Ginobil was black he would have had a bunch of commercials, major endorsement deals and would have been name dropped by whoever your favorite rapper is umpteen times over. Sports fans know him, but casual fan still give him the shoulder shrug treatment. We disregard him, and throw the boring cloak on everything he does because he plays for the Spurs. But it doesn’t add up.
The story with the Spurs has always been that they make for a subpar entertainment value. That, sure they are a consistent winner, but the aesthetics are analog and we’ve been drinking that digital Kool Aid for a while now. Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward in the history of organized basketball. But nobody imagines themselves as Duncan when they play a pickup game. When you were a teenager and imagined dunking on dudes, you never imagine doing it in the cordial fashion in which Duncan does.
But what about Tony Parker? That dude is far from boring. The fluidity in which he plays, the quickness, and how he attacks the basket, like it’s occupied by models from Monaco, has long kept him in the conversation of exciting players. Problem is, his game has remnants of players before him. We’ve seen these things before, we can’t help but feel the dull blunt force of familiarity. We’re impressed, just not in awe.
Manu, however, he’s different. I once called Rajon Rondo the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of basketball because there’s no father to his style. Well Manu is in the theoretical ODB top five. I’ve never seen people do what he can do.
He’s at once a great passer and a clutch “no questions asked” shot maker, whose ability to force his way into the paint and make “lord help us” shots makes him special.
Ginobili plays with so much reckless abandon, it’s a wonder he’s still in San Antonio. Remember the play in Game 1 against Golden State, when he shot an ill advised three that seemingly lost them the game, and then, minutes later, did the same thing, only this time it went it?
That’s his whole career in a nutshell, he seems like someone custom built for a generation of fans raised on non-conformist athletes. This dude’s hard as hell, going full tilt in pretty much every moment he’s on the court. Manu’s not one of those routine three-point shooters, safely staying above the fray by never driving into the lane. Nor is he one of those guys who plays it safe and does all the “little things,” you know, the terms usually used as code for how some white guys play who overcompensate for their lack of ability. His style is wild and it’s his talent and skill that keeps him in the game. There aren’t any cliché words to use because you can’t describe him that way. His game is thrilling and entirely unpredictable. He’d be awesome at Barry Farms or the Rucker, if he ever got a chance to play. But why didn’t he get a chance?
Who knows, but he likely was never asked.
The pushback to his lack of popularity will either focus on all the games he’s missed (128 regular season games during his 11-year NBA career) or that playing in a small market did him in – even though there aren’t really any small markets anymore. For the last five years, we’ve lived in an era in which anytime a cat does something somewhat funny in a random mid-metropolitan suburb, it ends up on NBC News. If something is worth knowing about, we know about it.
SI put the Spurs Big 3 on their newest cover. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are standing together, defiant, proud. Parker and Ginobili are almost exhibiting a snarl, as if they are channeling Roy Jones Jr and saying “Y'all Must Have Forgot.” It’s a fitting end to their story.
Ginobil has free agency to deal with in the off-season. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be with San Antonio next year. He mentioned that he might retire. Feels like we undervalued him a bit. Like a door that closed before we had a chance to walk through it. Ginobili is one of those guys who could have shifted the paradigm if only we let him. The other international players of this era didn’t have the total package. Yao Ming never won in the postseason and so his impact felt cultural only. Dirk had the talent, but his jumpshot-dominant style doesn’t resonate, and Nash couldn’t defend and so it always felt corny to support a guy like that. If there was a mainstream black acceptance early on, we wouldn’t need to have this discussion at the end of his career. Or discussions like these period. Maybe he’ll get his props later during his HOF induction. That’s a big maybe though.