There are only two men in the history of basketball to win an Olympic Gold Medal, a EuroLeague title and an NBA championship. One is Hall of Famer Bill Bradley. The other is the San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginobili, a certifiable, future first ballot Hall of Famer.
I make that point to simply illuminate something that anyone who has watched Ginobili over the years knew from the moment that laid eyes on him: the man and the things he did on a basketball court were as rare as they come.
As last night's starting lineups were announced in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, the immediacy of the moment, and what we might be witnessing, hit home when Manu was introduced.
It was his first start in three years, and the message was loud and clear.
In front of his hometown fans, who've long adored his work ethic, character, selflessness, drive, and a wild, distinct, funky skill set that was historically unique, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was giving the man his props in what could have possibly been the final game of his illustrious 15-year career.
But it wasn't just Spurs fans who felt the emotion swelling up, the reverence sneaking up and perhaps a tinge of sadness as well, knowing that this might be our last glimpse of the inimitable Argentinian.
“We started him tonight out of respect,” said Pop after the game. “That was the whole reason for starting him. Before the game you think it may or may not be his last game that he ever plays in, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to honor him in front of our home fans for his selflessness over the years. I mean, this is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for ... the last decade or something, because it would make us a better team.”
That selflessness had been ingrained in him at an early age, when as a teen he wasn't seen as some crowned prince who had the potential to elevate Argentina's basketball to levels never before achieved on the international stage. He was simply a wild, skinny, out of control kid on the court fighting to make the team.
One thing working in his favor, despite being short and skinny, was an unwavering support system. His father, Jorge, was a legendary hoops coach, and he had two older brothers who would go on to play pro ball overseas. Manu was the consummate gym rat, the kid who dribbled around his kitchen without looking down at the floor, wearing special gloves that allowed him to learn how to persuade and manipulate the ball's reactions to his urgings with only his fingertips.
"There were maybe 15 kids just in our city better than him," Pepe Sanchez, the former Temple point guard who grew up with Ginobili and played with him on Argentina's national team, told ESPN's Zach Lowe in 2016. "He would go to the basket, get crushed, stand up to shoot free throws, and get crushed all over again. He was so tiny. He was fragile."
He might have been little, but his physical and mental toughness were undeniable. And there was also the weird factor, in terms of his game. It was just different. He was wild, yet composed, playing to a rhythm of unique percussion in his brain that only he could hear.
When he made the under-22 national team in 1996, it was only as an afterthought. Numerous players who were more lauded and had been awarded spots on the squad had scheduling conflicts and couldn't make it.
"He was nothing special," his teammate Andres Nocioni told Lowe. "But you could see he moved different than normal people. Like a snake."
Fast forward to today, and anyone who watched Ginobili play such a critical role in four Spurs championship teams will tell you that he blossomed into something that was beyond special.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford first saw him during the 22-and-under world championships in Australia in 1997. But the executive wasn't there to scout Ginobili. In fact, he'd never heard of him.
"He was like a wild colt out there," Buford told Lowe, "just doing crazy s---. Some of it made sense, and some of it didn't."
In the 1999 NBA Draft, Ginobili was selected with the 57th overall pick and went on to enjoy more success than Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Ron Artest and Shawn Marion, the top talents in that pool. Such forgettable names as Cal Bowdler, Kenny Thomas, Vonteego Cummings and Leon Smith were among the many others picked ahead of him as well.
He stayed in Europe for a few more years, eventually earning the EuroLeague Finals MVP award in 2000-2001 and the Italian League MVP honors in back-to-back seasons before joining the Spurs in 2002.
He battled grizzled vets Steve Smith and Bruce Bowen for minutes as a rookie, and took his lumps in practice without ever complaining.
"Bruce beat the ever-loving s--- out of him all season," former teammate Tim Duncan told Lowe, "and it's not like they were calling fouls. Manu just kept going. That's when I finally said, 'He's gonna be alright.'"
He was notorious for playing in meaningless scrimmages as if the NBA title was on the line. When first matched up against Kobe Bryant, the Mamba asked Bowen for a scouting report on 'the white boy.'
"Oh, you're gonna see," Bowen responded. "He's not a white boy, and he's got some stuff."
Kobe, the league and the rest of the world soon learned that Ginobili was the real deal.
Initially, he seemed to be the antithesis of a player in Popovich's system that then stressed a slow pace offense that ran through the low post. In fact, his fancy passes, wild forays to the rim, pull-up 3's early in the shot clock and other idiosyncracies frustrated Pop to no end.
But the coach realized he had something special and that he needed to provide his unique player with a blank canvas at times to create his unique works of art that were sometimes off script, but they elevated the team. What he brought into the game was something that could never be game-planned for, because how does one counteract combustible spontaneity and heart?
By the playoffs of his rookie year, he was bringing some heat off the bench, giving the Spurs a scoring weapon that they lacked, one that could not be scouted as easily as their predictable offense. He helped lead them past the Nets in the Finals, and the legend of Manu Ginobili began to be formed.
Three years later, he was an All-Star and widely recognized as one of the league's best and most exciting talents. In the 2005 NBA Finals, he averaged 20.8 points and and 5.8 rebounds per game against the Detroit Pistons in winning his second ring.
There was no fear in him, and he's still remembered for swatting a bat to the ground that was flying around the court in a 2009 game against the Sacramento Kings. After knocking it to the ground, he picked it up with his bare hands and carried it off the court to raucous applause from the crowd.
In November of 2015, Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker became the winningest trio in NBA history. And he'll forever be a national icon in his homeland after leading Argentina to a Gold Medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics.
Last night was supposed to be a coronation for the Warriors after their 129-115 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, as they became the first NBA team to sweep their first three best-of-seven playoff series' in league history.
The Golden State machine hummed along with a rare excellence that continues to astound. Steph Curry was marvelous with his 36 points, six assists and five rebounds, and Kevin Durant was equally exceptional with his 29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and one of the dopest blocked shots you'll ever see.
But the true coronation was reserved at game's end for Ginobili, who may have played his last NBA game. When Popovich subbed him out with 2:25 left in the game, the crowd erupted into ear-splitting roars of "Ma-nu! Ma-nu!"
Ginobili was much more than a cog in the Spurs championship machine. His passion, energy and style of play forced Popovich to recalibrate that machine. Before him, the European baller was seen as a spot-up shooter or a big man that played in the paint.
Manu introduced an entirely different layer to the equation. He brought a unique flair that had never been seen before, and we're all the better having seen and experienced it in all of its recklessness, beauty and splendor.
“A lot of us grew up watching Manu and really respecting his game,” Durant said last night. “So to play against him, have battles with him year in and year out is really epic.”
In a few weeks, we'll find out if last night was out final glimpse of Ginobili as an NBA player.
“Whatever I decide to do, I’ll be a happy camper," he said at the postgame press conference. "I have to choose between two truly wonderful options. One is to keep playing in this league at this age, enjoying every day, playing the sport that I still love. The other is to stay at home, be a dad, travel more, enjoy my family. So there is no way I can be sad, because whatever I decide, it’s going to be great.”
If he walks away now, he might not be sad, but the rest of us will. Because we were treated to something very rare and special in him and what he gave to the game. He gave it his all. And in his own unique way, he gave us something we've never seen before, and will likely never see again.