Ginobili’s Retirement Marks End of an Era, Leaving Spurs to Wonder What’s Next
SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 22:  (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs waves as he leaves the court after the Golden State Warriors defeated the San Antonio Spurs 129-115 in Game Four of the 2017 NBA Western Conference Finals at AT&T Center on May 22, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas. The Golden State Warriors defeat the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals to advance to the 2017 NBA Finals. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

At some point, you figured it could never happen. The Spurs were intractable, unstoppable, immortal. But like anything in this life that seems permanent, they weren’t.

On Monday, Spurs legend Manu Ginobili announced his decision to retire from the NBA.

Just like that, one of the final pieces of the Spurs’ mighty legacy has left the stage. 

After almost 20 years, the Spurs have to start from scratch.

It’s difficult to understand what Ginobili meant to the city of San Antonio without seeing it in person. The league’s emphasis on mining the talent pools of far-flung nations like his native Argentina would not have coalesced without his offensive ingenuity and uncanny ability to get to the basket.

Ginobili cemented his folk-hero status in San Antonio when he swatted down a bat buzzing around the AT&T Center in the midst of a 2009 game against the Sacramento Kings. Perhaps LeBron James’ block in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals can rival Batmanu in the annals of great defensive swats.

If that isn’t Hall of Fame worthy, what is?

With Tony Parker and Ginobili, the plodding Spurs—renowned and reviled for their sluggish, post-up-heavy offense—received an injection of intercontinental flair. Nothing was more indicative of this renaissance than Ginobili’s trademark Eurostep.

Manu didn’t invent the move, but to a generation of NBA fans, he perfected it and made it as iconic as a Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper from the block, a Hakeem Olajuwon dream shake or a George Gervin finger roll. No matter how many times he broke it out, defenses struggled to stop him. Surrounded by giants, he could move with a basketball in his hands better than most of us can move in open space.

The Eurostep became Ginobili’s signature maneuver, full of grace and poetry rather than the abrupt ferocity of a dunk. The move befit the man who used it so well.

The Spurs drafted Ginobili in 1999, but he didn’t come to the NBA until 2002, making him a pioneer of the now-common “Eurostashing” method of preserving salary-cap space. By the time he finally put on the black and silver, the Spurs had won their first NBA championship.

As the Lakers juggernaut collapsed on itself, the Spurs were just getting started. Ginobili was the catalyst for their continued relevance.

The Spurs won four more titles spread out over 11 years, showcasing the kind of consistency that’s unheard of in the modern NBA. They endured through work ethic, patience and an unquenchable drive to win, all of which Ginobili personified.

We got doses of how beloved he was. Ginobili was never a pop culture icon on the level of some of his contemporaries across the league, but in San Antonio, he was an expert pitchman. Ginobili, Parker and Tim Duncan were as renowned for their local grocery store commercials as they were for their prowess on the basketball court.

As Ginobili checked out of a blowout elimination game during Game 4 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, the Texas faithful rose to their feet in appreciation. He hadn’t announced a decision about whether he’d come back for another season, but Spurs fans didn’t want to miss the opportunity to give him the send-off he had earned for helping to bring four NBA championships to San Antonio during his career. It was spontaneous and sustained, the kind of ovation that wasn’t coerced or manufactured by the nonstop blaring hype machine that is today’s NBA live experience.

Ginobili, ever the humble Spur, seemed not only shocked, but genuinely close to tears.

He wound up playing another 65 regular-season games for the Spurs, but it became clear that not only was his time donehe was limited to 20 minutes per game and was far from an offensive focal pointbut the team’s time was nearing its end, too. The never-ending mixtape that was the Spurs dynasty was about to hit its final track.

Ginobili’s flirtation with retirement came as no surprise, even if it’s a sobering reminder of the way these stories always end. The Warriors quickly dispatched the Spurs in the playoffs for the second year in a row, but Ginobili found a way to contribute in defeat, dropping 10 points in the decisive contest.

His legs weren’t quite there on his three-point shot, which had become more of a heave than a natural motion. And no one in the crowd that night had any illusions that he had much left in the tank from a physical standpoint. His court vision and passing were still just as potent, though, leaving us to wonder…could he eke out one more year?

Last week, when ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Ginobili would meet with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich to decide on his future, there seemed to be only one possible scenario. This was it.

Though his shot had lost some of its poetic form, Manu Ginobili maintained his enviable court vision through the end of his final game in last spring's playoffs.

Though his shot had lost some of its poetic form, Manu Ginobili maintained his enviable court vision through the end of his final game in last spring’s playoffs.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Who the Spurs will be now is an open question. Of the core group that led the Spurs through the 2000s, only Pop remains.

Parker now dons a Charlotte Hornets jersey. Duncan has been retired for two years. The Kawhi Leonard saga punctured the mystique of the culture in San Antonio. Leonard was supposed to carry on the legacy of quiet, professional leadership that made the Spurs a model for NBA dominance. Instead, he’s now in Toronto, whether he likes it or not.

Despite a comeback season in 2017-18, LaMarcus Aldridge is 33 years old and might not have the longevity of a Duncan. No one seems to know how much longer Pop wants to prowl the sidelines in the wake of his wife’s death. How good can DeMar DeRozan be?

All of those questions remain to be answered, and they will be in due time. This is not the first time the Spurs have faced such a critical period of uncertainty.

In the last five years of Duncan’s career, critics and pundits would declare he was about to fall off. Every year, he didn’t, and the Spurs raised one last NBA title in 2014.

Those questions, that doubt, fueled the Spurs’ push to exact revenge on Miami for the previous year’s NBA Finals defeat.

“I still have Game 6 in my head,” Ginobili told reporters during that 2014 triumph. “… We got to this spot and we didn’t let it go.”

Despite the instability in the wake of the Kawhi drama, the Spurs have something special in their DNA, the same way the Lakers and Celtics possess something elemental and everlasting. They’re unique amongst the pantheon of great NBA teams.

Their success over the decades was powered not by high-priced free-agency acquisitions. They didn’t burn out or drive away their stars the way the Bulls eagerly tore down their dynasty in 1998. Instead, they built themselves on guys like Ginobili, who were flashy without making it about themselves. The behind-the-back passes and circus shots were routine—noted, but not highlighted.

He let the wins speak for themselves. That was the Spurs Way.

With Duncan, Parker and now Ginobili gone, the era of the Spurs being ageless and unquestioned is officially over. But if history is any guide, the more we bury them, the more eager they are to dig themselves out again.

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