Gracias, Manu

Manu Ginobili’s No. 20 is raised to the rafters in San Antonio.

Tim Duncan is the greatest Spur, followed by David Robinson and George Gervin.

But most beloved? One could make a strong case that honor belongs to one Emanuel David Ginobili, whose flamboyance, intensity, humility and Latin American roots earned him a level of affection in San Antonio that no other player could match.

That appreciation was on full display Thursday at the AT&T Center, where the Spurs’ 116-110 victory over the Cavaliers was merely an appetizer for the main event: The retirement of Ginobili’s No. 20.

“He was unlike any other basketball player we had ever seen,” former teammate Sean Elliott said during the ceremony. “He was a magician who stole your breath away.”

In the case of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, that often meant literally.

“I never cursed before I met him,” Popovich joked before the game, remembering the ill-advised passes and out-of-control drives to nowhere that inspired fits of rage.

But there were many more moments of brilliance, providing creativity and unpredictability to a defensive-minded Spurs team that, despite its excellence, sorely needed both.

“Without Manu,” Popovich said, “there were no championships (in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014).”

Said Duncan, “It was all genius. You saw things before anyone else did. You did things nobody else would.”

Ginobili’s cult status in San Antonio is matched by outright deification in his native Argentina, which he led to Olympic gold in 2004 during a national career that covered nearly two decades.

Add it all up, and you have one of the most unique careers in basketball, which ended with Ginobili matching Bill Bradley as the only players in hoops history to win European, Olympic and NBA championships.

Not bad for a kid who grew up on the other side of the world, loving the NBA but never imagining he would be good enough to get that far, let alone be great.

“It was not even a second thought,” Ginobili said. “Not one Argentinian in history had made it to the NBA. So why was it going to be me? There was no way me or anyone that was near me could ever envision a career like this.

“The game gave me so much, I am in debt forever.”

So are we. Gracias, Manu.

 

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