Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?
Summer never lasts long enough. Neither did Manu Ginobili’s career.
It's a strange comparison, really. Summers can last for two months -- if you measure them by how long summer vacation is in high school. Or summers can last three months -- if you measure them like how the actual length of the season is measured.
Manu’s NBA career lasted 16 years. Expand that to encompass his international career as well and he’s been playing professional basketball for 22 years. When he came into the league he had a full and beautiful head of hair. Now, well, now he’s proof that you can go bald gracefully.
22 years is a long time. Certainly far longer than a single summer. But a summer is only about how many days it lasts once it’s near its end. Before then, it's about moments.
Think back to your favorite ones. What were they filled with? Beach days, when the sand is just the right amount of between your toes and you’re staring out across the water to where the skyline meets the waves; cottage nights, surrounded by old friends and the stars; flights to foreign places, fueled by wanderlust and with only a backpack in hand; the first sip of a cold beer after a long day at work; iced coffee; road trips with the windows down, the breeze in your hair.
The list goes on, and your list may be entirely different. But the point of it all is that the best way to measure and remember summer is how the days were filled, not how many days it lasted. Measuring with moments is also the best way to understand Manu, and everything he's done and everything he's meant and why this goodbye feels so hard.
If you're a stats person, there are a lot of sound and sensible numbers and accolades that explain the depth of his basketball impact. He’s one of only two players in the history of the game to win a European title, an NBA title, and an Olympic gold medal -- a medal he won by leading Argentina past the USA, which is the basketball equivalent of Zack Snyder directing a Justice League movie that tops any single Avengers film in quality or box office performance. He’s a two time all-star and a four time NBA champion and he won the 2007-08 Sixth Man of the year award after leading the San Antonio Spurs in scoring despite coming off the bench.
Per Basketball Reference, out of every player who has played at least 20,000 minutes since the year 2000, Manu has the best plus-minus per 100 possessions out of them all. His career PER -- which stands for player efficiency rating, an imperfect but all encompassing metric that boils down a player’s on court contributions into one statistic -- is 20.22, a number better than guys like Steve Nash and Paul Pierce and Vince Carter.
But the best part of Manu was never his stats or his accolades, just like how the best part of summer is never that it lasts three months or that there are, on average, three more hours of sunlight each day than in winter. Sentences like “did you see the line Manu put up last night?” aren’t the way he will be remembered.
His best moments were ephemeral and transcendental -- born from a single move or a single pass or a single shot or a single block. To describe him with numbers alone would be like describing the beauty of a painting by the brush that was used or the resonance of a song by its chord progression. Accurate descriptors, to be sure. But also woefully insufficient.
During game one of the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals against the Golden State Warriors -- before they became the NBA’s Alpha and Omega -- the Spurs were down by one, in double overtime, with just 3.4 seconds left on the clock. Anything other than a loss was improbable. Manu didn’t care. He sprung free at the three point line off a defensive miscommunication, caught a perfectly placed Kawhi Leonard pass, and launched. He drains it and the net moves in a kind of way that makes it look like its satisfied that it got to be the net that shot was made on.
In hindsight it seems very obvious that shot would go in. Because what else do legends of the game do other than make big shots in big moments? But for three short and impossibly long seconds, an entire fan base waited for Manu to give them permission to breathe again.
Next season, in the NBA finals against the LeBron James led Miami Heat, Manu and the Spurs were looking for redemption. The year before, Miami beat San Antonio to capture their second straight title. Manu wouldn’t let them have an encore. With the Spurs up by five near the end of the second quarter, he drove through Miami’s defense and then harnessed the power of a thousand exploding suns to dunk Chris Bosh through the Earth’s core.
After that finals, Manu, Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, and Tony Parker sat down for an NBA TV special called Champions Revealed. The show’s premise was simply the four of them talking about all the things they went through together during the last decade or so. During it, Pop recalls the best summation of Manu as a basketball player that any person has ever said:
“I am Manu.” There are only a handful of players who have ever played any sport whose name alone carries with it an understanding of who they are and what they meant. Manu was one of them.
Then, perhaps most memorably of all, there was the Halloween of 2009. During a game against the Sacramento Kings, a bat found its way into the arena and flew around the court. There are nearly zero instances in which introducing a bat to the situation makes the situation better and a basketball game is no exception. The bat interrupted the game a couple times before, with just over a minute remaining in the first quarter, referees halted a fast break to address the situation. Fans and players scattered. The broadcast team created an official lower-third that said “Bat Delay”. San Antonio’s mascot, fittingly dressed as Batman for Halloween, attempted to catch the bat with a large net. Nothing worked. And so, as he did countless other less bizarre times in his career, Manu took matters into his own hands. One step, one left haymaker, one bat problem solved.
PETA was very mad about the whole situation and, to be fair, hitting bats isn’t the best way to handle bat related issues. But also this is the most uniquely bizarre and wonderful moment in NBA history. Without Manu, it never happens.
If you’re an NBA fan, you likely have your own Manu memories. That’s what happens when someone’s career spans 16 years. Now that we know there won’t be a seventeenth, it’s staggering to think about just how much happens in that time.
Take a moment to consider where your life was 16 years ago. Maybe you were just starting college or maybe you had just finished; maybe you just married the one or maybe you just had that first date that changed everything; maybe 16 years ago is too distant a time for you to remember it by an exact moment and so, instead, it's characterized by the kind of unspecified happiness that colors many childhoods.
No matter what else happened over the years, for San Antonio Spurs fans Manu has been there as an escape or a celebration of reality several nights a week. In the midst of it all that was easy to take for granted. But now, just as warm summer nights are best appreciated in the depths of winter, it’s clearer than ever that -- far more than his current contributions on the court -- those moments he gave us and who he was are why he’ll be missed now that our time in the summer sun together is over.