SAN ANTONIO – He’s the elder statesman of the Spurs’ now, the greybeard whose years of experience, “corporate knowledge” and championship pedigree make him one of the team’s most valuable players – on and off the court.
Returning for his 16th season with the Silver and Black, guard Manu Ginobili will be counted on as much for his leadership as his court skills in the twilight of his stellar career.
“His leadership is beyond the pale,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich Monday during the team’s media day.
Ginobili, who turned 40 in July, signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Silver and Black last month.
Ginobili’s days of getting to the basket consistently with his unique serpentine moves and finishing with a dunk are distant memories now. But make no mistake: Ginobili is still a fearless playmaker who can affect a game with a timely 3-pointer, laser-like pass, steal or block. Houston Rockets guard James Harden can attest to that last one.
Smiling and joking with reporters Monday, Ginobili left no doubt that the competitive ferocity that has defined him for so many years still burns brightly.
Ginobili said he returned for one more season “because I can, because I have the option to choose, because I still love what I do. I think that goes without saying. And because, as I said on the last day (of the 2016-17 season), I had two wonderful options.”
In the end, Ginobili simply wasn’t ready to walk away from the game and the Spurs, the only NBA team he’s played for during his hall of fame career. He has won four championships with the franchise.
“One option is going to still be there the following year, or two years ahead, or three or four,” he said. “This one was either yes, or that’s it. It would have been OK anyway, but I thought I still had the appreciation for the game. I still enjoy being here every day.
“I’m in an incredible organization and a place where I feel respected, and listened to and appreciated. And I appreciate it, too. After the weeks I needed to make up my mind, it was a decision that I made comfortably.”
Still, Ginobili said he went back and forth in his decision.
“It was a close call,” he said.
Ginobili will start his 17th NBA training camp Tuesday at the Spurs’ practice facility. He, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Patty Mills are the only holdovers from the 2013-14 team that won the franchise’s fifth championship.
Popovich said he didn’t try to persuade Ginobili to return, although he famously said last season that he didn’t want Argentina’s greatest basketball player to ever retire.
“I want to squeeze every last ounce of juice I can,” Popovich said. “I’m going to use him like a bar of soap until there’s nothing left – for his family or anybody else in the world – just done.”
Popovich didn’t talk on Monday about putting the squeeze on Ginobili, but he still was humorous when he was asked if he had encouraged him to return for another season.
“I did not really encourage him,” Popovich said. “I’m sure at some point I told him that we’d love to have him back. But in a situation like that, I don’t think it would have been a good idea to convince him to come back.
“When you’re 53 years old and you’re trying to decide whether to play again, you need to talk to your family and do that on your own. It’s got to be for the right reasons and some time taken, which he did over the summer. Once he did say he was coming back, I was thrilled, because he actually played well (last season). He’s taken great care of his body, and worked very hard this summer. It’s all good as long as he’s in the program.”
That Ginobili, arguably the most beloved player in franchise history, postponed retirement for yet another season should not have surprised anybody familiar with his career.
While Ginobili still can inspire his teammates with his court savvy, it’s his mere presence, his spirit, that makes him such a vital cog for the Spurs. When it comes to corporate knowledge and “The Spurs Way,” Ginobili is the embodiment of what sets the Silver and Black apart from other NBA franchises.
Highly intelligent, Ginobili is a great communicator who continues to be the media’s go-to guy. Throw in his charisma and Hispanic heritage – a big plus in San Antonio – and you’ve got the total package.
With veteran point guard Tony Parker still sidelined as he works to get back from a quadricep injury that threatened to end his career, the Spurs are going to need Ginobili’s leadership more than ever this season.
“One of the reasons why they keep me around is because I help in other aspects,” Ginobili said. “I think my numbers have not been the best in my career. Other players, I guess, can contribute the same way I do on the court. I think I can provide some more value with the corporate knowledge that Tony and I possess.
“That helps, too, in the locker room, on the court, in timeouts, hot times, stuff like that. I think I can help in that aspect. I don’t consider myself the leader of the team at all. We just all want to help.”
Although Ginobili averaged career lows in points (7.5) and minutes (18.7) last season, he still was the leader of a bench that helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record (61-21). Playing in 69 games, he also averaged 2.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals.
The Silver and Black selected Ginobili late in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft with the 57th overall pick, but he didn’t join the team until three years later. Ginobili began his pro career at 19 and played seven seasons in his native Argentina and Italy before joining the Spurs at age 25. The Silver and Black won their second title in his rookie season.