First things first.

There never will be another NBA player quite like Manu Ginobili, who announced his retirement Monday.

Although some of us sensed that Manu had played his last game – especially after July passed and he still hadn’t said whether he would return for his 17th season with the Spurs – the news was nevertheless surprising to a degree.

It was like a thunderclap at high noon.

Sure, we all laughed when Coach Pop joked about never letting Manu retire. Truth be told, all of us who have enjoyed watching this unique human being play with so much passion wished he could have stayed for one more season. None of us wanted to see him go.

"Uno mas, Manu," the homemade signs read at the AT&T Center in the latter part of last season.

Uno mas. One more.

But everything has a beginning and an ending. It’s the law of nature. Even Michael Jordan played a last game.

This column will not dwell on Manu’s big plays through the years – and there were plenty – or repeat statistics that all seem to run together after a while. You can read about Manu’s career in my news story on his retirement.

Just suffice it to say that Emanuel David Ginobili is a lock for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. That’s a mouthful right there.

What I want to share with you today are my thoughts, my opinions, on what made Manu such a powerful presence on and off the court. From the get-go, he was the consummate professional who embodied class every step of the way. Win or lose, the guy never lost his bearings. He was steady, consistent, and his teammates admired and respected him because he valued people.

And in the end, they loved him like a brother. His presence will be missed not only on the court, but in the locker room. Leaders like Manu don’t come around very often.

The Spurs, and San Antonio, have been fortunate to have such a person as Manu become synonymous with the franchise and the city. To say he’s been an exemplary ambassador for the NBA doesn’t even begin to describe what he’s meant to the league.

Charismatic and affable by nature, Manu treated everybody with respect, regardless of their station in life. Whether you were a fan, reporter or custodian, he saw value in you as a person and respected what you did to scratch out a living. He didn’t have to tell you. You just sensed it.

Manu had tremendous perspective throughout his career. He knew – heck, he said it often – that he was fortunate to get paid handsomely for playing a game he loved.

After a workout a few years back, I was among a group of reporters that talked with Manu about the drudgery of playing so many back-to-back games in a season. At the end, he smiled and said: “Don’t feel too sorry for us. We get compensated pretty well.” And that was that.

Another quality that separated Manu from so many other pro athletes – heck, so many other people – was his intellectual curiosity. He enjoyed learning about the cities the Spurs played in during road trips and loved history. The guy’s IQ must be through the roof.

Born and raised in Argentina, Manu grew up speaking Spanish. But he became fluent in English. His command of the language and idioms never ceased to amaze me. That’s just who Manu is, of course. He’s always looking to expand his horizons.

While he could make his way through an interview in English flawlessly, he never missed the opportunity to speak with reporters from Spanish-language TV stations. To his credit, Manu never forgot his roots during his stellar career. He was proud of his Hispanic heritage, and that meant a lot in San Antonio.

One of my favorite Manu memories is not a highlight from a game. It’s from one of the team’s championship rallies. You know the drill. The celebration begins with a river parade and ends at the Alamodome, where Coach Pop and the players make a few remarks before an overflow crowd.

When it came time for Manu to speak at the rally I’m referring to, he thanked the fans in English and spoke briefly before heading back to his seat. But with microphone still in hand, he stopped, pivoted and walked back to where he had stood.

“Does anybody here speak Spanish,” he yelled, as he smiled widely. Then he proceeded to thank the crowd again – in Spanish.

The roar was deafening. I’ll never forget that moment