SAN ANTONIO — Manu Ginobili walked into the San Antonio Spurs practice facility and saw the intense efforts of his young teammates in preseason workouts.
Ginobili had put himself through those same workouts for 16 seasons. But this August morning, the 41-year-old realized he couldn’t. For a player who has literally thrown himself into his basketball career, the realization his body and spirit were no longer willing cemented the decision to walk away from the NBA.
“I couldn’t see my body going through that kind of grind again,” Ginobili said Saturday during a press conference at the Spurs practice facility. “I felt that I had a good season, that I left everything that I had in the previous season both physically and mentally.”
Ginobili was thoughtful, self-effacing and funny in his first interview since announcing his retirement Aug. 27 on social media. He steps away after helping San Antonio win four of its five NBA titles, the last coming in 2014.
His retirement, along with Tony Parker’s departure to the Charlotte Hornets as a free agent, brings an end to the era of the Spurs’ Big Three. Along with Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker helped San Antonio become the most successful franchise in any sport based on winning percentage.
The Spurs also will be without Kawhi Leonard, who requested a trade and was dealt to Toronto along with Danny Green for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. It will be the first time coach Gregg Popovich enters a season without one of the Big Three by his side.
“I think it’s going to be a great challenge for him having a different kind of team, maybe less corporate knowledge,” Ginobili said. “I think it’s going to be a fun challenge. I think he’s going to do good.”
The Argentina native was twice selected to the All-Star team and twice named to the All-NBA third team despite spending most of his career coming off the bench. He was named the 2008 NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
“Playing 16 years is completely unexpected and going through everything we went through,” Ginobili said. “Big disappointments, huge wins, creating that type of union with the coaching staff, with the front office, with the staff, teammates . it’s been an amazing journey, way beyond anything that can be expected.”
Ginobili played professionally in Argentina and Europe for seven seasons before joining the Spurs in 2002 following his selection with the 57th pick in 1999. He entered the NBA as a mop-topped 25-year-old who could make a spectacular pass one minute and then throw the ball into the stands the next. Ginobili’s dynamic, if erratic, plays endeared him to fans but caused consternation for Popovich. But his coach grew to love and accept Ginobili’s unique abilities.
“As time went along, I learned to not speak if I thought a shot was contested or if there was a defensive play he wanted to make to get a steal because he does things that win games,” Popovich said. “So, it taught me to watch a little more and not be so micromanagement like.”
His willingness to put team first also endeared him to Popovich and the fans. Despite averaging 13.3 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 assists in his career, Ginobili only started 349 of 1,057 career games. Accepting a role off the bench was difficult for a player as competitive as Ginobili, especially since his goal was to be an NBA starter.
“Never did (achieve that),” Ginobili said, laughing. “I actually achieved it in my game two or game three. I said ‘Yes,’ then boom, back to the depths of the bench. At the beginning it was kind of hard. It took me a while to understand it, to get my ego out of the middle between Pop and me, or the game and me, and how that had to be done for the team and me.”
Coming off the bench only cemented Ginobili’s legacy. His selflessness, along with a Eurostep drive to the basket he helped popularize, will surely lead to a place in the Hall of Fame.
In addition to his NBA success, Ginobili won a championship in the Euroleague and Italian league and led Argentina to gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Ginobili reflected on all that success and all those memories last season, knowing it would be his last. Although he “left the door open” for a possible return this season, Ginobili said nothing changed his mind.
“Even though I was, I am very sure about the decision, it’s still awkward,” Ginobili said. “It’s still tough. You are convinced, you talk to your wife, you know what you’ve got to do. But my finger shaked a lot before hitting that enter (to announce his retirement). It wasn’t an easy decision.”