Former San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili walks onto the court during his jersey retirement ceremony Thursday at the AT&T Center. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

The stories are legion. The stories are true. Manu Ginobili dropped 33 points in a playoff game against the Memphis Grizzlies with a broken arm. He dunked on Chris Bosh in the NBA Finals with a stress fracture in his right leg. He blocked Kevin Durant at the rim with age creeping up and his hair falling out.

After a shootaround in New York, Professor Ginobili used a 30-foot beam on a gym ceiling to give a geometry lesson. He hoisted a shot. The ball bounced off the beam and landed on the front of the rim below. Ginobili made a slight adjustment and shot again.

“Fell right through the basket,” said Spurs radio broadcaster Bill Schoening. “Manu said, ‘It’s all about angles.’”

From my view on press row, it was clear: Nobody knew angles like Obi wan Ginobili. If the most beloved Spur in history hadn’t picked up a ball, he would have become a math teacher. He has said so. On the court, he found teammates cutting to the basket and threw bullets between legs of embarrassed defenders. There’s a name for that. The nutmeg. Imagine a Harlem Globetrotter jumping into a game and pulling down a pair of shorts, the victim’s face turning the color of a clown’s nose.

Ginobili never saw the humor. He only saw the bucket. And therein lies part of Manu’s mystique. Ginobili played like an illusionist – “How did he do that?” – without noticing the crowd on its feet, wildly applauding the show.

He noticed the crowd Thursday night. Fans stood and cheered and wept – with commemorative H-E-B tissues, no less – as the Spurs retired a fabled piece of fabric. It took 20 years for jersey No. 20 to join The Pantheon. Two decades from the day he was drafted with the 57th pick in 1999 to the night No. 20 took its place beside No. 21 in the AT&T Center rafters.  

Well, almost two decades. On June 30, 1999, the Spurs selected a guard so obscure the NBA commissioner botched the pronunciation of his name. Emanuel Genobillybilly. That’s how Tim Duncan, No. 21, remembers it. On March 28, 2019 – 19 years, eight months, and 28 days later  – a 41-year-old guy known as “Grandpa Juice” said “Gracias” and looked up.

Eighty five feet above the AT&T Center floor, there it was. The ninth retired Spurs jersey. Like one of Ginobili’s blind, over-the-shoulder passes, the silver and black never saw it coming. Neither did Ginobili. As he said Thursday night, “I wasn’t sure I belonged.”

Gregg Popovich wasn’t sure, either. Not at first. Popovich knew how to coach Duncan. He knew how to yell at a 20-year-old Tony Parker. But what was he to do with the crazy Argentinian, a kid who spoke English, Spanish, and Italian and played an out-of-this-world game? One moment, the rookie rifled an impossible behind-the-back pass for an assist. The next, he flung the ball into the stands. “It was priceless,” Parker told Ginobili at the retirement ceremony, “to see Pop’s face when you threw a pass.”

Former San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili kisses head coach Gregg Popovich. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

Ginobili provoked the “pop” out of Popovich. He lit the fire in the coach’s eyes, the fuse on the coach’s tongue. Ginobili could speak three languages and make Pop swear at him in four.

“I never cursed,” Popovich deadpanned before Thursday night’s Spurs-Cavaliers game, “until I met Manu.”  

The Manu Effect affected more than his coach’s mouth. “My hair was dark, dark brown,” Popovich said, not quite accurately, of Ginobili’s first season. “By the second year, it was dead white.”

And yet. …

“Without Manu,” Popovich said, “there would be no championships.”

Ginobili won four NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal. He made two NBA All-Star teams and won Sixth Man of the Year. He sustained more than 30 injuries and played, at times, on one unbroken leg, with one unbroken arm, and on one good ankle. Hence the nickname, El Contusión. Ginobili’s tolerance for pain, perhaps unmatched, and fearless, face-first dives for loose balls endeared him to fans around the world.

A large contingent from Argentina flew in for Thursday’s ceremony. They dressed in the blue-and-white colors of their nation’s flag. They swayed and sang and yelled, “Gracias, Manu!”

Then there was Weichen Xia, a 29-year-old consultant who flew 7,500 miles from Shanghai to San Antonio for the jersey retirement.

“I took a two-day trip just to watch this,” Xia said from her seat behind the Spurs basket in section 101. “Seventeen hours on the plane one way. I do it every year. I’ve been a fan of Manu’s for 17 years. He is the only man in the world I would spend so much money on.”

Seated near Xia was Jane Ann Craig, a season ticket holder who has been commuting from Austin since 2008. Wearing a No. 20 jersey, she pulled two signs from her trademark bag of messages:  “Don’t Cry Because It’s Over” and “Smile Because It Happened.”

There was much to appreciate. The heart. The grit. The joy. The wonder of watching him play. In his first game back from testicular surgery in 2016, Ginobili dropped a season-high 22 points on the Sacramento Kings – in 15 minutes. Was he concerned about injury? He wore a huge protective cup and voiced the opposite concern. Defenders had better protect their knees.

Later, against Oklahoma City, Ginobili tried a new form of physical therapy. He stepped in front of 6-foot-10, 236-pound Serge Ibaka and drew a charge. Ginobili got up and planted himself in front of 6-foot-11, 245-pound Enes Kanter and took another charge.

“I am Iron Man,” he joked.

Former San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili and sons Luca, Dante, Nicola, and wife Marianela Oro?o watch a video during his jersey retirement ceremony. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

Iron Man is now Family Man. Sitting beside Ginobili at center court were his three sons, Dante, Nicola, and Luca, and his wife, Marianela. He spoke to them in Spanish and the AT&T Center roared like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Marianela dabbed an eye with a tissue. Popovich looked as if he would cry. Ginobili finished his remarks, and coach and player embraced. They lingered until Ginobili leaned in and kissed Pop on the side of the face.

El Contusión became La Emoción and swept San Antonio off its feet, one more time.

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.