Sports

Manu Ginobili, a Hall of Fame original: Often imitated, never duplicated

Manu Ginobili’s individual NBA accolades do not populate the résumé of your typical Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, but the San Antonio Spurs legend will be enshrined in Springfield on Saturday, following his first appearance on the ballot, because he is atypical. There is no résumé like his.

A look down the list of NBA MVPs from the last 25 years reveals a class of peers who praised Ginobili’s creativity, modeled their craft after him and followed those footsteps on the path he paved from abroad.

Magic Johnson called Ginobili “the most exciting European player I’ve ever seen.”

“The first time I played against him, I shocked the hell out of me with his competitiveness and energy and moves,” Kobe Bryant once said. “It was extremely impressive, and he went on to have an amazing career.”

“I got a lot of my game and the footwork from watching him,” James Harden has said. “I’m a fan of his.”

“For international players, sometimes it’s hard to believe and dream big,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said in an appreciation of the Argentinian. “You made us dream big, showing us you can be great in this league.”

Without these testimonials from the game’s all-timers, it is practically impossible to capture the artistry of a player whose work you had to witness to even begin to appreciate, but a single statistic comes close: No one in NBA history who has played as much as Ginobili has recorded a higher winning percentage (72.1%).

Tim Duncan and Tony Parker also deserve credit for the bulk of those victories, but Ginobili’s sacrifice solidified the culture that sustained San Antonio’s dynasty for two decades. He was already an All-Star and champion when he embraced coach Gregg Popovich’s request he conducted the Spurs’ second-unit offense, and from there, the 6-foot-6 lefty elevated his game to All-NBA status and helped deliver three more titles.

“There’s no player in this game that has sacrificed more,” Scottie Pippen has said of Ginobili, who could have been a perennial All-Star and 20,000-point scorer if lesser teams had put their offenses in his hands.

As it were, his 14,043 career points rank 180th in league history. Ginobili averaged 13.3 points (45/37/83 shooting splits), 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 25.4 minutes over 1,057 games (349 starts). He earned two All-Star appearances, two All-NBA third-team selections and won the 2008 Sixth Man of the Year award.

None of it captures what he meant to the Spurs. He was the best player on the floor in Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals, single-handedly swung the 2007 Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns and outscored LeBron James in the championship close-out game two series later. His dunk over Chris Bosh in Game 5 of the 2014 Finals punctuated San Antonio’s victory over the Miami Heat, and his series-swinging block of Harden in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals at age 39 illustrated the breadth of his impact.

Those are a handful of highlights from a career’s worth that propelled Parker, Ginobili and Duncan to win a record 27 playoff series together — five more than Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who fell victim to Ginobili’s game-winner in the opener of San Antonio’s 2013 conference semifinals victory.

Over Ginobili’s 16-year NBA career, San Antonio’s big three vanquished every great team of the era they faced, from Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers to LeBron’s Heat and the nascent Golden State Warriors. Along the way, they prevented Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks, Steve Nash’s Suns, Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder and Harden’s Houston Rockets from creating a stronghold in the West.

And Ginobili played a role in every triumph, missing only six of a possible 224 playoff games.

“He is maybe the greatest competitor that we have ever witnessed here,” Spurs general manager RC Buford told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in August 2016 for the definitive profile of his 1999 second-round pick.

Manu Ginobili celebrates the 2005 NBA championship, his second of four titles with the San Antonio Spurs. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“He’s one of those guys who becomes the heart and soul of your team because of his exemplary competitiveness,” Popovich said in May 2017, shortly after 39-year-old Ginobili dropped 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting in a playoff game against Durant and Curry’s indomitable Warriors. “He’s really an anomaly in that regard. He has that same foot-on-your-neck attitude that Kobe and Michael [Jordan] had, those types of guys. Magic and Larry [Bird]. He’s got the same attitude and plays with the same fire. He always has.”

There was the fire, for sure, and there was the frenetic engine and torque. He “looked like a squirrel crossing the street,” Steve Kerr once told Ginobili, “darting from side to side, then going under two tires.” If squirrels possessed the rhythm of musicians, deftness of magicians, vision of sculptors and brilliance of architects.

As Popovich orchestrated the offense, Ginobili free-styled within it.

“People always ask me who was hardest to guard. I say Kobe. That is what people want to hear. But the truth is, it might have been Manu,” 2007 All-Defensive first-team selection Raja Bell said, via Lowe, of his 2000s nemeses. “He’d rev it to fourth gear, get by you, take it back to second gear so you’d run into him, and then he’d make a crazy floater. I made a living studying offensive players. I couldn’t figure him out.”

Ginobili made the Eurostep an art, befitting a player whose international career would have made him a Hall of Famer without ever playing in the NBA. He was the god of Argentina’s golden generation, leading his home country to a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, silver at the 2002 FIBA ​​World Championship and bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His game-high 29 points in an upset semifinal win over the United States in 2004 marked the only time the US has lost Olympic gold in the era of professional participation.

Between the Spurs drafting Ginobili with the second-to-last pick in 1999 — when Duncan famously said, “Emanuel Ginobili? Who did we just pick?” — and his debut for San Antonio in 2002, he was named MVP of the Italian Cup in 2002, the EuroLeague Finals in 2001 and the Italian League both years, leading Virtus Bologna to consecutive Italian Cups, the 2001 EuroLeague championship and the 2001 Italian League title.

So, when he said from a podium following his April call to the Hall, “I never won a scoring championship, an MVP, even first team,” Ginobili humbled his own résumé. “I’m here because of my surroundings of the players I played with, the coaches and the organization. … I don’t take it as an individual achievement,” he added. “It’s just that I’ve been in the right place at the right time.” As he will be in Springfield on Saturday.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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