Vince Carter launched himself into the national spotlight with an iconic performance in the 2000 dunk contest, and 17 years later, he’s still contributing in the NBA. As his athleticism faded over the years, he developed a reliable 3-point shot and began to play less like a stick of dynamite with arms and legs and more like that old guy at the YMCA that always beats you.
Adjustments like this are common as past-their-prime stars extend their careers. Change is forced upon them as their bodies gets slower and less explosive, and the game becomes more about positioning and instincts. It’s not easy to do, but it is necessary for most players as they age. However, Manu Ginobili is not most players.
Ginobili has played most of his career off the bench for San Antonio, and he’s gone from maybe the best sixth man ever to the self proclaimed ninth man in the latter stages of his career. He’s playing just 19 minutes per game this year, but his production per 36 minutes has been pretty comparable to what he’s done in the past.
Even more impressive than the numbers is the way his game has barely changed in the 15 years he’s been in the NBA. He still drives the lane and makes wild overhead passes, proof that Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich could never break him. The 39 year old never seems afraid of the big shot and always pesters his mark on defense. He dives on the floor for loose balls and still plants his feet to draw a charge even though he literally lost a testicle doing so last year.
In a way, it makes sense that Ginobili’s game has remained remarkably intact despite the miles on his legs and the iconic bald spot on his head. His creativity makes him exciting to watch, his profound understanding of the game makes him effective, and that intersection of his left and right brain makes him a unique basketball savant. Ginobili’s genius has only grown stronger with experience, as there’s almost nothing he hasn’t seen on a basketball court.
For years Ginobili has seen the slimmest of cracks in a defense that nobody else can detect, and he’s had the guts to attack with risky passes and contested drives. Some would call him cocky or reckless, but fearless is probably a better word. His supreme confidence is less about ego and more about practicality. Big moments come in basketball games, and Manu will never shy away from them. That hasn’t changed a bit either.
Just a few weeks ago, the Spurs pulled off an extremely improbable fourth quarter comeback in Houston. In that fourth, Manu drained three 3 point shots and assisted on three made 3 pointers, contributing to 18 points. He played clutch defense, stealing the ball twice and even taking a charge with the game on the line. We could use CGI to give him a full head of hair and it would look like the film was straight out of 2005.
Part of what makes Manu a special player is his competitive drive – his intensity on the floor, his willingness to risk a mistake in order to attempt the spectacular. That’s just who he is as a person, and it has not faded a bit during his career. There is a fire inside him that burns as hot as it did in his rookie year. His passion for the game of basketball may be matched by a select few, but never exceeded. Kobe Bryant has recognized Manu as one of the most intense competitors he had ever faced, and Coach Pop drew a comparison between the two rivals.
“He has the same love of winning and maniacal approach to competitiveness. It’s the same as Michael and Kobe have. He doesn’t have the same athletic ability, but he has the same spirit and competitiveness that they do. He has a high basketball IQ like they do in the sense that it could be an offensive board, a 3-point shot, a drive, a steal, an assist to win a basketball game. He knows what it takes. If you combine that IQ and that competitiveness, he’s a special person.”
It is nothing short of amazing that Ginobili’s body has held up and allowed him to play the way he has for so long. He’s had his share of injuries, and Pop has limited his minutes per game and given him ample rest, but it remains a mystery how Manu continues to will his body to do things that no 39 year old should be able to do.
Ginobili has targeted his diet and exercise to extend his career, but it definitely goes further than that. He probably shows up extra early to stretch, and stays in the ice bath longer than anybody else. He probably goes through a substantial amount of Advil and Icy Hot. If he suffers from chronic knee pain or anything like that, he doesn’t let it show.
Over the summer when Ginobili announced his return to the Spurs, he said that he felt great physically. Playing this game at the highest level for 15 years has probably taken its toll, but don’t tell Manu that. He will compete the way he does until one day he just can’t anymore. As we saw with Tim Duncan last year, it can happen rather quickly. Injuries are difficult to recover from for men of a certain age, and at some point his magical run will come to an end. Until then, he’s still Manu.