Hall of Fame: Class of 2022

How Manu Ginobili’s competitiveness & curiosity pushed him into the Hall of Fame

A relentless competitor, a dedicated 6th man and a beloved figure in San Antonio, Manu Ginobili is much more than who he was on the court.

Manu Ginobili talks with former Spurs assistant coach Will Hardy prior to a game in 2018.

SAN ANTONIO – The split-second buildup induced butterflies, sending chills through a steamy gym two weeks before the start of training camp.

“You could just see it happening,” Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy explained to NBA.com. “I just remember Pop losing his mind.”

It’s summer 2012, and Manu Ginobili has just turned 34. By now, the veteran owns an Olympic gold medal and three NBA championship rings, not to mention a pair of All-Star nods and an NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award.

In a routine pick-up game, Mario West — an unsigned and unheralded free-agent — sprints the floor in transition for what should be an easy breakaway dunk. That’s when Hardy (then a Spurs assistant coach under Gregg Popovich) spots a figure out the corner of his eye bearing down in hot pursuit, as the sound of squeaking sneakers fades into the horrid silence of the moment. Like everybody else in the gym that day, Hardy cringes in anticipation of what might happen next.

“You’re like, ‘Bro, he is not about to try to make a play at the rim two weeks before training camp, on a free agent,’ ” Hardy said. “Every reason to do it was wrong, and he did it. He blocked the dunk right there at the rim. Pop about had a heart attack.”

The heart-stopping process, like so many times before, only repeated itself the very next day in another inconsequential pickup run when Ginobili dove through the legs of franchise stalwart Tim Duncan to scoop up a loose ball.

Manu Ginobili celebrates the Spurs’ championship in 2014.

“The most competitive player we’ve ever had,” Spurs CEO R.C. Buford says, as a matter of fact.

“He just can’t shut it off,” Hardy adds. “He doesn’t know how, and that’s his strength.”

When Duncan introduces Ginobili as the headliner of the Naismith Hall of Fame Class of 2022 on Saturday, you’ll likely hear countless tales of the ultra-competitiveness that pushed the Argentine to the mantle of winningest player in NBA history (72.1%) among those appearing in at least 1,000 games.

Ginobili accomplished his feats with flair, fearlessness, dogged competitiveness, selflessness and reckless abandon over a 23-year career in professional basketball, which included a 16-season run with the Spurs that produced four titles.

But there’s so much more to the man, according to former teammate Brent Barry, who now serves as San Antonio’s vice president of basketball operations.

“You don’t find people often that have achieved a level of success or fame that really live as principled a life as Manu has, and with that just comes so many qualities that become stuff that you’re grateful to be around: His accountability, his compassion, the way he’s contributed to the community both here and back home in Argentina, his incredible zest for living,” Barry told NBA.com. “He just enjoys every day.”

Inauspicious start

So diffident of his future as an NBA player, Ginobili actually slept through the 1999 draft, as San Antonio selected him No. 57 in a class that produced nine All-Stars and three winners of the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award (Ginobili, Jason Terry, and Lamar Odom).

“I was excited,” Ginobili said.

But deep down, he figured playing actual minutes in the NBA would be a long shot.

With San Antonio coming off a 1999 NBA title and wanting to keep that team together without adding to the roster for the upcoming season, Buford — then the Spurs’ GM — felt the same as Ginobili. Since first scouting Ginobili in 1997 in Melbourne, Australia at the FIBA World Championships for Men 22 and Under, Buford was immediately enamored with the guard’s “passion for the game, his passion for life, and his passion for his teammates,” he told NBA.com. “But we were trying to draft guys that we could leave overseas.”

In fact, Buford considered drafting Ginobili’s Argentine teammate, Lucas Victoriano, with the 57th pick. But “at the time, we didn’t think we could convince Pop to play a foreign point guard,” Buford said. So, at No. 57 — the second-to-last pick that year — San Antonio selected Ginobili, who first debuted as a pro in 1995, as an 18-year-old in La Liga de Básquet, the top-tier level in the Argentine basketball league.

By the time the Spurs drafted Ginobili, he was playing in Italy for Reggio Calabria.

His Hall of Fame resume isn’t defined by what he did in the NBA. It’s defined by so much more.”

— Spurs CEO R.C. Buford, on Manu Ginobili

Once the summer of 2000 arrived, Virtus Bologna in Italy was looking “to make some moves to strengthen the team to try to win the EuroLeague,” according to former head coach Ettore Messina, who later worked as lead assistant under Popovich in San Antonio, before leaving the Spurs in the summer of 2019 to take over basketball operations and head coaching duties at Olimpia Milano. At the time, Bologna was led by Serbian star Sasha Danilovic, who had spent some time in the NBA with Miami and Dallas.

So, Messina brought in Ginobili to serve as Danilovic’s backup.

The EuroLeague Final Four MVP in 1992, Danilovic spent that summer playing in the Olympics in Sidney, Australia for Yugoslavia. That opened the door for Messina and his staff to evaluate Ginobili more thoroughly.

“With Danilovic playing in the Olympics, Manu is shining in the preseason,” Messina told NBA.com. “He’s doing things every practice, every game that are impressive. We were all shocked. We were saying, ‘Oh my goodness. This kid could be something special.’ Still, in the back of our minds, he’s the backup to Danilovic. He was a little bit wild.”

Spurs legend Manu Ginobili was once considered an emerging star in the NBA.

Danilovic returned after the 2000 Olympics. Citing repeated injuries that diminished his skillset, Danilovic abruptly announced his retirement at age 30.

“So, Manu all of the sudden becomes our starting guard,” Messina said.

You’re expecting the legend of Manu Ginobili to take flight now, right?

Nope. Not yet.

While Messina and the Virtus Bologna staff anticipated the usual growing pains from the new starting guard, they didn’t expect Ginobili to churn out a clunker in his EuroLeague debut.

“He goes scoreless from the floor,” Messina says, laughing from his home in Italy. “He scored six free throws, and that’s it. Zero points in action. We lose at the buzzer in Athens. I remember walking off the court and I tell my assistants: ‘Listen, if this is our go-to guy, this is gonna be a long season.’ ”

Of course, Ginobili’s fiercely competitive nature wouldn’t let the struggles continue.

“It turned exactly the opposite,” Messina said, still laughing. “He was outstanding. He grew up, grew up, grew up, and at the end of the year in that EuroLeague he was MVP. So he goes from scoring zero points from the field in the opening game to being the MVP in eight months. Pretty remarkable.”

They’d win the 2001 Italian League Championship, the 2001 and 2002 Italian Cup, and the 2001 EuroLeague.

“We saw Manu playing with his enthusiasm, his smile, his aggression, falling down on the floor, and then bouncing up and running again,” Messina said. “We were all fed by his energy.”

Ginobili would then help the Argentinian national team shock the world by defeating Team USA 87-80 in Indianapolis at the 2002 World Championships. The occasion marked Team USA’s first loss in the 59 games it had played since 1992, after Americans began sending NBA players to international tournaments.

He grew up, grew up, grew up, and at the end of the year in that EuroLeague he was MVP. So he goes from scoring zero points from the field in the opening game to being the MVP in eight months. Pretty remarkable.”

— Former Virtus Bologna coach Ettore Messina, on Manu Ginobili’s season in 2000

Argentina would eventually lose to Yugoslavia in the final, in part due to an ankle injury suffered by Ginobili in the semifinals that limited him to an ineffective 20 minutes in the championship game.

Having watched the Spurs’ draftee with delight throughout the tournament, Buford walked the streets of Indianapolis that evening, eventually stopping at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse downtown, where Ginobili and the Argentines were holding what should have been a somber postgame dinner coming off a heartbreaking defeat. Inconspicuously, Buford sat a few tables away and watched closely, as immense sadness morphed into a party.

“They had lost probably in their mind their only chance to ever win a world championship,” Buford told NBA.com. “It was one of those team dinners that was just historic in my mind, how beautiful they were as a team. That team was as great a team as you’ve ever seen. That’s why they call it the Golden Generation. Manu was a big part of that team along with Fabricio [Oberto], Luis Scola, [Leandro] Palladino. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”

That fall, Ginobili would make his NBA debut with the Spurs.

Given his winding path up to that point, Ginobili — the self-proclaimed “late bloomer” — had already seen “basically everything,” having worked his way up internationally before finally earning the opportunity to play in the NBA. Ginobili felt he had experienced so much during his ascension from age 18 to 25, that he would never take anything in the NBA for granted.

He went on to play 1,057 regular-season and 218 postseason contests with San Antonio, finishing his career ranked in the franchise’s top five in games, points (14,043), assists (4,001) and steals (1,392). The 45-year-old remains the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in games, minutes played (4,209), points (2,014), assists (576) and steals (205) for a reserve.

Ginobili’s willingness to come off the bench for the bulk of his NBA career — despite possessing the talent to start — “allowed us to be a better team with the way we could play our rotations,” Buford said. With Ginobili as the centerpiece, San Antonio’s second units became virtually unstoppable over an impeccable career that included a postseason appearance in every season.

The other ‘C’ word

Manu Ginobili dives for a loose ball during a game in 2013.

“Competitive” seems to be the most common trait mentioned when former teammates and coaches describe Ginobili, but “curious” checks in as a close No. 2. Both qualities operated symbiotically throughout the storied basketball career of the self-described “minivan dad” (he’s driven a minivan for more than 10 years) both on and off the court.

Julio Lamas coached Ginobili and the Argentinian national team for two cycles (1997-99 and 2011-14) and quickly realized “he is one or two seconds before all the others on the floor.”

During the 2012 Olympics in London after Argentina lost to a French team led by Spurs teammate and future Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker, Lamas had a conversation with Ginobili.

Unbeknownst to Ginobili, “two players were frustrated [with] not getting enough open shots” and “had a little argument with me,” just before the shooting guard made his way over, the coach explained.

“Manu approached me and asked me to check the video of the game and see how many more passes he could have given and to whom,” Lamas told NBA.com. “I told him five [to the bigs and shooters]. The next game, he gave a lot of assists and the game flowed. Manu always focused on providing solutions with enthusiasm and took charge. He loves [to] win over his stats, his points, or if he’s the star of the team. This attitude gives chemistry to the teams. Everybody respected Manu. His emotional balance is perfect.”

Ginobili’s competitive fire is often what fueled the curiosity.

That certainly kept Hardy on his toes during his early days as an intern in San Antonio’s film room.

Manu Ginobili talks about his role off the bench after winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2008.

“He made you always prepare because he has such a wacko mind that goes all over the place that you really never knew what he was gonna ask,” Hardy joked. “He’d ask stuff like, ‘What does he shoot from 3 going left?’ It could be statistics or tendencies. If you had the answer, it was like you gained a little bit of credibility with him.”

Off the court, one of Ginobili’s closest friends in the locker room can attest to his authenticity. Brooklyn Nets guard Patty Mills played 10 seasons in San Antonio, seven with Ginobili.

After the two sat down at a bar near the team hotel in Utah during the 2012 NBA Playoffs, Mills walked away flabbergasted by Ginobili’s inquisitiveness.

“He was really curious about my background, my culture, and my family,” Mills told NBA.com. “I never had met someone that was that curious about it and wanting to go into great depth and detail about it. He genuinely cared about getting to know you.”

While Mills calls Ginobili a “fierce competitor,” the Australian guard tells NBA.com “there’s a part of him that has a balanced life off the court with his family, his culture, where he’s from. It’s not like he eats, breathes, and sleeps basketball all the time. If he’s not familiar with something, it’s like he goes down a rabbit hole to either learn about it or try to experience it. I learned from him to be more curious about certain things and want to find out more worldly knowledge.”

The information gleaned has proven beneficial for both Ginobili and the teams he led, whether on the Argentina national team, in EuroLeague or the NBA. So, it’s no surprise to find that books such as “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” rank among Ginobili’s most recent favorites, in addition to “Thinking Fast and Slow,” as well as “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” which was gifted to him by Popovich.

“He was so intelligent in reading teammates, understanding what needed to be done, whether it was in a basketball game, after a game, on a bus or on an airplane,” Popovich said during a video tribute to Ginobili. “[He was] just curious about making everybody feel comfortable in the environment, and that’s something you just can’t teach.”

Gregg Popovich explains Manu Ginobili's impact on the Spurs' dynasty.

That, in turn, rubbed off on teammates and bolstered an unwavering trust and care that ran deep within every locker room where Ginobili hung up a jersey. The shooting guard came to San Antonio already embracing these dynamics borne from vast experiences overseas and playing for the Argentinian national team.

That made for a natural fit within the Spurs’ already well-established culture.

Oftentimes, competitiveness and curiosity combined to spawn innovation for Ginobili. That’s how he started to utilize the famed Eurostep. Barreling into the lane against heavier, taller, and many times more athletic opponents, Ginobili realized he couldn’t beat them vertically. Horizontally, though, Ginobili felt like his odds increased.

“He wasn’t the first that brought it,” Buford said, “but he really popularized it.”

You could argue Ginobili perfected it.

Former NBA players break down Manu Ginobili's signature Eurostep move.

Immense impact

Former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown worked closely with Ginobili during his several stints in San Antonio, which included the role of director of player development in 2002. “He was basically the guy assigned to me,” Ginobili once said. Brown was promoted to assistant coach in 2007 and helped hone the club’s devastating bench units, with Ginobili as the fulcrum.

Brown, who won three of his four titles (2003, ’05, ’07) with Ginobili, marvels at how the 2007-08 Sixth Man of the Year helped San Antonio advance through multiple eras. Brown is enthralled by the undeniable impact Ginobili has on winning. After all, Ginobili’s teams have captured a total of 11 championships at various levels.

“I’ve been doing this a long time on all corners of the planet, and there is nobody more unique, nobody more holistic, nobody more curious,” Brown told NBA.com. “He checks off so many boxes.”

One of those boxes on his resume includes a legendary gold medal.

In 2004 during the Olympics in Athens, Ginobili and Argentina would pull off another major upset of Team USA as the guard reeled off 29 points during an 89-81 victory in the semifinals. Argentina knocked off Italy in the gold medal game, earning the highest honor in the history of the country’s national team. And for the first time since pro players were added for the original 1992 Dream Team, the Americans would not leave as champions.

Manu Ginobili celebrates during a win against Team USA at the 2004 Olympics.

That monumental victory over a Team USA squad that featured players such as Duncan, LeBron James and Allen Iverson, came just before the start of the shooting guard’s third NBA season in which he’d earn his first All-Star nod.

Jokingly nicknamed “El Contusion” by Barry for a fearless and relentless style of play that lent itself to plenty of injuries, Ginobili embodied the hard-working blue-collar demeanor of San Antonio, the largest majority-Hispanic city in the U.S. As flashy as his play was on the court, Ginobili “never did anything for show,” Hardy explained by pointing out the guard’s preferred postgame outfits of grey, black and white T-shirts with a pair of jeans.

In addition to routinely accommodating both English- and Spanish-speaking news outlets after games, Ginobili would also take the time to speak in Italian to any reporters coming over from Italy.

“There’s something in a way that a player plays and the way a town feels like it wants its representation, and Manu is it with the way he embraced the city and the way they embraced him as a Spanish speaker with an infectious personality that’s hard to deny,” Barry said.

Take a look back at what made Manu Ginobili a Hall of Famer, an NBA champion and more in his storied playing career.

Duncan and David Robinson may fall squarely into the debate about the greatest Spur of all time. But Ginobili is arguably the most beloved player in the franchise’s history among the local citizens.

Buford jokes that the entire country of Argentina was outraged that Ginobili wasn’t starting. Although the 6-foot-6 guard accepted the role off the bench begrudgingly for most of his career, nobody can argue the results or the precious moments produced as Ginobili advanced San Antonio from one era to the next, simultaneously building an international resume that produced copious hardware.

We’ll remember the duels in 2003 against Kobe Bryant, the flying game-winner against Serbia in the 2004 Olympics, the pass to Robert Horry in the 2005 NBA Finals, the dunks over Yao Ming and Chris Bosh, as well as the 2009 “Bat Game” and subsequent rabies shots.

We’ll remember Ginobili’s first career block on James Harden in overtime of Game 5 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals, as well as the thunderous standing ovation Ginobili received walking off the court for the last time at the AT&T Center during a game, in which, coincidentally, he started in front of the home crowd.

“I can talk hoops all day long,” Brown said. “But what makes him unique is the family man he is, the husband, the world-class curiosity, the outside interests, the ability to put things into perspective, the humility. That’s the separation from everybody else with Manu, not the things he did on the court.”

As Buford puts it: “His Hall of Fame resume isn’t defined by what he did in the NBA. It’s defined by so much more.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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