As Manu Ginobili drove into the lane, he realized he had gone too far and was now trapped between his man and the baseline. He jumped to avoid going out of bounds and simultaneously tried to lob a pass to Tim Duncan over both his man and Duncan’s defender—an impossible pass that was easily intercepted. Down by four points with under a minute to go, the Spurs would now have to foul. The game was over. This costly turnover was one of 12 that Manu committed in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals. Game 6 alone was probably his worst game as a professional: 9 points, 8 turnovers, and a -21 (meaning that when he was on the floor the Spurs were outscored by 21 points).
These poor performances, in the two most important games of the season, were difficult to watch, since watching Manu walk a thin line between aggressive and reckless play is always entertaining and often exhilirating. But what could normally be seen as charming recklessness could now be seen as exasperating ineptitude. His passes, usually exquisite, were now leading to turnovers and to fast breaks and to easy baskets for the opponent. To help us remember better days, here’s an 11-minute Manu highlight reel: the first three minutes of which are the most enjoyable to watch because they concentrate almost solely on his passes (behind-the-back, no-look, and whatever superlative praise you want to heap on the pass at 1:35):
The highlights are glorious, but the video’s title seems ironic since clinical is probably among the last words I would use to describe Manu’s play, which is spontaneous and lively not precise and dispassionate. Putting semantic quibbling aside for the moment, in addition to their high aesthetic value, the passes are all extremely effective at making his teammates’ shots easier; they are not done merely for show although the show is part of it. Simply put, his passes are ludicrous in the truest sense of the word—done for sport and in the spirit of play—which inspires some to call him a “mad genius” and a “scientist” and induces exuberant outbursts from former NBA greats. When I think of watching Manu I think of the term “play” and the ideals of creativity and imagination that we might aspire to but frequently fall short of on the court (and in life). He makes basketball look fun, a difficult feat because basketball is a monotonous game of attrition, up and down the court, back and forth, over and over again, two (sometimes three) points at a time.
It’s fitting, then, that Manu is known by a one-word moniker because he plays basketball the way some of the great one-name Brazilians played soccer (Ronaldinho especially comes to mind)—even if being compared to a Brazilian would surely be seen as an insult to an Argentine. Like them, Manu plays a beautiful game. He even flops egregiously. His name, in fact, stands for the most useful description of his style of play, becoming a tautology that somehow makes perfect sense. How do you describe Manu other than to say that he’s Manu? Would that we were all so perfectly expressive that our names served as the only sufficient adjectives to describe our identity.
Earlier in the playoffs, in a game against the Golden State Warriors, Manu had taken an ill-advised shot (and played a poor game generally) that helped the Warriors take the lead very late in the game. But in typically dramatic fashion, the earlier miscues and misfires were merely the prelude to a triumphant moment for Manu. After the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s remarked on Manu’s rapid transformation from goat to hero:
I went from wanting to trade him on the spot to wanting to cook breakfast for him tomorrow morning. That’s the truth. When I talk to him and say, `Manu,’ he goes, `This is what I do.’ That’s what he’s going to tell me. I stopped coaching him a long time ago.”
This is what he does. Except that Popovich’s characterization of Manu’s own description of himself isn’t completely accurate. For Manu, it’s not what he does that makes him who he is, but how he does it—not a matter of style over substance, but of style becoming substance. This tethering of identity to style, though, is a precarious situation because what happens when he can’t do it anymore or at least can’t do it as frequently?
In a moment of resignation after his Game 6 debacle, sounding like a man who had been made all too aware of his limitations, Manu admitted that he was going to think about retirement after the season ended. This wasn’t an overreaction because Game 6, unfortunately, wasn’t an aberration; for the last few seasons Manu’s play has suffered from injury and inconsistent play. So either Manu comes back and we watch him not be able to make the plays he once made or he ceases to play entirely. Manu will stop being Manu. Contrary to what we may want to believe, tautologies can’t go on forever.