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LAS VEGAS – At the conclusion of a news conference on Thursday to announce a new partnership between the Junior NBA and the Argentinean Basketball Federation, Manu Ginobili stood up to pose for pictures while holding up a San Antonio Spurs No. 20 jersey that appeared to be intended for one of his 6-year-old twin boys, Dante and Nicola.
After smiling for the cameras, Ginobili glanced to his left at Argentina teammate Luis Scola, who smiled as he lifted his new Brooklyn Nets jersey up against his chest to reveal that it actually might fit. Ginobili shook his head and cracked a joke in Spanish about the tiny jersey before handing it back to an NBA staffer. But if the past 14 years have proven anything, Ginobili belongs in a Spurs uniform – even if it comes in size extra medium.
For a brief moment this summer, however, Ginobili considered wearing something other than black and silver for his 15th season in the league. Walking out of UNLV’s Cox Pavilion to catch an Uber back to his hotel, Ginobili told The Vertical that his conversations with the Philadelphia 76ers weren’t a mild flirtation, nor a negotiating ploy to squeeze some extra dollars out of the only NBA franchise for which he’s played.
“It was not my main option. I never wanted to leave San Antonio,” Ginobili told The Vertical. “But I had to listen to all the options that are there.”
In a wild free-agency period that witnessed Dwyane Wade ending a 13-year marriage with the Miami Heat to go to his hometown Chicago Bulls and both Kevin Durant and Al Horford leaving after nine seasons with their respective franchises, none would’ve been more startling than Ginobili leaving the 67-win Spurs for the 10-win 76ers. But Philadelphia came to the table with two assets that piqued Ginobili’s interest – a coach in Brett Brown, who had a rapport with Ginobili after working closely with him for 11 seasons in San Antonio; and a two-year contract offer that would’ve guaranteed in the first season (between $16 million and $17 million) more than five times what the Spurs initially offered for one year ($3 million).
“The fact that Philadelphia had a great coach and a person I appreciate so much as Brett Brown, made it more appealing in the case the Spurs didn’t happen,” Ginobili told The Vertical. “But the Spurs happened and they always had the priority.”
The Spurs happened after general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich locked up Ginobili by raising the team’s one-year offer to $14 million – a figure that is only a hair below Ginobili’s highest salary with the organization and only slightly less that the nearly $17 million he earned from discount deals in the past three seasons combined.
Ginobili and the recently retired Tim Duncan were always willing to subsidize the Spurs’ championship pursuits by surrendering more money. But Ginobili’s value to the franchise he helped win four championships increased after Duncan decided to call it quits after a brilliant 19-year career. The Spurs held on, rewarding Ginobili for his loyalty with a windfall, though it meant that the team wasn’t able to match Detroit’s three-year, $21-million offer sheet for free-agent center Boban Marjanovic.
“Losing Tim made it absolutely imperative that we keep him,” Popovich told The Vertical Thursday of Ginobili. “To lose them both at the same time, it would’ve been like death by a thousands cuts. It would’ve been awful.”
When the Spurs’ season ended in Oklahoma City last May, losing Duncan and Ginobili seemed like a distinct possibility, especially after Ginobili spoke of the “amazing run” after the loss. Ginobili played the fewest minutes of his career but remained an effective rotation player, even as he gets set to turn 39 next week. While Duncan said he decided to leave because the game wasn’t fun anymore, Ginobili decided to come back for at least one more season because he felt just the opposite.
“I still enjoy the game,” Ginobili told The Vertical. “Last year, I had a blast. We had a great team. I did well. I was healthy, except that incident in February [when Ginobili was forced to miss 11 games after a knee to the groin required testicle surgery]. Once I felt that I enjoy the game still and I can still do it, it wasn’t a hard decision.”
Ginobili said he “kind of knew” Duncan would leave after this season but didn’t want to accept it until the Spurs released the official retirement announcement. Popovich and Tony Parker are all that remain from Ginobili’s rookie season. If he decides to leave after next season, Ginobili would be one of eight players in NBA history to spend at least 15 seasons with only one team.
“This season is going to be a different season, being out there with the Spurs without him,” Ginobili said of Duncan. “He was an incredible teammate. A person of whom I learned a lot. That I enjoyed playing with him. Many times, when an athlete is so big, so talented, gets MVPs and all that, you sort get a little more egocentric or, I don’t know, and with him, it was not the case at all. He always cared mainly about the team, and then personal accolades, he never cared about All-Star games, those awards, he just cared about getting us to June. It was an enormous pleasure to have had the opportunity to play with him 14 seasons.”
Ginobili’s decision to keep playing, which he announced on his Twitter feed, affected two teams, since it also meant he would participate in international competition with Argentina for at least one more time. As the most decorated NBA player from the greatest generation of Argentine hoopsters, one that claimed an Olympic gold medal in 2004, Ginobili admitted that he didn’t expect to be around for this run.
“The fact was, a couple of years ago, I thought I was going to be retired by now. I was not going to come back out of retirement just to play because I can’t be helping like that,” Ginobili said as Argentina prepares to face Team USA in Friday’s Olympic exhibition at T-Mobile Arena. “It’s crazy that I’m still here.”
It would’ve been crazier had Ginobili come here as a member of the 76ers. That was avoided because the Spurs happened, and Popovich offered some levity to avoiding what would’ve been an awkward twilight for a future Hall of Famer. Asked his thoughts on how Philadelphia disrupted the Spurs’ summer, Popovich deadpanned, “I don’t speak to Brett Brown to this day.”
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