Manu Ginóbili would have been happy to retire quietly without his team retiring his jersey, but San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the humble Argentine has no choice but to accept with the same passion he gave to the game.
"When you're that great, you have to go through it, so we're going to make him go through it," Popovich said.
The Spurs retired Ginóbili's No. 20 following a 116-110 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night.
"What am I doing here?" Ginóbili said. "I had no expectations of being here when I was growing up."
He and Bill Bradley are the only players to win an NBA championship, Euroleague title and an Olympic gold medal. Ginóbili won four NBA titles with the Spurs. Despite all his accomplishments and talent, Ginóbili accepted a role coming off San Antonio's bench for all but 349 of his 1,057 games during his 16 seasons with the Spurs.
"To me, he's the definition of Spurs basketball because he had no ego," former Spurs point guard Tony Parker said.
Parker and Tim Duncan honored the fellow 'Big Three' star during a funny and heartfelt ceremony that also included speeches by Popovich and former Spurs and Argentina teammate Fabricio Oberto.
While the Argentine's jersey now rests alongside those belonging to Johnny Moore, Avery Johnson, Bruce Bowen, James Silas, Tim Duncan, Sean Elliott, George Gervin and David Robinson, the thousands of No. 20 jerseys worn by the fans in attendance is proof he remains dear to the fans' heart.
"His presence off the court was always something special," Popovich said. "The people here took him in as one of their own and he allowed it to happen. He's a very warm individual and understood his responsibility to the community. It was a great marriage from day one to this day."
Ginóbili spent his entire NBA career with the Spurs, where he became arguably the most beloved player in franchise history.
"First time I'm on the court, you guys are cheering and chanting my name and I felt like you guys had my back," Ginóbili said, thanking the sellout crowd.
Gervin, Robinson, Duncan and Parker are among the most popular but none captured the city's devotion as much as Ginóbili. His ability to speak Spanish in a city predominantly Hispanic played a part in his popularity, but his humility, recklessness, fire and endeared him to the team's rabid fanbase.
"Because he's always 100 percent natural," former Spurs forward Boris Diaw said. "He just had a great connection with the fans, he spent a lot of time with them. He would never say no to take a picture, never say no to take a picture."
From unknown to hero
Ginóbili's introduction to the team was inauspicious. The Spurs drafted a then unknown Ginóbili with the 57th pick of the 1999 draft and let him stay in the Euroleague for a few more seasons.
"We pick people I've never heard of. I hear ... Emmaniel Ginili," Duncan said, recreating the puzzled look of draft day.
But it quickly became apparent what San Antonio had from the moment the then-mop-topped 25-year-old stepped onto the court against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 29, 2002.
"He was like a mustang out in the field somewhere," Popovich said. "That's how he lived his life on the court he was fearless and wild and did things that won games."
Popovich said Ginóbili helped him become a better coach because he was able to take a step back and not nitpick over. Even if meant watching a pass sail into the stands.
"Nobody can control Manu," Parker said. "Manu is going to be Manu."
Ginóbili also displayed an offensive style that has been adopted by an entire generation. His breakneck Euro-step, wrap-around ball-handling, hard fakes and step-back 3s have been adopted by players such as James Harden.
"Manu brought something new, something different and a lot of young guys at the time look at him and trying to copy it and seeing that it was working," Diaw said. "So, I think it's the guys we see now on the court are the young guys [watching Ginóbili] from a few years ago."
Manu by numbers
Ginóbili spent 16 years in San Antonio. In addition to four titles, his winning percentage of .721 (762-295) is the best winning percentage in NBA history among players who have appeared in at least 1,000 games.
Selected by San Antonio with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, Ginóbili appeared in 1,057 career games, averaging 13.3 points, 3.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.32 steals in 25.4 minutes.
He is the Spurs all-time leader in three-pointers made (1,495) and steals (1,392), while ranking third in games played (1,057), fourth in assists (4,001), fourth in free throws made (3,380) and fifth in points (14,043).
Only two players have more than 800 rebounds, 800 assists and 300 three-pointers in their NBA playoff careers – Ginóbili and LeBron James.
Ginóbili's professional career lasted 23 seasons in all, starting with stints in Italy and Argentina.
"For me he is the most complete [Argentine sportsman] of all," said Fabricio Oberto, with whom Ginóbili won Olympic gold and a 2007 NBA title.
Parker called Ginóbili a "unique" talent.
"There is no other word to describe you," he said. "You were so unique that even Pop didn't know what to do with you the first two years."