By Travis Hale
Stripped bare of its glamour and billion-dollar shoe contracts, the game of basketball is a game of numbers; a game of logic.
An NBA court is precisely 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. The rim is 18 inches in diameter and hangs exactly 10 feet from the floor. An NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumference and weighs 22 ounces. The lines painted on the court are two inches wide and each circle, arch or straight line tangling the hardwood carries its own unique set of consequences. Basketball’s precision can reward or punish; its participants push valiantly, woefully, against an intransigent geometry impossible to conquer.
Yet the game’s best find ways to push harder against that immovable force, and sometimes, or oftentimes, come close to breaking through. Dr. J seemed to float in a web around the basket, a graceful spider built from lanky arms and a glorious afro, spinning and weaving until dropping a precisely weighted basketball through a corded net that “shall not be less than 30 thread nor more than 120 thread and shall be constructed to check the ball momentarily as it passes through the basket.”
George Gervin similarly pushed hard against the game’s geometry. His silky movement inside the 15 feet from free-throw line to basket was often punctuated by a soft flip of the ball, over the outstretched fingers of his defenders and through the same exacting net.
In cities across the country on cold winter nights, towering men move so gracefully within the game’s predetermined lines that we tend to take their athleticism for granted. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and on and on and on move with the force and speed of hungry cheetahs hunting prey. Then Steph Curry, Tony Parker and Isiah Thomas find slivers of daylight that others can’t see, and they are gone.
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But perhaps none of them pushed against the boundaries of the game quite as hard as Manu Ginobili. None of them treated such a logical game so absurdly, so defiantly, so illogically.
Chronicling Manu’s most jaw-dropping plays is better left to those with a more precise mind—perhaps CSI investigators or Egyptian archeologists could compile an all-encompassing list. But for simple men like me, Manu is a contorted body and a big bruise, a flowing mane and a bald spot, a left-handed, full-court bounce pass with enough spin to arc away from the defense and into the needy hands of a teammate flying toward the rim. Manu is an ill-timed turnover and a perfectly timed three. He’s a dunk and a missed-dunk, each as thrilling as the other. He’s a heartbreaking disappointment in Playoff Game Fours but a lion ruling over so many Game Fives. Manu Ginobili is a glorious blur of Argentinian powder blue and San Antonio silver and black. And now he might be gone.
So if that day is soon coming, it would be only fitting that upon his announcement the city of San Antonio shuts down and everyone clogs the highways near downtown, honking and celebrating deep into the night. A “Spursian,” style victory celebration would be a perfect salute to a city’s favorite son. Why? Because defiantly celebrating the end of Manu’s career would be…illogical.
I’ve written before about my family’s love for the game and my daughter’s own push against its resolute boundaries. I don’t write about the NBA as often anymore because much of our free-time is spent in tiny gyms and massive sports complexes around Texas watching her play. My perception of the game and its beauty is now largely based on the gradual progress she makes in the cool of the early morning practices or in the hours spent in the gym on steamy, South Texas afternoons. Watching her improve is one of the most rewarding happenings of my life.
Her shooting form is textbook, so much so that her coach has her close her eyes during free-throws to add a layer of difficulty that’s not normally there. She runs, defends and passes well. She’s fundamentally sound and soaks up coaching like a sponge. She knows the angles of the game—missed long threes usually mean long rebounds outside the lane; a missed layup from the right hand side typically means the ball will come off on the left-hand side. Delay your jump for the rebound though because the ball will likely graze the front of the rim.
Where she struggles though is in the deceptive side of the game. Her mathematical mind has difficulty in grasping that going from point A to point D in a straight line doesn’t always work in the game of basketball. Sometimes it’s better to stop at points B, then C, and then back to B, before circling around to D. She’s still learning to push hard against the game’s geometrical rules, but she will. And having the privilege to live in San Antonio and watch Manu Ginobili play so absurdly—so illogically—for so long, will surely give her an advantage over others that chose not to do the same. She has soaked in his absurdities, and that will make her better.
In last night’s close-out game against Golden State, Manu shot an off-balance three from the right elbow after an awkward handoff from Patty Mills late in the fourth quarter. “It’s so ugly,” my daughter said, just after the shot went in. It was his only three-pointer on the night and his penultimate field goal. Moments later, Gregg Popovich pulled him from the game as chants of “MANU!” pleadingly rained down. And moments after that, Manu Ginobili walked off the court and disappeared into the team’s dark tunnel, his left arm raised, his index finger defiantly erect in the air.