Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki

By Sarah Cilea

Training camp is in the books.  Preseason is in full swing and the 2017-18 NBA season is truly upon us.  

That means it’s time to stock up on Flexall, heat up the Hydrocollators, and get ice bag-tying proficiency up to the level of champion calf-roper.  This is especially true in Texas as 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and 40-year-old Manu Ginobili return for their 20th and 16th NBA seasons, respectively.  

Objectively, it’s good to see.  With Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan all meandering out to sunset-lit pastures in the last year, it’s a comfort to those who grew up on NBA basketball in the 2000s not to have to close the door on that chapter just yet.  Occasionally, it is not only a comfort but a thrill.

And why shouldn’t it be?  Nowitzki and Ginobili are generational players.  Two surefire Hall-of-Famers who helped grow the game, legitimize and fetishize the search for international NBA talent for scouts everywhere.  They collected the game’s most prestigious accolades and trophies along the way, each man doing so with his own unique brand of magic.

Sure, the theatrics on which they made their names are not regular nightly occurrences anymore.  Status updates of “Did Not Play”, “Did Not Dress”, “Not With Team” and “Inactive” dot their seasonal game logs now.

Nowitzki missed most of the first two months of the 2016-17 season with an achilles injury, sitting out 25 games before the calendar even turned to January.  Ginobili sat out 13 games last season and averaged less than 19 minutes per game in his 69 appearances.  Their overall numbers are lower than any time since their rookie seasons.  

But there are still flashes of brilliance.  Nowitzki still owns the one-legged fall-away, dropping the unguardable shot through the net with a feathery touch.  Ginobili still somehow gets his legs under him enough after the behind-the-back dribble step-back to finish the subsequent pull-up jumper from time to time, leaving defenders much younger than he stumbling back in his wake.  

The go-to moves still make semi-regular appearances.  Occasionally, they coalesce into something rarer still.  Something that, for a game, hearkens back to their heyday, if not quite reproducing it completely.  These moments are a gift to steadfast fans, no longer taken as a given night in and night out but never wholly unexpected either—not considering the men who manufacture them.  You never know when these moments will happen.

In early February Nowitzki hit the NBA community with vintage “clutch Dirk” performances in consecutive games.  He dropped 25 points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and four-of-seven three-pointers on the Blazers—including two go-ahead threes in the final 39 seconds—before C.J. McCollum snatched victory away in the final second.  Two nights later Nowitzki served Utah with 20 points and seven boards.  When a shot by Harrison Barnes skittered off the rim with four seconds to go and the Mavericks down 100-98, Nowitzki rose up with the look-what-I-found rebound for the game-tying shot.  The Mavericks won in overtime.

Ginobili famously went scoreless through the first four games of the playoffs before delivering a 12-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist performance when the Spurs needed him most in the second round against Houston.  He wrapped at lefty layup around Clint Capela to tie the game with 35 seconds remaining, then sealed up the critical Game 5 win with a complete erasure of James Harden’s last shot attempt in overtime.  

Arguably even more enjoyable to witness than their on-court exploits is the peace with which both Nowitzki and Ginobili seem to be approaching the latter stage of their careers. For a decade they labored at opposite ends of Instertate-35, bitter southwest division rivals who carried the hopes of their respective countries on their backs.  They still compete as fiercely as ever, but that need to prove anything to anyone outside themselves, to cement some legacy that will live long after their feet rest in recliners more often than in basketball sneakers, that doesn’t haunt them.  

“I want to be remembered as a good person, a good dude, that I was here around in town, and fun to watch, and good to hang out with but after a few years it’s going to be forgotten,” Ginobili recently told Sirius XM NBA Radio.  “The legacy thing is very overrated.”

Asked to define his own legacy in 2014 Nowitzki told ESPN, “I don’t know.  I kind of let others do that.  I came in as a little kid, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen… A lot of guys come in with talent and never reach their max.  Me having a great surrounding, work ethic and coaching and teammates, it just happened.”

Instead, Ginobili and Nowitzki appear to be enjoying the ride.  Nowitzki has fully embraced social media, unleashing his self-deprecating brand of humor on Twitter.  His page is a murderers’ row of videos of him hugging a puppy (named Swish), promotion of philanthropic events like his tennis tournament in September (the proceeds of which went to those affected by Hurricane Harvey), and old man jokes of which he is the butt.

Ginobili has similarly plugged in over the last few years.  While he’s always had a reputation among those who cover the league for being one of the most candid and gracious players to work with, he’s made himself even more accessible to the fans directly via a video diary posted to YouTube.  He began posting during training camp this season, alternating between speaking Spanish and English every other day.   He’s also proven he’s not above making a few jokes at his own expense.

Of the first practice of the season he said, “We had a good practice.  I felt good—slow, but good.  I overachieved, actually.  Always remember that when I say I overachieved, it’s because the expectations are kind of low.  So overachieving is easier than ten years ago.”

He said he intends to keep up the videos throughout the year—though not daily—mainly as a way to record what he thinks and feels as the year unfolds.  And lest we get any definite ideas about what this means for his future, “It doesn’t have to be necessarily because it’s the last one or if not.  I would have loved to have done it ten years ago to see how it was, how I felt, how I looked.”

Whether or not they buy in to talk of personal legacy, whether or not they are concerned with it, the influence of both Nowitzki and Ginobili will remain with the game long after they leave it.  It will be present every time Kevin Durant pulls a one-legged fadeaway, every time James Harden Eurosteps around a defender to a smooth lefty finish, any time Lauri Markkanen, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, or any other seven-footer strokes a three, whenever an unsuspecting defender gets nutmegged, and every time an NBA commissioner calls the name of a kid from South America or Europe on Draft Night.  

The names will change as the years go on, and the game will continue to evolve, but the moves they popularized will continue to appear.  Their individual brilliance won’t fully be captured by black and white lines in record books, and may dim in the imperfect recollection of human memory, but that they directly impacted the generation following them is without doubt.

The NBA is full of reasons to look ahead.  How long will the shadow of the Warriors’ reign loom over the field?  When will the stable of young unicorns become permanent fixtures in the postseason?  Which one will separate himself from the pack?  We’ll have the answers soon enough.  In the meantime, there are at least a couple reasons to enjoy the moment.  

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Sarah Cilea

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