But the NBA-centric universe sometimes overlooks how basketball is a true world sport with roots not necessarily created by the NBA, and it has to be said that the 41-year-old Manu will also be seen as one of the greatest international players ever and perhaps the greatest South American of all time.
It can’t be stated enough that since men’s basketball became an Olympic medal sport in 1936, the only team from Latin America to ever win gold was the 2004 Argentine squad.
Think about that: Of the 19 Olympic men’s basketball tournaments held, the United States won 15 gold medals, the Soviet Union won two, Yugoslavia won once and the only team from the world’s Southern Hemisphere to ever place first was Argentina.
And to this day, even as Ginóbili made his mark with the San Antonio Spurs, my favorite Manu memory was his Olympic basketball debut, when he scored 27 points and dropped a spectacular lefty floater at the buzzer to defeat Serbia and Montenegro by a point.
It was the start of a dream run for the Argentine team, which included a shocking 89-81 upset over the United States in the semifinals (Manu knocked in 29 points in that game) and an easy gold medal win over Italy.
When it comes to one of the greatest underdog international teams ever, Argentina’s 2004 Olympic edition is up there, and Manu played a great role in leading that team, just like he did in 2002, when Argentina defeated the United States and placed second in the World Basketball Championships.
At this point, you might think that I am overstating the importance of international basketball accomplishments, but I will forgive you because for many of us growing up in places like Puerto Rico (me), Argentina (Manu), Mexico (the 1936 bronze medalist for men’s basketball), Uruguay (1952 and 1956 bronze), Brazil (1948, 1960, 1964 bronze) or even Cuba (1972 bronze), our first introduction to basketball wasn’t the NBA. It was FIBA, the world’s governing basketball body.
Before I knew anything about the New York Knicks, for instance, my first real basketball memory was when the 1976 Puerto Rican Olympic team almost defeated the United States. Before I started following Dr. J, I was busy scouring Central American Games schedules or wondering if the Puerto Ricans could ever defeat South American powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina.
International hoops were the constant companion to my NBA initiation of the ’80s and ’90s. I cheered more when the 1990 Puerto Rican team defeated the United States at the World Basketball Championships (they lost the bronze medal game in OT, though) than when the Knicks finally defeated the Chicago Bulls in the 1994 NBA playoffs.
So when the 2004 Olympics came along, I expected the Puerto Ricans to go deep into the tournament, especially after they smoked the U.S. by 19 points. But when my team bowed out in the knockout stage, I still had Argentina and Manu.
When they easily defeated Italy to win the gold, I watched the game with a few Argentine friends who were literally painted in blue and white. They had a glow about them, still bright from the stunning victory over the Americans. The historic gold medal win gave them hope, not only because the country hadn’t won a World Cup soccer title since 1986, but because Argentina was finally turning a hopeful corner from its tragic past. My friends were the same kids watching those same basketball games in the ’70s and ’80s, but under a military dictatorship. During those years, hope wasn’t so real. That 2004 Olympic basketball win was for a new Argentina, with Manu as the Argentine superstar. I think my friends cried that day, but I don't know if they were tears of joy or painful memories. I like to think they were of joy, thanks to Manu and the rest the Olympic champion team.
Ginóbili deserves all the NBA accolades he is getting. But one can never forget that the 41-year-old San Antonio point guard with four NBA titles, as his Twitter profile states, was also “el 5 de Argentina” (Argentina’s No. 5). If anyone embraced his bilingual, bicultural world, it was Manu.
Con una gran mezcla de emociones les cuento que decidí retirarme del básquet. ENORME GRATITUD para mi familia, amigos, compañeros, DTs, staff, aficionados y todos los que fueron parte de mi vida en estos 23 años. Fue un viaje fabuloso que superó cualquier tipo de sueño. GRACIAS! pic.twitter.com/FtFqpTwFRq
— Manu Ginobili (@manuginobili) August 27, 2018
It’s no wonder that when Manu tweeted out his retirement on Monday, the guard from Bahía Blanca first shared his thoughts in Spanish, because Manu never forgot where he came from, and why his international feats mattered to many.