The Long Walk Home

I’ve been watching the NBA closely for nearly twenty years now. Over those two decades careers have begun and ended, burst and fizzled, and in some cases traced full and glorious arcs across my horizon. Having the chance to watch a player’s entire career from beginning to end is a strange experience. In the most detailed and elaborate cases, youthful exuberance gives way to the balance of guile and physicality, until the body drops away and wit alone can no longer sustain. There are some similarities to following a favorite character on a TV show, but the passage of time and the inexorable crawl of decay are either illusions or features fully ignored on a television show. In the NBA they are inescapably real.

That final chapter of a player’s career, from the peak to the exit takes an infinite number of forms. If you watch the league long enough you may think that you’ve literally seen it all. But what I’ve learned over the past two decades is professional basketball can always give you something new.

After their Game 7 loss, the question of retirement came up for more than one member of the San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili’s answer was remarkably candid and revealed how emotionally raw the series’ difficult ending had left him:

“For three quarters of the season it was the physical part,” Ginobili said. “I’d say, ‘No, I can’t deal with this anymore. I’m tired of rehab and trying to be in shape all the time.’

“But at this point I’m fine physically, so you are a little more optimistic. But you know, it’s been 18 years doing this. You kind of get tired and you want to enjoy a little more time at home sometimes. You go back to Argentina to see your people, and you think about it. I’m going to have time for that, too.”

Ginobili is one of those players whose entire career I’ve had the opportunity to observe. I certainly hope this wasn’t the last time we see him in an NBA uniform but his performance in the NBA Finals was clearly that of a character entering his final act. And the scene he set at the end of Game 7 was painfully original.

From the moment he stepped on the stage Ginobili has been described as a swashbuckling daredevil, one who flits past risk with a roguish charm. Of all the skills and characteristics which make up his basketball abilities none is more central than the power to skate the fine line between conquest and collapse, sprinting full speed into the maw of destruction, snatching victory from the jaws of chaos at the very last moment. Nothing he did on the court looked like it was going to work until the moment it actually did. LeBron routinely accomplishes the impossible,but with blazingly authentic speed and brute force. Ginobili is more serpentine, slithering and euro-stepping his way through the barriers of plausibility.

We’ve seen Manu Ginobili struggle before. We’ve seen him hobbled and limited, we’ve seen him play without the fully array of his talents available. What we, or at least I, hadn’t seen was him so utterly impotent in a moment of extreme importance. The blocked layup. The jump-pass turnover. The airballed three-pointer. The most emotional jarring piece of the whole affair was that he looked exactly like the Ginobili we’ve seen a thousand times before. But when the penultimate moment of each possession came, screaming for his patented magic, the spell fizzled.

It was a little like seeing your dad cry for the first time. Every interaction up until that point is revealed to have been saturated with naivete. Your dad is not just a dad, because “dad” is nothing more than a cultural archetype. Your dad is a human being with a full range of emotions, with a unique mix of strengths and flaws just like any other member of our species. But what looks identical, now has a new dimension. Where people, places and things were once pleasantly and placidly flat, there is now depth to deal with. It’s an understanding that you can’t shake, and it reflects the past in an entirely new light.

In watching these professional career arcs pass before our eyes we are sometimes blessed with a revealing moment of humanity. It could be a moment of authentic celebratory joy, a stomach-turning off the court incident or, as in Ginobili’s case, a tragic failure. This was not a failure of effort or decision-making, it was the failure of a man reaching for what had always been there and coming up empty-handed. There is a new complexity now to Ginobili’s public face. Whether or not this is the end, we won’t have the luxury of watching him pass before our eyes as a two-dimensional caraciture, Zorro in a jersey.