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Saying gracias and adios to Manu Ginobili

The Spurs legend is leaving the game, but his legacy will live on in the Hispanic community in San Antonio

Tim Duncan is the greatest San Antonio Spurs player ever. David “The Admiral” Robinson is a close second. George “Iceman” Gervin and Tony Parker are legends in their own right. But when it comes to the people’s champ in San Antonio, Manu Ginobili holds that crown in the widely Spanish-speaking city.

“It is unfair to say Manu was more popular than David Robinson or Tim Duncan,” former longtime NBA and Spurs writer Mike Monroe said. “But there is no question that the Hispanic community in San Antonio, the largest in the United States, considered Manu one of their own.”

With Ginobili’s arrival from Argentina in 2002, the Spanish-speaking locals had a star who looked and talked like them. (Ex-Spurs forward Carl Herrera spoke Spanish, but the Venezuelan was a role player in San Antonio from 1995-98.) Spurs fans of Hispanic descent often wore Ginobili’s No. 20 jersey and cheered loudly for him during introductions and after his spectacular plays. The only fans who surpassed their love for him were the enthusiastic Argentinians who came to San Antonio for games or saw the team on the road.

Ginobili, who announced his retirement on Monday, is one of just seven players in NBA history to spend an entire career with one team while playing at least 16 seasons. And to think it could have been different, as the Spurs were once seriously worried about losing Ginobili to Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets in free agency in 2004. The Nuggets, however, opted to acquire All-Star forward Kenyon Martin over Ginobili.

Ginobili stayed in San Antonio, where people of Hispanic or Latino descent made up 63.6 percent of its estimated 1.5 million population on July 1, 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Spanish is spoken by 41.7 percent of San Antonio residents, according to Statisticalatlas.com.

The Spurs have also embraced the local Mexican culture. It is not uncommon to see a mariachi band perform between quarters at a Spurs game or hear Tejano music during the game. Remember when the young Mexican-American boy, Sebastien De La Cruz, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” dressed in mariachi gear?

Ginobili, especially, has not taken his diverse fan base for granted. While he was also fluent in English and Italian, it was not uncommon to hear Ginobili speak in Spanish during interviews that would be aired locally on Spanish-language television and radio stations. San Antonio Alamo Community Church worship pastor Caleb Saenz once tweeted, “San Antonio always treat Ginobili like an honorary Mexican.” Monroe has seen kids from Mexico on the Spurs’ practice court all trying to emulate Ginobili. And when the Spurs played in Mexico, no player was more popular than Ginobili.

“He often addressed the fans in Spanish and embraced the adulation he received in the passionate spirit with which it was conveyed,” Monroe said. “There were murals of Manu, plus Tim and sometimes Tony, painted on the South Side. Kids were getting Manu’s face shaved into their heads. Manu jerseys were all over town.”

Ginobili is revered for his electric play during his 16 seasons with the Spurs. The four-time NBA champion and two-time All-Star is the Spurs’ all-time leader in 3-pointers made and steals while ranking third in games played (1,057). The 2008 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Ginobili also has the most points, assists, rebounds, steals, 3-pointers and free throws made in NBA postseason history for a reserve. Not bad for a second-round draft pick.

No question, the Spurs will retire Ginobili’s No. 20 jersey one day.

“He was a legend,” Parker told The Undefeated. “It was an honor to play with him.”

Former Spurs guard Brent Barry described Ginobili’s impact on Twitter on Monday after his former teammate announced his retirement:

“Leadership is not about a title or a designation,” Barry tweeted. “It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have to work, and you have to inspire teammates. Not one day he didn’t own all three.”

Ginobili’s overall Spurs statistics don’t surpass Duncan’s or Robinson’s, but he did have impact, influence and inspiration, especially on a widely Spanish-speaking San Antonio community and fan base, that was not equaled by any of the franchise’s other stars.

It was fitting that Ginobili first revealed he was retiring in Spanish.

People can often find inspiration and joy in someone who sounds and looks like them. Respectfully, Eduardo Najera and Gustavo Ayon are the two most notable Mexicans to play in the NBA, but they were never stars or champions. In an NBA with no Mexicans on any current roster, Ginobili will always be their beloved son from a different motherland.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.