When you think of the NBA’s ‘unicorns,’ those with an unusual blend of size and skill generally come to mind. Players like Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis are usually evoked for their ability to do things that defy the conventions of their build.
But what if I told you the NBA’s first unicorn wasn’t a big man at all? In fact, he was a lanky guard from Argentina with the heart of a champion. That’s right: soon-to-be Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili is the epitome of a unicorn — not because of his figure, but because of his seemingly mystical essence on the basketball court.
No one in NBA history has more ‘How the heck did he pull that off?’ plays than Ginobili. From posterizing 7-foot-6 Yao Ming to blocking Kevin Durant’s dunk attempts, flicking the ball behind his head to an open shooter and threading a bounce pass between Kobe Bryant’s legs, Ginobili’s career highlight reel is comprised of jaw-dropping stunts that inspired a generation of hoopers to come.
Above all else, Manu Ginobili was the ultimate wildcard. Depending on what the game called for, he could be the Spurs’ best scorer, defender, passer, shooter, or ball-handler at any given moment. He transformed the way that players travel the court floor by popularizing the eurostep, proving that a slasher can leverage their momentum using two clever steps to open up better shots. Never before had such a tactic been mastered at this level.
What makes Manu Ginobili a ‘Unicorn’ by the NBA's standards?
The core of the NBA’s fabled ‘Unicorn’ has nothing to do with size — it’s about rarity. For a time, any center who could hit a 3-pointer and block some shots was considered a unicorn until it became the status quo. To this day, there hasn’t been a single player with the same uncanny allure that Manu Ginobili brought for 16 seasons.
When you zoom out, Ginobili was truly an absolute anomaly. At no point was he the strongest, fastest, or most physically imposing player on the court. His frame was quite wiry throughout his playing career, and he quickly transitioned from having the floppiest hair on the court to balding overnight. In part, Ginobili’s unassuming appearance played into his mystique. Before he established himself as one of the best players in the world, it was easy for opponents and spectators to overlook the pride of Argentina based on his looks.
And yet when he played, Manu Ginobili shined brighter than the lights gleaming down onto the court he graced. Powerfully and selectively stomping his feet in blisteringly quick strides, Ginobili galloped down the court instead of simply running. When he extended for one of his acrobatic, layups, Manu defied gravity.
He’d oftentimes hang in mid-air, adjusting his body and releasing the ball just seconds before landing back on the ground to calculate the perfect trajectory for his layup. He'd finish with either hand and rotate the ball through angles that most couldn't fathom. The most impressive layups of Manu’s career can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Michael Jordan or Julius Erving, and I don’t say this lightly.
He’d also defy his height on a nightly basis donning silver and black. Ginobili was a defensive menace, hustling on fastbreaks and rotating into the paint to reject shots with the fury of his competitive spirit. Most guards aren’t known for shot-blocking, but Manu would put his body on the line constantly for the betterment of his team. If he wasn't raising up to block a shot, Ginobili would slide in for a timely charge or strip the ball away. Almost always, it'd result in a fastbreak where he’d do something else that was utterly ridiculous.
There was nobody in the NBA like Manu Ginobili
Like an illusionist, Ginobili used to make the basketball disappear, but instead of pulling it out of his hat, he’d make the rock reappear within the grasp of his teammates. No one pulled off the ‘nutmeg’ better than Ginobili, whose ambidextrous nature made it easier to control all angles of the court with his dribbles and passes.
If there’s one specific play that encompasses why Manu Ginobili was a unicorn, it was his miraculous and-one against the Toronto Raptors in 2012.
With his eyes locked on the ball as he guards his assignment in the corner, Manu pounced on an errant pass to stop one fastbreak and begin another. A young DeMar DeRozan stood before him on the baseline, effectively gaining position to draw an offensive foul or force a turnover. Instead, Manu threaded the ball between DeRozan’s legs, dodged him by lunging out of bounds, recovered the ball, split two defenders and gently floated it off the glass to finish his and-one layup.
This wasn’t the prettiest play, and at first glance, it was difficult to catch. But what Manu pulled off is so confounding that it takes several replays to fully comprehend the degree of difficulty and sheer creativity it took to pull this off. The moment embodied the reality behind Manu Ginobili’s game, which is that it didn’t fully make sense; not even to his head coach, Gregg Popovich, who famously gave up on trying to control him and simply let Manu be Manu.
That was the beauty of Manu’s game: you don’t have to understand it to know that it’s amazing, and that’s what makes him a unicorn above all else. There was something truly inexplicable about Manu’s game that makes him worthy of entering the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He never averaged more than 20 points, five rebounds, or five assists per game in his career, yet he oftentimes managed to be the best player on the court. Spurs fan or not, watching Ginobili play made anyone who had a remote interest in the game feel something profoundly.
Earvin Johnson has a monopoly on basketball’s association with ‘Magic,’ but Ginobili came extremely close. And more so than any 'unicorn' before him, Manu transcended all expectations with an unparalleled style that we'll never see again.
Manu Ginobil Week continues here with the top 10 moments of his basketball career.