You can’t even begin to talk about Latino basketball players without talking about Manu Ginobili.

The Argentinian shooting guard is widely considered the best Latin American player ever. He spent 16 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, where he won four championships. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said his presence off the court with the Latino community was always something special.

“The people here took him in as one of their own," he said. "And he allowed it to happen. He’s a very warm individual and understood his responsibility to the community. And it was a great marriage from day one to this day.”

Ginobili bowed out last year, but the team retired his jersey this March when the Spurs took on the Cleveland Cavaliers at home. Billed as “Gracias Manu,” the night was a celebration of everything Ginobili — and his heritage.

A sign outside of the AT&T Center in San Antonio honors Ginobili's career.
Esteban Bustillos WGBH News

Everywhere you looked, there were fans wearing Ginobili's black and silver Spurs jersey or his powder blue and white Argentina threads. A local grocery chain even left tissues in fan's seats in case they needed to shed a tear or two.

Before the game started, an Argentinean singer performed the country’s national anthem. At halftime, members of Argentina's "Golden Generation" men's basketball team had a round table discussion about the impact of Ginobili.

And when it was Ginobili’s time to talk after the game, he gave a bilingual speech to the sold-out arena.

It was a fitting send off for the NBA’s most successful Latin player ever in one of the country's most Latino cities.

“The Latino demographic is the one that grows, I believe, the most in the States already," said Arnon de Mello, vice president and managing director of NBA Latin America, referring to the fan base.

According to the League, Hispanics comprise 17 percent of the domestic fan base. That’s roughly 15 million fans.

And in Latin America, NBA programming reaches 51 countries and territories and is broadcast in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. It's even starting to gain ground on that other sport involving a ball and a net.

“You know, if you look at the Caribbean and Brazil and Mexico, you see that in that region, basketball clearly is a contender for the number two spot, not only in terms of participation, but also affinity and popularity of the sport, only losing to [soccer]," de Mello said.

But as popular as the game is becoming among fans, Latino professional players are still scarce. According to The Institute For Diversity And Ethics in Sport, the NBA was only 2.3 percent Latino last season.

So along with junior NBA programs in Latin America, the League just opened an academy in Mexico City last year to help the best prospects in the region develop. And de Mello said they’re working on getting a G-League team, the NBA version of a minor league club, set up in the Mexican capital.

“So I think the path is there. It’s ready," he said. "And hopefully we’ll see more and more boys and girls coming out of these programs into the NBA and the WNBA.”

This is a big change from when Boston Celtics center Al Horford was growing up in the Dominican Republic, when basketball was just starting to become popular. But now, it’s everywhere.

“You go in DR and you drive around, and you see everybody playing basketball, at a basketball court and people are hungry," he said. "They really enjoy basketball.”

Boston Celtics' Al Horford drives to the basket.
Winslow Townson AP

And Horford is using his own influence to help grow the game. Last summer, the Celtics big man was part of an initiative to renovate courts in the Dominican Republic.

“One of the things that I want to continue to work on is to continue to help to develop the game over there," Horford said. "Meaning helping with bringing more clinics and educating more of the coaches over there about techniques about the game and how the game is being played and so many things that they need to work on and continue to do that because the passion is there.”

Now, he and other Latino players help to carry the torch first lit by people like his father Tito Horford, who was the first Dominican player in the NBA, and Ginobili. Horford is aware of the example he’s setting for the community.

“It’s something that I carry with me every day, and I understand the responsibility that’s on my shoulders," Horford said. "And it’s something that I embrace. I really enjoy it, and it’s something that I’m proud of, to be a Latino.”