Given unlikely journey, Parker not taking life with Spurs for granted
Some NBA coaches wouldn't know how to say it. Some NBA stars wouldn't know how to listen. Those people have nothing in common with Gregg Popovich and Tony Parker.
"Pop, he was like, 'Are you going to shoot sometimes during the season?' " Parker recalled. "He was just messing with me. He was telling me he wanted me to be more aggressive."
Parker had been shooting poorly as San Antonio headed out last week on a six-game trip through the East. Popovich knew what to say and how to say it: He has been coaching Parker for 12 seasons and knows how to criticize his point guard without doing harm to their relationship. Over the first four games of that road trip -- all won by the Spurs -- Parker was shooting 61.9 percent and averaging 26.5 points. The relationship with his coach continues to grow.
"We're intelligent enough to know the difference when he's coaching and then when we go have dinner," Parker said. "When he screams at me sometimes it's tough, because everybody has their ego. But at the end of the day I know it's for the team. He always thinks about team. Nobody is bigger than the team. So if he screams at me and Timmy [Duncan] like that, then everybody will listen."
Parker was explaining the Spurs' dynamic as he stood in a visitors' locker room after a recent win. It was the 635th victory of the 12 regular seasons he has spent in San Antonio with Duncan, who was pulling on his shirt on the far side of the room, looking fit and young at age 36. Parker, Duncan and Manu Ginobili (who is in his 11th season with the Spurs) have won at least 50 games every year they've played together, including the 66-game schedule that was squeezed in after the 2011 lockout. San Antonio's current 12-3 start -- No. 2 in the Western Conference -- is the outcome of a daily routine that Parker has learned to appreciate.
"It's unbelievable," he said of their continuing excellence. "Because so often, if you do five or 10 years together, people will get irritated or they get tired of it because of time. It's something special here with the Spurs. It's very special. If you take any sport, like football or hockey or baseball, I don't think you have 12 years with the same three players and the same coach going through all those years together. It's a pretty special relationship that me, Timmy and Manu have with Pop."
Built into Parker's memories is the understanding that his NBA career wasn't necessarily meant to be. When Parker was chosen by the Spurs as a 19-year-old at the bottom of the first round in the 2001 draft, the prevailing bigotry of American basketball was that there would never be a point guard from Europe running an NBA team.
"Of course, of course, they used to say that all the time," Parker said. "I think the language barrier, that was one reason, and also because of the speed."
But he was the son of an American player from Chicago. He was fluent in English and he could match the speed of any American guard.
"It was a lot of pressure because you're 19 and you want to win the championship and Pop wants you to be perfect," Parker said. "He wants you to score, he wants you to pass, he wants you to do everything perfect. And sometimes it was tough. It was growing pains. But at the end of the day it was worth it, because I would not be the player I am without Pop. Pop saw the talent in me and he tried to push me as hard as he can. You can ask anybody on the team -- I'm the one he pushed the most in the film room all the time to try to get me better, and that's why it was worth it for me to be coached like that. Because I never had time to relax. He was always trying to push me."
Malcolm Gladwell's rule of investing 10,000 hours to become phenomenal can be applied to Parker. He has earned three NBA championships and an NBA Finals MVP. In so doing he has opened a door for fellow European point guards Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Goran Dragic and Alexey Shved to follow him to the NBA. The scoring point guard is now an accepted role in the league because Parker demonstrated that he could win championships while playing to that style. What separates Parker from so many other scoring point guards is his ability to execute sophisticated plays for his teammates while also scoring when he can.
At 30, Parker is smart and experienced enough to know what he is doing, and he is still young enough to make it happen. He was in contention for the league MVP last season, and he looks as if he may be in the running again this year.
"The last two or three years, as Timmy and then Manu slowed down, the team transitioned to me," Parker said. "For me it's a great challenge, because I'm coming from Europe, and it's, like, my team. And to be the leader of the Spurs? It's not any team. It's the Spurs. It's one of the most respected franchises in American sports. So to have the trust like that of Pop ..."
He recited more memories of the 19-year-old he was and the champion he has become. He was retelling his story as if to this day he could not believe what has happened to him. It was as if it was still new, and maybe that is the secret of the Spurs' run. They take nothing for granted as long as there are still more games to win.