Avant-Guard Raised in France and only 19, Spurs rookie playmaker Tony Parker is way ahead of the game, running the team like a seasoned pro

December 10, 2001

There are many small luxuries that distinguish NBA players'
lives from nearly everyone else's. Among them are the golf carts
with drivers at the ready that spare the San Antonio Spurs the
100-yard walk between the Alamodome locker room and the team
parking lot. When rookie playmaker Tony Parker finished a
workout last week and found one of the carts unmanned, a
mischievous smile crossed his face. Waving off the driver, who
was rushing back to the vehicle, Parker jumped behind the wheel
and motioned for anyone who wanted a ride to get on. A few Spurs
staff members climbed aboard and Parker took off, laughing as he
zigzagged through the Alamodome hallway and looking like a
teenager on a joyride--which, in fact, he was.

The 19-year-old Parker isn't just another college-skipping pro,
however. He's a rookie starting point guard who was born in
Belgium and raised in France--a profile that until this season
seemed about as common in the NBA as a Barry Manilow-loving,
Beetle-driving All-Star power forward. Parker is an old soul in
basketball terms, having played professionally in France since
he was 15, and he has taken over the controls of San Antonio's
offense as quickly and surprisingly as he grabbed the wheel of
that golf cart.

He joined the starting lineup after only four games and has run
the team with a veteran's aplomb, accelerating the attack and
making sure that All-Star big men Tim Duncan and David
Robinson--or Teem and Dahveed, as Parker, with his French
accent, calls them--get the ball when and where they want it.
Through Sunday, Parker was averaging 11.7 points and more than
twice as many assists (4.4) as turnovers (1.8) for the Midwest
Division-leading Spurs. To San Antonio fans, who have begun to
wave ON AIME TONY (We Love Tony) banners, Parker appears to be
the best Belgian import since the waffle. "I did not expect this
so soon," Parker says. "I was hoping to be in the starting five,
but I didn't think it would happen until the second half of the
season."

San Antonio coach and general manager Gregg Popovich didn't
think it would happen in his lifetime--at least not when he
first heard about Parker. Assistant general manager R.C. Buford
had to prod Popovich to look at a tape of Parker from the Nike
Hoops Summit of April 2000. "Everybody knows you don't get point
guards from Europe, because they're generally not quick enough
and they don't have a grasp of the NBA game," Popovich says. "I
said, 'If you've got a shooter with a vic on the end of his
name, or somebody from Dirk Nowitzki's neighborhood in Germany,
I'll watch.'"

When Popovich finally sat through the tape, he saw the 6'2",
177-pound Parker holding his own against U.S. high school stars
like Darius Miles, Zach Randolph and Omar Cook, flashing past
defenders into the lane, setting up teammates for easy shots and
playing chest-to-chest defense. "The more I watched, the more
obvious it was," Popovich says. "This kid was the real thing."

After the Spurs selected Parker with the 28th pick in last
June's draft, he continued to pass tests as easily as he beat
defenders off the dribble. He was impressive on the Spurs'
summer league team, then in training camp, then coming off the
bench in the first few games of the regular season. "As a
coaching staff we kind of looked at one another and said, 'What
else is there?'" says Popovich, who soon inserted Parker into
the lineup in place of Antonio Daniels. (Daniels, more
comfortable at shooting guard, willingly stepped aside.)

Since then Parker has shown an instinct for the league's style
and pace that belies his age and background. "He runs the
pick-and-roll really well, he knows when to push the ball and
when to slow it down and settle the offense, and he knows how to
feed Tim and David," says backup point guard Terry Porter, who
is twice Parker's age. "You watch him and think this kid must
have watched a lot of NBA ball in France."

Parker does have an extensive NBA video collection, but his
closest connection to U.S. basketball comes from his father,
Tony Sr., who was a shooting guard at Loyola in his native
Chicago before embarking on a 15-year pro career in Europe. He
began in Amsterdam, where he met his wife, Pamela Firestone, a
fashion model at the time. They moved to Belgium and then to
France, where Tony Jr. spent most of his childhood and where his
two younger brothers, Terrence, 17, and Pierre, 15, were born.
(Tony Sr. and Pamela are divorced; he and the two younger boys
now live in Chicago, while she resides in Paris.) "I grew up
50-50--my father would talk to me in English, and I would answer
him in French," says Tony Jr. "I went to a French school, but I
would come to the States to visit my father's parents in the
summer."

Along the way Parker picked up some decidedly American tastes.
His musical preferences run toward R&B artists Brian McKnight
and Montell Jordan, and he's partial to And1 athletic gear and
the NBA Live video game. However, it was the Parisian in Parker
that led him to the French restaurant L'Etoile after he and his
girlfriend, Loraine, arrived in San Antonio. Parker spends much
of his free time at L'Etoile, as much for the company of the
French staff as for the food. "But there is nothing that I miss
about France," he says. "Ever since I was small I have changed
cities often, so this is not new." He doesn't have any trouble
processing information from the Spurs' coaches, either. "When my
father got mad," he says, "he would talk fast, just like they do."

The San Antonio staff has had little reason to get angry at
Parker. "He sometimes asks, 'Coach, am I doing anything wrong?
Am I making everyone happy?'" Popovich says. "I tell him, 'Get
away from me. You're doing a good job.'" Parker's questions do
not reflect a lack of confidence. "You'll start to tell him
about a certain players' tendencies, and before you can finish,
he says, 'Yes, yes, I know thees,'" says Popovich. Parker's
teammates marvel at his unflappable nature. "He doesn't get
nervous; he just plays," says Robinson. "The last time I saw a
young player who acted like that, it was Tim."

Parker's similarity to Duncan, who was born in the Virgin
Islands, is unmistakable. Although neither went through the
mainstream U.S. sports system, both men play with a wisdom
beyond their years, and both seem to inspire the same reaction
in opponents. "I hate that little son of a gun," Houston Rockets
coach Rudy Tomjanovich said after glimpsing Parker in the
preseason, "just the way I hated Duncan the first time I saw him
make a reverse pivot."

Like Duncan, Parker has an efficient style, free of the bells
and whistles that many U.S.-born pros picked up on the
playgrounds. "He's a little like John Stockton--straight
vanilla," Popovich says. Parker makes opponents look bad with
cleverness more than athleticism. "One great thing about him is
that he has different gears," says Orlando Magic coach Doc
Rivers. "He understands the importance of not going 100 miles an
hour all the time. He sets people up, which makes him seem even
quicker than he actually is."

That deceptiveness allows Parker to penetrate the lane
consistently, and once there he displays remarkable vision. In a
106-90 win over Portland on Nov. 3, he zipped into the middle
and found himself surrounded by four Trail Blazers, but somehow
he found Porter alone on the wing for a three-pointer. Some
teams have sagged off Parker and dared him to shoot, but that
strategy has only given him room to bury 40.0% of his threes
through Sunday. After Parker burned the Hornets for 22 points on
Nov. 8, hitting four of seven treys in a 105-95 San Antonio
victory, Charlotte point guard Baron Davis said, "Somebody told
me he couldn't shoot. Somebody was wrong."

Opponents are starting to take a new approach to Parker, trying
to eliminate his passing options once he penetrates and force
him to finish. Because he's scrawny he has a hard time scoring
when he gets banged, and because he's a rookie he has an even
harder time drawing a foul call. His lack of bulk also puts him
at a disadvantage on defense, so Duncan or Robinson must come
over to help him when a bigger guard posts him up. "The coaches
tell me, 'Leeft, leeft,'" Parker says, referring to his need to
pump more iron. "I am leefting, but so far not too many muscles."

Parker's success is as much of a surprise to his French
followers as it is to the rest of the NBA. He was a promising
player but not a superstar in France, averaging 14.7 points and
5.6 assists last season for Paris Basket Racing of the top
French league. "People in France expected nothing of him," says
Olivier Pheulpin, who is covering Parker's season for L'Equipe,
the country's largest sports publication. "We have had other
players, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Jerome Moiso, who have gone to
the NBA and done very little, and there was no reason to believe
Tony would be different."

Now that Parker has surpassed expectations, he has become a
French version of Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese baseball star who
made his countrymen proud with a dazzling rookie season for the
Seattle Mariners. One difference: While Ichiro had an army of
Japanese journalists chronicling his every move, Parker has,
well, Pheulpin. "But Tony is very popular for someone who plays a
sport that France cares nothing about," Pheulpin says. "I did an
interview with him that filled the front page. That usually
happens only for soccer players who are World Cup heroes."

Parker's fans back home might be surprised to find that he has
one less-than-glamorous duty. On game days Parker must bring two
dozen doughnuts and one cup of coffee to the morning shootaround.
The coffee is for shooting guard Steve Smith, and the doughnuts,
for all the Spurs, are glazed--unless Duncan makes a special
request for coconut. "The older players tell me this is something
a rookie must do," Parker says. "I don't want to know what
happens to me if I don't do it."

Parker has little to worry about. "I don't think he'll forget,"
says Porter. "The kid's been pretty good at making deliveries."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Chris-Checking Spurs guard Antonio Daniels's drive to the basket is diverted by Warriors forward Chris Mills in a 94-83 win by San Antonio. [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Open arms Parker's quickness and pass-first, shoot-later mentality make him a welcome addition to the veteran Spurs. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Small wonder At 6'2" and 177 pounds, Parker knows he needs to spend more time in the weight room.

Says a French journalist, "Tony is very popular for someone who
plays a sport that France cares nothing about."

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