Gregg Popovich was once convinced Tony Parker would never start in a meaningful game for any NBA team. This was after then front office employee Sam Presti begged the Spurs' coach to give the puny Frenchman another look.
San Antonio drafted the speed demon with the 28th pick in 2001, but all Popovich could see was a naive 19-year-old who knew as much about running a championship squad as he did quantum physics. It makes sense, then, that Popovich was an instrumental figure in this weekend's $50 million extension that will keep Parker a Spur through 2014.
Those who question the motives behind the four-year deal or its sensibility should forget the financials for a moment and remember how his San Antonio tenure began. Whereas many coaches coddle and pamper young players, Popovich turned to verbal abuse and grueling practice drills to test Parker's will and intestinal fortitude.
He prodded his adolescent, wannabe floor general with insults, intense workouts and plenty of F-bombs. With a thin point guard crop, he decided to start his so-called creme puff five games into his rookie year. Parker did not bring a jump shot to the U.S., and he struggled to finish facile lay-ups. His spongy defense was on par with his broken, shoddy grasp of the English language.
The one thing that did make the trip then still carries Parker today. He had the guts, even when it seemed stolid, to believe he would become a world-class point guard. He.insisted, despite Popovich's belittlement and disregard, that he could help Tim Duncan collect more rings. Plenty of fledgling NBA prospects prematurely accredit themselves as future stars, but Parker boasted the work ethic to make it happen.
He waited his turn while David Robinson concluded his Hall of Fame career. He sat on the bench, frustrated and perplexed, while Speedy Claxton and Stephen Jackson closed out the 2003 NBA Finals. He squirmed then shrugged when Popovich threw $90 million at the point guard Parker's team had just defeated. He understood the business and the front office's puppy love for Jason Kidd. Parker was still the roster's token whipping boy.
Popovich learned soon enough that Parker could develop the common skills he lacked. A few months into the experiment it became clear to everyone in the organization: the kid was not a creme puff after all. The coach dispensed his ear-splitting tirades and Parker kept coming back for more. The same way he'll be coming for Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and the other oft-mentioned All-Star point men most consider superior to the Spurs' penetrating, scoring juggernaut.
Yet, none of those players have accomplished what Parker has or overcome such long odds or tongue lashings to do it.
The tear drop came with extensive hours in the gym as did the confidence to handle the offense. Through the years, he worked with shooting coach Chip Engelland to hone his erratic jumper. Three such mid-range hits lifted the Spurs to a Game 3 victory this spring against the Dallas Mavericks.
Once turnover prone and capricious, Parker pushed himself to become a clutch performer and an elite floor leader. When was the last time a Spur complained about his limited shot attempts? Isn't that the mark of a successful point guard? Parker found a way to terrorize defenses without putting up the monstrous assist, steal or three-point numbers his contemporaries have managed.
Speculation about a pending divorce grew rampant when Popovich started George Hill against the Mavericks and kept him with the first five versus the Phoenix Suns. The Spurs were grooming an adequate replacement to make the necessary monetary concessions that would leave Parker as the pricey outcast. It did not matter to the rumormongers that the Frenchman came off the bench to work his way back from a broken hand injury that cost him all of March.
The bloodthirsty New York tabloids missed the point, and so did everyone else who declared Parker was mere trade bait. The Spurs likely shopped the Frenchman, just as they did Manu Ginobili, but after those inquiries, the brain trust arrived at the same conclusion: why destroy a functional machine?
These Spurs were built on faith and perseverance, not hypocrisy and cronyism. Owner Peter Holt guarded his wallet as long as he could, but the L.A. Lakers' mega deal for Pau Gasol forced a philosophical change. If he wanted to continue the championship chase, he would have to pony up just to keep Parker, Duncan and Ginobili in silver and black. Holt obliged.
Popovich covets competitors above all else, and Parker has been one of his finest. At 28, he's anything but a has been, with a chance to regain his All-NBA form from two campaigns ago. As Duncan aged, Ginobili became the Spurs' best and most important contributor. Even with the supposed power shift between San Antonio's Big Three, the stars remain in alignment.
The Spurs handled the Indiana Pacers 122-109 in Wednesday's season opener, and Parker, Duncan and Ginobili took turns orchestrating key stretches of the victory. A Popovich coached team had never scored or surrendered this much in late October, but the final result mattered more than the details.
Pat Riley spent the summer constructing his behemoth, the South Beach Super Team, and the Three Me-Egos appear ready to leave a path of destruction in their ruthless wake. Popovich phoned the Miami Heat president to congratulate him on the free agency coup. As he applauded the congregation of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it had to remind him how rarely these dream teams happen or work. Why should he destroy his own functional three-headed machine?
What transpired Saturday night ranks as nothing more than a footnote in the lengthy, sometimes tumultuous Parker-Popovich relationship. With Chris Paul running roughshod over the Spurs' slender, pathetic defense, the coach benched his petite point guard in favor of a lineup that included Gary Neal and Hill.
The undefeated New Orleans Hornets dispatched the Spurs 99-90, but Popovich's make-shift lineup almost completed its comeback mission. San Antonio's sideline chief tinkers until he finds the right mix. Saturday night, that offense-defense blend did not include the franchise's newest $50 million man.
Popovich sits his stars when the mood suits him. Screw the ticket buyers who paid to see Duncan or Ginobili. He can also relegate his French stallion to the pine hours after an expensive extension. The two sides reached an abrupt agreement because they know what should come next.
Parker will rebound from his errant night against Paul to outplay an opponent with super incumbent size and physical gifts. He found a way to survive Popovich's merciless rants. He can survive this.
His playoff record added another dimension to the argument. Parker stood toe-to-toe with Nash, Williams and Paul in postseason series. He sped and spun his way to a Finals MVP.
Maybe Popovich saw Hill misfire at will in the preseason. Maybe the abundance of change this summer bothered him. The constancy Parker provides comes at a steep price, but the Spurs can pay it later.
Holt will fork up more than $40 million in a few years for Richard Jefferson, Manu Ginobili, Parker and Matt Bonner, and critics wonder about the wisdom of such a commitment. The team will need to satiate Hill's appetite with a raise. Dejuan Blair and Tiago Splitter will also command bigger salaries if they convalesce. If Duncan does not retire in 2012, he will require proper compensation.
The Spurs displayed a momentary, stupefying judgment lapse when they donated Luis Scola three hours down Interstate 10, but they did not lose their brains. Allowing Parker and Ginobili to walk, with no suitable replacements available, would have beaten the Scola transaction by a lot on the imbecility scale.
Parker was sincere when he said he wanted to stay in San Antonio. If he hated his digs, wouldn't he have scrammed long ago, when Popovich still stuck him like a voodoo doll?
The Spurs exercise in faith continues tonight at the Staples Center, where the 0-3 L.A. Clippers await. Can anyone on the San Antonio front-line check Chris Kaman or Blake Griffin?
Even as evidence to suggest the dynasty has ended mounts, reasons not to bury the Spurs also seem to pop up in every imaginable place.
Parker will find a way to help Ginobili and Duncan keep this machine humming. It makes sense, then, that Popovich and R.C. Buford rewarded the point guard with a $50 million pat on the back. Can he stay healthy and return to form? Parker answered tougher questions against stacked odds long ago.