MIAMI — After his dizzying, Harlem Globetrotter-worthy dribbling display, composed pivot, pump-fake and dip under LeBron James and soft French kiss off the glass gave the San Antonio Spurs a 92-88 lead over the Miami Heat with 5.2 seconds left in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Tony Parker had the wherewithal to do something equally impressive.
As officials reviewed the shot to confirm that it had beaten the 24-second clock, Parker walked up to Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and his staff, confirmed the appropriate game plan for the final defensive possession, then sat down in Popovich’s usual seat on the bench and ran the huddle. Parker, with the assistance of Tim Duncan, advised his teammates not to aggressively contest or foul three-point shooters to avoid surrendering a four-point play and warned about Dwyane Wade’s tricky shot fakes.
“That happens a lot,” Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said of Popovich allowing Parker to lead the huddle and deliver the final instructions to the team. “And their relationship is a trust and respect that developed over time — and Tony’s earned every minute of it.”
Parker’s leaner secured the Spurs a 1-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the best-of-seven series and completed a night in which he scored 10 of his game-high 21 points in the fourth quarter and continued his run as the most dynamic force not named James this postseason.
“He’s as good as anyone in the league,” Duncan said of Parker, 31. “We play as a team, and so his numbers are probably a little less than some of the other guys around the league. But he’s as good as anyone out there.”
Before Parker could be counted on to carry the Spurs offensively and make decisions and timely shots in the postseason, the native of France had to prove to a doubting Popovich that he was strong enough to play in the NBA. Then, he had to accept his hard-driving coach’s efforts to mold him from a scorer into a playmaker who could run a team. And, finally, Parker had overcome his fear of disappointing Popovich and Duncan.
“It was a process,” Parker said. “When I first arrived in San Antonio, I was 19 years old. So I had always been a leader in France, but it was hard to be the leader of the Spurs, because I had so much respect for Coach Pop, who is really strong-minded. You have Tim Duncan and you have David Robinson. So I never wanted to step on their toes. For me they were the leaders. And I was just going to wait for my time.”
The wait took a little longer than Parker perhaps wanted or expected, but the delay could’ve been even more protracted had Popovich succeeded in adding Jason Kidd to the Spurs in 2003 — only a few weeks after Parker had just won his first championship with a win over Kidd’s New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals.
“It wasn’t to get rid of Tony Parker,” Popovich said. “Tony was really young, and I had a hard time convincing him of that. But I was probably a little bit out of the bubble machine at the time. It seemed to me that it would be a great move if we could get Jason to help mentor Tony. . . . My illustrious NBA career ended after a week-and-a-half. So what the hell am I going to teach him about being a point guard?”
Popovich envisioned having Kidd run the team, with Parker serving the role as scorer until Kidd’s skills diminished and Parker was ready to run the team. “Tony did not love that idea at all,” Popovich admitted.
Parker didn’t have to worry as Kidd stayed with the Nets and the Spurs went on to win two more championships, with Parker becoming the first European Finals MVP in 2007. But the Spurs continued to remain heavily reliant on Duncan in the post and Manu Ginobili on the perimeter until Popovich realized that the franchise would likely remain stagnant unless the younger, more durable option became the offensive focal point. Popovich watched Parker lead France to the Eurobasket final against Spain in 2011 and display a more demonstrative approach in both his play and interactions with teammates.
Parker said Popovich told him, “I want you to play like that now. Timmy is getting older and Manu is getting older. You need to go to the next step to a new level with your game.”
Parker responded to the support by leading the Spurs back to the conference finals for the first time in four years last season. But after Oklahoma City eliminated San Antonio in six games, Parker saw a dejected Duncan in the locker room and promised him that he would take him back to the Finals.
“This will always be Timmy’s franchise. Always. Should do a statue for him outside the AT&T Center,” Parker said. “I got a great example in Timmy, who has been unbelievable all those years. I want to try to do the same thing. I want to try to improve my game, as the responsibility and the ball came in my hands, I try to do more and try to deliver.”
If he can help the Spurs capture a fifth NBA title, Parker might reserve a spot next to Duncan after completing a journey that few could have seen coming when Buford convinced Popovich that he was worth the risk of drafting 28th overall in 2001.
“At that point, 12 years ago, there hadn’t been a big history of a coach handing a ball to a point guard and saying, ‘Here’s somebody who barely speaks my language or half as good as I do,’ So there was concern, I think, ‘Is Pop ever going to trust an international point guard,’ ” Buford said. “And I think through the workout process and through our study, Pop saw enough to say, ‘Okay, I’ll try this deal for a little while to see how long it will last.’”
Twelve years later, the relationship between Popovich and Parker is still growing, and the Spurs’ championship window may remain open a little longer.