Posted Feb 10 2012 9:58AM
Back in the summer of 2001, Tony Parker was a French teenager who came to San Antonio and probably couldn't tell the Alamo from Al Pacino. But he was familiar with another celebrated local institution.
Remember Avery Johnson.
"When I first arrived that's all anybody talked about," Parker said. "He was a great leader. He meant a lot to the city. He won a championship."
All the Spurs wanted the skinny kid to do was replace the only point guard that had ever led the team to an NBA title.
So he won three.
All coach Gregg Popovich expected was for a 19-year-old to jump behind the wheel and drive the offense like he'd just been tossed the keys to the family car.
So he floored the pedal and zoomed off.
Now, 11 years later, Parker has supplanted Johnson as the franchise all-time assist leader, going to the top of the list when he fed Tim Duncan for a pick-and-pop jumper at the top of the key a week ago against the Thunder.
It was a Magic Johnson pass that set up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time scoring leader in 1984. It was a pass to Karl Malone that put John Stockton ahead of Magic as the league's all-time assist leader in 1995.
"That's exactly the feeling I had -- Magic to Jabbar, Stockton to Malone," Parker said. "I wanted it to be Timmy. We've been playing so long together, been through so much over the years."
All of it under the cracking whip, searing glare and withering sarcasm of Popovich. That might have melted another young point guard. But it always seems to elicit just a Parisian shrug and a smile from Parker.
Popovich can be as crusty as a week-old baguette. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi from Parker, who simply swallows it like goose liver pate.
You see them on the sidelines together or on the occasions when an angry Popovich stomps out onto the court at the start of a timeout. It's like watching an old married couple that knows each other's favorite routines, arguments and wisecracks.
"He's been here a long time," Popovich said with just the slightest giveaway hint of a grin. "He should have a lot of assists."
Those assists will naturally pile up when you're a point guard playing with the likes of Duncan and Manu Ginobili, a pair of certain future Hall of Famers. But for more than a decade Parker has been so much more than a mere table-setter, usually juggling the role of a primary scorer -- attacking the basket, pulling up for jumpers -- at the same time that he's dealing.
It's that balancing act that is most precarious, drawing the verbal wrath of Popovich if Parker starts to pull the trigger too much and bringing down the thunder if Popovich determines his point guard is passing too much.
"It's funny, when Pop yells at me and tells me I have to shoot a lot I have a big night," Parker said with the shrug, having dropped in 42 on the same night he set the Spurs' assist record.
"When he scores I tell him he needs to pass," Popovich half-jokes, "and when he assists, I tell him he needs to score more."
Since the day the Spurs first got a glimpse of the kid from Paris Racing Basket during a private workout in Chicago prior to the 2001 Draft, they thought they had dug up something, just maybe not the polished diamond that now can wear those gaudy championship rings.
When the Spurs made him the 28th pick in the Draft and sent him to his first NBA camp, general manager R.C. Buford got calls from his assistant coaches saying the kid could play in San Antonio right away.
Buford was doubtful. So was Popovich, who said that summer: "I think of him as down the road."
One week into his NBA career, Parker was starting. Now, way down the road, he finds himself as the 11-year veteran with one Finals MVP Award (2007) on his shelf and the fate of the Spurs in his mitts through the first six weeks of this season. Ginobili is mending from a broken bone in his hand and the soon-to-be 36-year-old Duncan is on a short leash with his minutes.
Nothing has changed with Parker; not the ability to score, pass or handle the burdens placed on him by Popovich. Not his penchant for saying what's on his mind, as the occasion last spring when, after the upset loss to Memphis in the first round of the playoffs, Parker went home to France and told reporters that he thought the Spurs' days as real contenders were over.
Would the Spurs finally trade that insouciance for a younger, newer model? They did draft Cory Joseph out of the University of Texas last June, but they also swapped Parker's backup George Hill to Indiana on the same night.
Talk about a vote of confidence. So much for any thought that he'd worn out his welcome.
Since Ginobili went down in the fifth game of the season, Parker has been the one stopping the Spurs from slipping over the edge. He's averaging a career-best 7.7 assists per game and can still drop 40 on any night. In the past five games, he's averaged 28.4 points and, on Thursday, was named to his fourth Western Conference All-Star team.
"He's done a great job of keeping us together," Popovich said.
All these years after learning of the local institutions in San Antonio, Tony Parker has become one.
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