Better Than His Wildest Dream
Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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The French National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (INSEP) sits in a lush forest of oak and chestnut trees just east of Paris. The academy serves as a unique training center in Europe, a boarding school, if you will, for gifted athletes.
Twenty French Olympic medal winners from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing are products of INSEP. The academy produced 16 Olympic medalists at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
One of France’s greatest female basketball players, Elisabeth Riffiod, developed her game at INSEP. Decades later, Elisabeth enrolled her son there as well: Boris Diaw.
“I remember when we were doing the visit at INSEP,” Diaw says, “and my mother was saying, ‘Oh yeah, this building was there, but that building was not.’ She had so many memories.”
One memory in particular stood out. It was at INSEP that Elisabeth met a skilled high jumper from Senegal, a man who would become her son’s father, Issa Diaw. Fifteen-year-old Boris listened to the stories and toured the campus, eyes filling with wonder. So many great athletes, so few of them basketball players.
At the time of his tour, no Frenchman had ever played in the NBA, and Diaw had no reason to believe he’d be among the first. But after enrolling in INSEP, he met a brash kid undaunted by the French void in NBA history. Tony Parker.
“Tony knew he was going to make it,” Diaw says. “There were no French guys in the NBA. None. It was a long shot to make it. But you couldn’t tell that to Tony. He had his mind set.”
A friendship formed. Imaginations ran wild. Fifteen years later, they share a reality not even Parker dared to dream: two former French phenoms playing for the same NBA team with a chance to win a championship.
There was no small celebration when the Spurs signed Diaw on March 23. Parker opened his house and gave Diaw, not a couch, but his own room, which he occupies today. As wonderful as that felt, it paled to the wow moment of April 8, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich started Diaw against Utah.
“When Pop said that Boris was in the starting five it felt like a dream,” Parker said after the Spurs defeated the Jazz, 114-104. “Growing up and going to high school together, both dreaming about the NBA, I never thought I would ever be in the starting five with him and with the Spurs, the best team in the NBA.”
The journey to the NBA began at INSEP, a 35-acre campus of athletic facilities, classrooms and dorms. Under the tough hand of director Lucien Legrand, basketball players underwent long, grueling practices. Legrand once told a French journalist, “You have to like pain and have great moral and physical qualities. … The biggest reward is when one of your former students comes and says, ‘Lucien, you made my life hell but you were right.’”
Diaw and Parker lived across a hall from each other. They played ball together, ate together, studied together. They even sat in the back of class together with another friend, future Heat center Ronny Turiaf.
Was Diaw a serious student? “I was serious enough,” he says, the corners of his mouth pulling back to reveal a smile.
He can still remember the precise time of morning and afternoon classes, lunch, twice-a-day practices, dinner and evening studies. The old, daily routine remains as fresh in his mind as an important birthday. Fresher and sweeter are memories from their days on the French junior national team.
In 2000, Diaw and Parker led a team of underdogs against heavily-favored Croatia in the Under 18 European championship. In the final seconds of an extended game, Diaw made a huge block and France took possession, trailing by one. The ball did not go to Parker. He had fouled out. The ball fell to Turiaf, who had not scored a field goal in the game.
“Turiaf had a layup just before the buzzer,” Diaw says. “We won in double overtime.“
Parker won MVP honors. “Great memories,” he says. “When we won the gold medal, all we cared about was basketball. No money involved. No agents. No pressure. Just fun.”
Winning cemented a legacy and foreshadowed an international turn of events. Five members of the French junior national team became NBA players. Mickael Pietrus and Yakhouba Diawara joined Parker, Diaw and Turiaf in the U.S.
When the Spurs drafted Parker in 2001, Diaw rejoiced and flew into San Antonio to spend Christmas with his best friend. Talk about foreshadowing. Diaw met Spurs coaches and became familiar with the organization. “I lived it,” he says, “through Tony’s eyes.”
Eleven years later, here he is, sharing a house, a locker room and the same home court with Parker. What could be better than that? In a couple of months, Diaw would like to be celebrating again, trophy aloft, with an old high school friend.