It’s another Christmas morning and that is fitting since the mind’s eye will always see Tony Parker as the joyful kid running down the stairs to tear away at the wrapping paper.
Parker was 19 years old when he came from France and was given both a gift and a curse. Better make that curses, since coach Gregg Popovich was never inclined to stop at just one or a dozen when it came to verbally flogging his young point guard as part of the teaching process.
Now 16 seasons, more than 1,300 games, four championships and almost half a life later, Parker is still learning that the game never changes, only your place in it.
For all those seasons when Tim Duncan was the heart of the Spurs and Manu Ginobili provided their soul, Parker’s role was the little drummer boy of sorts keeping the beat in San Antonio.
In the early days, it was distributing by pounding the ball inside on the low post to Duncan and David Robinson. In the second act, it was forcing the pace, pushing the ball up the court in the running game for layups or curling through the lane to finish at the rim with teardrops.
Now when the Bulls take the court at the AT&T Center Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ABC) to face the Spurs, 34-year-old Dwyane Wade will be riding shotgun with Jimmy Butler in the Chicago lineup, playing a full marquee role, while Parker is in a less prominent though no less important role.
Also 34, Parker is the playing the fewest minutes (25.3 per game) of his career and his scoring (9.6) and assist (4.3) averages are the lowest since he was that teenaged rookie. He has hit the 20-point mark just once this season. He is the fifth-highest scorer in the lineup, actually trailing his backup Patty Mills (11.0) as the Spurs have moved onto their new incarnation with an offense that revolves around LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard.
“Tony can calm things down and make things run smoother,” Popovich said a few nights ago in Houston. “He gives us a sense of stability, keeps us organized.”
Though he’s been the bandleader of the offense for years, for the first time Parker — the longest-tenured Spur on the roster — is clearly the leader in the absence of Duncan. When there is no “Big Fundamental” to turn to during a timeout or key possession when games get late or tight, there is Parker, whose smiling demeanor belies his competitive nature and what Popovich likes to call “corporate knowledge.” Or just the way situations are supposed to be handled.
Parker can still do a lot of his old tricks, darting through the tall trees in the paint and finding a way to get all the way to the rim for a layup — just not as often. A medical bag of minor injuries and Popovich-mandated rest has kept him sidelined for eight games so far.
“To be honest, I am surprised if I wake up in the morning and something doesn’t hurt,” Parker said.
Yet he maintains that his goal is still to play in the NBA until he’s 40 and fewer minutes doesn’t mean less of an impact on the team.
“I think my role is even bigger on the leadership thing, make sure that the Spurs mentality and the way we play — unselfish, sharing the ball, only caring about winning — stays the same. That was the best thing about Timmy when I first came in, showing all of us how to do it.
“You have to keep growing with each season you play. You have to always be adjusting. You’re always going through different stages in your career, playing with different teammates. Timmy and Manu and I were lucky to be together for so many years. But the rest of the players were always moving in and out. You try to be a good fit for whatever team is around you. I try to do the best I can with the guys around me.”
The funny thing is that while an elder Duncan was given credit for his ability to step back, fade into the woodwork and accept a lesser role, Parker, who was always a public whipping boy even through the best of times, is viewed by some of having simply lost it.
A little more than three years ago, Parker was No. 4 in the SI.com’s preseason ranking of the NBA’s top 100 players. This year he didn’t even make the list, which included 17 other point guards.
“I think he’s always been a little under-appreciated, without any doubt,” Popovich said. “Even years ago, when he was younger, people would talk about the top point guards or whatever, and they would leave him out, almost consistently, all the time. And he’s there helping us win championships.
“It always gave me a wry smile when his name wouldn’t be included in these top-five guys. But you just move on. It doesn’t really affect your game or how you play. It’s just a fact.”
One that doesn’t bother the only person that matters.
“I don’t care if people don’t understand my role or all this stuff that I have to do now,” Parker said. “I’m just trying to do what Pop wants, and if he wants me to play like that, that’s all I care about, winning and winning championships. And at the end of the day, if I can win a couple of more before I retire, I will be very happy.”
Like a kid on Christmas morning.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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