Tony Parker will return to San Antonio this Monday for the first time since leaving in free agency.
That’s a strange sentence to write even though Tony has been gone now for months. I still find it a little uncomfortable to even think about the fact that he left. I can’t be the only one. It felt as if all three of the Big Three were supposed to spend their entire careers in San Antonio. That Tony decided against it, while completely understandable under the circumstances, feels wrong, or at least a little awkward. It’s not something that Tim or Manu would have done.
Then again, Tony always was different. There’s no reason to deny that now. He seemed to enjoy the spotlight in a way that the other two guys didn’t. He had a rap album, a celebrity wife and even a New York City club fight to his name. In the now iconic “Champions Revealed” interview/documentary there’s archival footage of Pop telling Tony and Manu Ginobili — but really, Tony — to do less press. He was always on when there was a camera on him, ready to perform in a way that not even the similarly charismatic Manu could match. For a moment back when he was slated to become a free agent in 2010, Tony was linked to the Knicks and it didn’t seem crazy. He actually made more sense on a bigger city.
He was also different on the court. He was never selfish, but by virtue of his style of play he at times seemed to be. Tony needed the ball. It was one of the reasons that it was best for Ginobili to come off the bench. It’s also why Parker isn’t the first image that comes to mind when thinking about the Summertime Spurs, even though he was the team’s biggest star at that point. At his best Parker was great, but in a very specific way. He never dominated games without scoring like Tim Duncan and Manu could. In another iconic moment in archival footage, this one from the 2014 championship run, Pop praises Parker about his leadership to which Tony replies “I have to trust my teammates in this series” as if it was something that had to be drilled into him instead of coming naturally.
Just by being himself, Parker always challenged the expectations that came with being a Spur. Unfortunately for him, those expectations not only came from outsiders but also from fans, who at times resisted embracing him as much as they did the other stars. Fair or not, the perception of Parker was that of someone who didn’t naturally fit in San Antonio, unlike Manu and Tim. It was something that was often held against him.
Now that he’s gone and we can look at his career in a different light, the fact that Tony never seemed like the most seamless fit with the Spurs, yet managed to accomplish as much as he did, feels like something to celebrate instead of censure.
Tony clearly would have enjoyed a bigger stage and the opportunities that would have come with it. He could have been a huge star in a big city, branching out into entertainment or simply enjoying the trappings that came with life as a famous sports figure in New York or Los Angeles. Yet he decided to spend the majority of his career with a non-glamorous franchise that hid from the spotlight and played a style that didn’t draw many eyeballs for the best part of his tenure. He actually had to sacrifice more of his off-court interests and preferred lifestyle than the typically guarded Duncan and the family-oriented Ginobili in return for the on-court success he enjoyed in San Antonio.
The same goes for numbers and accolades. While Duncan was so exceptionally good that he would have been one of the best ever under any circumstances and Manu probably benefited in the long run from the limited playing time he got for years, Parker might have actually been better off on a different team and system. Imagine prime Parker on a high-paced, spread pick and roll attack with a good dive man and some shooters, the type of offense he barely got to run in San Antonio. He could have been John Wall but with a better attitude. He might not have gotten a Finals MVP, but he would have been an All-Star a few more times and could have had the genuine adoration of a fanbase all to himself.
Parker’s sacrifices might not seem all that significant in retrospect because we have the benefit of knowing that everything worked out well for him. He’s an NBA champion who had his fun before settling down and starting a family in the place he now considers home. But at the time, he had to make those sacrifices without any assurances. A younger Tony would have have surely loved to live the high life and get an offense all to himself, and he realistically could have had both. Yet he decided to put the pursuit of greatness ahead of those desires. He didn’t completely abandon his true essence, but he sublimated it to fit San Antonio. Parker actually had to make an effort to put winning over everything else. There’s nothing more Spurs-y than that, and it’s what makes him Tim’s and Manu’s peer despite their clear differences.
In that context his departure becomes noble and brave. The pursuit of fame or individual glory wasn’t enough to seduce Parker away from San Antonio. He only decided to leave because staying would have meant giving up the one thing he wasn’t willing to compromise: his ability to play basketball for as long as he can. His return as a backup for a middling East team could be seen as sad considering the heights he reached in his career, but it’s anything but. It’s the latest example that Tony Parker is willing to sacrifice everything — even the comfort of the home he helped build — to continue being the competitor he learned to be with the franchise that drafted him.
Tony Parker didn’t risk his place in the Spurs’ pantheon of greats by leaving for Charlotte. He earned his spot there a long time ago. Yet it was fair to wonder if his departure was going to somehow tarnish his legacy by inviting negative comparisons to the other frankly more beloved members of the Big Three that stayed until the end.
Those comparisons surprisingly do nothing but put his entire career in San Antonio in a better light, at least in my eyes. He might not have embodied the stoicism and humility that we associate with the Spurs as naturally as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili did, but he’s maybe the best example of the sacrifices that had to be made individually, to keep the program going all those years.
Well done, Tony. And welcome back.