It was almost immediately obvious. The thousand yard stare, the furtive glances left and right, and then, a smile almost as wide and as glittering as the Champs-Élysées.
Enthusiasm. Real, honest-to-goodness enthusiasm poured like champagne from Victor Wembanyama, the Spurs’ presumptive heir to the throne of Timothy Theodore Duncan. For years, the royal court had grown silent in the neglect and abandonment of another franchise icon, but the downtrodden years had been rewarded by benevolent basketball deities, and now there was nothing left to do but smile.
And that’s exactly what Wembanyama did for the rest of the evening on camera, joy flowing out of him as unfettered as the river Seine, as he declared outspokenly that the universe had told him that this would be his fate, and talked in length about the special relationship that’s developed over the years between the French and the San Antonio Spurs.
"There's a special relation between France and the Spurs. ... The whole country wanted the Spurs to have the first pick."— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 17, 2023
(via @NBA) pic.twitter.com/PuPdb2KfaD
Downing a celebratory drink or two, I reveled in the good fortune with a Spurs Twitter at its most euphorically united since Manu’s postseason block on James Harden, and then, noticing the telltale drooping of my daughter’s eyelids, carried her off to bed, blissfully distracted by the warmth of nighttime adieus and the hush of evening lullabies.
And as I laid there, completely still so as not to disturb the delicate alchemy of a child falling into a deep sleep, I found myself thinking about that smile.
It was such a foreign thing. So strange in the wake of “Yeah, for sure,” and Tim Duncan’s on-court demeanor. Not that Spurs players don’t historically smile, it’s just that it usually accompanies a monumental victory; the kind of joy that accompanies a successful title run.
And Victor Wembanyama had been smiling just like that. He hadn’t even been drafted yet, but his elation couldn’t be any more unmistakable.
Didn’t he know where he was going? Barring a generational display of madness from the Spurs front office, he’s headed for San Antonio, a small market land of (per Charles Barkley) churros and unprepossessing women.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always liked San Antonio. All my life it’s stood as a glaring sort of opposite to nearby Austin, and that’s something to be greatly appreciated. But I’ve also seen them drain the Riverwalk, and that’ll stick with me to my dying day.
Who on earth had convinced this charismatically goofy (yet competitive) French kid that San Antonio was a basketball paradise?
And then I started to think about Tony Parker. I mean, it was so obvious. From ‘21 to ‘22, Victor had played for ASVEL, the French Basketball team owned by Parker. Obviously Parker’s smart enough to get a good word or two in about the Spurs, right?
But then, why would he?
For as long as Tony was a member of the San Antonio Spurs, he was always the easy target. Sandwiched between Duncan’s iconic presence and Manu Ginóbili’s reverberating otherness, Tony felt pedestrian somehow.
On the one hand, that’s a pretty incredible tribute to the quality of the other players on the team. On the other hand, it’s a mark of just how misunderstood Parker was by the fan-base for much of his tenure. It’s hard to imagine now, but in those early, heady days of internet message boards, he was often the subject of major trade proposals.
To be fair, in the early years Parker was inconsistent. He struggled against great point guards of the era like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, and most unhappily, against the solid yet unspectacular Lakers’ specialist, Derek Fisher. He was taken to task for his defense, for his lack of a dependable shot, for being undersized, and even for his flashier sense of style. And then, incredibly, for his engagement (and eventual marriage) to Eva Longoria. I can even remember him being accused by some of robbing Tim Duncan of the 2007 Finals MVP with his ‘selfish’ offensive display in that series.
Then there was the rap album. And the very public divorce. And the rumors of infidelity and conflict with teammates. And the moments where some fans would join in with visiting fans to jeer the failure of his marriage.
And you’d think it would end there, but even in recent years it’s been trendy to take shots at Parker for his supposed selfishness in the 2012 Conference Finals (per Stephen Jackson), or the way that he handled the Kawhi Leonard injury situation, or his one year dalliance with James Borrego and the Charlotte Hornets before the close of his career. Sometimes I just sit there and wonder why in the hell he never left San Antonio before that?
But that’s the thing about Tony Parker, he’s always been misunderstood. And he’s always tried to do the right thing for the organization in spite of it. He was nineteen years old, a basketball fetus, when he first had to endure the scorn of the fan-base, and a red-faced, apoplectic Gregg Popovich; an end-of-the-first-round pick tasked with carrying championship expectations from the get-go.
And he did it all, playing a vital role as a part of four title-winning teams, racking up a Finals MVP and more All-Star appearances that any 28th pick in NBA history. There are few players that come to mind in the last 20 years who entered the NBA with such a weight of expectations, and none at that particular pick slot.
And I’d be willing to bet dollars to euros that he took every opportunity he had to talk up the Spurs, and the city of San Antonio, because at the end of the day, Tony never listened to the doubters.
He made San Antonio home in spite of the initial hostility and indifference. And he found a father figure in the silver-haired Serbian who cursed him out in public for freelancing and blowing assignments. He turned a lot of the naysayers into believers with his constant thirst for improvement and his refusal to quit in spite of the odds. He even did the HEB commercials that he was somehow never too important for.
And of course, he recruited the perpetually dazzling Boris Diaw, and helped sell PATFO on Diaw’s merits when Boris was at his lowest point as player, helping to usher in the most beloved and beautiful era of Spurs basketball, which led to a team that laid waste to a LeBron James led behemoth the year that Victor Wembanyama turned ten years old.
Victor had been three years old the last time the Spurs had won a title. It’s almost certain that San Antonio’s 2014 championship team is the only one he remembers. I wonder how important that was to his perception of San Antonio as desirable destination?
Everywhere you look, Parker’s fingerprints are all over the background of that exultant teenager’s demeanor, as are Gregg Popovich’s and R.C. Buford’s. And Peter Holt Sr’s, for that matter, as the owner whose trust in the (then unproven) duo back in 1999 led to a tumbling of dominoes that led to Parker, and eventually, the smiling face of a French basketball giant.
It was fitting that his son, Peter Holt Jr, served as the Spurs’ representative as they landed their first number one pick since 1997. The symmetry was everywhere last night, as it is so often for that proud franchise. But at the center of it all was the silhouette of Tony Parker, the undersized euro-guard that no one wanted, who had to beg for (at the behest of then-scout Sam Presti) a second work-out in front of the Spurs brass.
His loyalty to San Antonio questioned so many times, the look on Wembanyama’s face left no question about how Tony Parker really felt about the city of San Antonio. The Spurs Way lives on, self-perpetuating in that way that all good things do, even in the moments of greatest doubt, and Tony Parker is a part of that too. He always was.
Later in the evening as I was working on this piece, watching Nikola Jokić nearly go for 35-15-20 against the Lost Angeles Lakers, I noticed a comment on one of the tweets I’d made about Parker earlier that night.
“True, but do we know why Vic left Tony’s team? Hope their relationship is good.”
The subtext couldn’t have been more clear. I rubbed my eyes and groaned, and looked up just in time to see the final score as the Lakers lost the first game of the Western Conference Finals. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
I never responded to the comment. I didn’t need to.
His career long over, his basketball effects and accomplishments soon to decorate the halls of the Naismith, Parker had come in clutch for the San Antonio faithful yet again.
And for one final time, Tony had dominated Fisher.