In 2001, the Celtics had a decision to make with the 21st pick in the NBA Draft. The choices were stark contrasts: a blue-blooded shooting guard from UNC versus a little-known French floor general. A known commodity versus a long-term project. Proof versus potential. The only similarities they shared were undersized frames and first names that pair nicely on the leasing agreement for a New York City pizza joint: Joe and Tony.
Ultimately, the Celtics settled on nature and went with the impressively talented Joe Forte. He built an impressive resume, beginning as a standout at DeMatha High School in Washington DC up through his All-American selection with the Tar Heels. By all accounts, Forte had done a “good job”, which was exactly the problem.
“I tell you, man. And every Starbucks Jazz album just proves my point, really. There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Those sentiments, uttered by the (fictional) jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in the 2014 masterpiece Whiplash, are the same ones shared by the (very real) Spurs instructor Gregg Popovich.
And right away, Pop got to work molding Tony Parker, the “Tony” whom the Celtics passed on for Joe in 2001, in that image.
“From day one, I let him get away with nothing,” Pop said during Tony Parker’s Hall of Fame enshrinement video. “I wanted to throw him in the frying pan and see if he was going to fail or build some character and build some toughness that we could use as a basketball team.”
Here’s how the skillet felt from Parker’s perspective: “I thought I was strong mentally, but man, when you’re with Pop, you find some new ways. I never thought I had it, and he definitely brought the best out of me.”
And, some 20-plus years into their relationship, Tony and Pop are headed to the Hall of Fame together on Saturday. On the surface, it feels like a vindication of Fletcher’s perspective. But if we continue peeling back the onion, we see that the truth is a tad more complicated. Here’s what Fletcher missed in his years-long quest to find the next Charlie Parker: you can’t have tough love without, well, love.
“Tony was also the youngest, so [Popovich] was a father figure, there was a heavy coach, there was a lot of love. I think the reason it worked so well together is because they knew how much the other cared for each other,” RC Buford explains in that same enshrinement video.
Fletcher might not have gotten that memo, but Pop certainly did. Fletcher could never get over drumming. The snare taunted him. The cymbals controlled him. But Pop knew basketball, as fun as it is, is fleeting.
“When you’re honest with someone and they know that you genuinely care about them and you can criticize but then put a hand around their shoulder and they know that you care about things off the court, you can talk about things other than basketball, that’s what creates relationships,” Popovich explains.
That’s the reason they’re going into the Hall together. Not because Pop was an unflinching taskmaster and Parker was simply an obedient pawn, but because the relationship evolved. Because they are family.
A side note, before hitting Publish: Parker does something strange in that clip, something foreign to the modern basketball fan’s ear, something truly bizarre. He expresses self-doubt. And for good reason — Parker only started playing basketball four years before the Spurs selected him in the 2001 NBA Draft.
In an age where NBA stars are scouted from the womb, Parker had the same amount of time to convince an NBA roster to take him as a first-term President has to convince the American public to give them a second term. Whether you chalk it up to the neonatal obsession of notebook-hawking scouts or lazy “the kids these days are more entitled than any in history” arguments, it’s true that few incoming NBA rookies express any level of self-doubt.
Had Pop gone full Whiplash, he’d still be looking for his Tony Parker, much like how Fletcher laments at the end of the movie: “I never found my Charlie Parker.” That’s because the risk of burnout is real if no personal relationship forms — just ask Fletcher’s pupil and Whiplash protagonist Adam Neiman. Or ask Joe Forte, the Celtics’ guard whose NBA career lasted 25 games. Both are excellent examples of flaming out, which Pop’s softer-grandfatherly approach refused to let happen.
It’s only fitting that Pop and Parker, who demonstrated the twin virtues of discipline and warmth, enter the Hall arm in arm with one another. Or, maybe, arm over shoulder.