Tony Parker, along with Gregg Popovich, will soon join Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The point guard who won four titles in San Antonio and was named Finals MVP in 2007 will get a well-deserved honor that no one should question.
It’s easy to say that now, but looking back on Parker’s journey, there were many times he faced criticism and scrutiny. The fact that he persevered and triumphed through it all is what makes TP so special and why his mark in the league will be indelible.
In today’s NBA, it’s common to see foreign players dominate the league. The last five MVPs were not born in the United States, and there are half a dozen foreign superstars around. When Parker joined the league in 2002, things were different. A lot of teams were hesitant to bet on international prospects, which is why Parker fell to the last pick of the first round (the 29th pick was forfeited), where the Spurs would pick him after some doubts. Parker wasn’t exactly an unknown at that point, and as the son of professional athletes he wasn’t exactly an underdog, but France wasn’t a basketball hotbed back then, and the INSEP didn’t have the reputation as an NBA player-producing machine it has now. There was little reason to believe the Spurs were getting a steal.
Even the team that wanted Parker and the coach that gave him the starting job four games into his career seemed to have some concerns about him. Parker was a scoring guard replacing a traditional floor general in a league that was still venerating pass-first leaders. Gregg Popovich was notoriously harsh on the young and sometimes erratic Parker. Off the court, Parker’s behavior often clashed with the buttoned-up image of the Spurs. While Tim Duncan was trying to ignore the media, Parker was releasing rap albums, getting married to a famous actress, and having scandals. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when Parker, despite showing his tremendous talent, was in trade rumors with a significant portion of the fanbase being perfectly fine with him going elsewhere. There were some serious ups and downs over the years for TP, but he always pushed forward.
The historical context is needed to highlight how impressive Parker’s career really was, but his induction is the perfect excuse to do something more important: remember how fun of a player he was. The term “one-man fastbreak” gets thrown around too lightly sometimes, but Parker truly was one. At his peak, he was so quick with the ball in his hands that he could be in a 1-on-3 situation, and it would still feel like he had the advantage. Despite often being the smallest player on the floor, he was the apex predator in those situations, often feasting on the slower behemoths who simply couldn’t backpedal fast enough to avoid looking foolish as TP blew past them. There was some added drama to those moments too, as Parker would get the bucket then fall over as if he was trying to highlight that the speed he was using was too much even for him to handle.
Lesser players would have coasted on their elite quickness and never gotten better at other skills, but Parker accepted every challenge Coach Pop threw at him in order to become the engine of the offense, always maintaining his flair. The teardrop came naturally to Parker and it became one of the deadliest weapons in his arsenal, a true giant slayer. The elbow jumper took a little longer to get consistent, but Tony got there to add a new dimension to his game when the explosiveness was starting to fade. As the team turned more into an offense based on flow and off-ball movement, Parker mastered the art of running through screens and cutting, with some of the most memorable moments of those years resulting from the famed loop set or those passes from Manu to Tony as he knifed through the defense with a burst of speed.
Parker was so unique and had such an impressive career that it’s almost impossible to have those interminable debates over whether he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. The most boring people in the world will try to use the fact that Parker was never the best at his position in the NBA to downplay his impact in the game while ignoring that he came up in a golden age of point guards and still stood out. His harsher critics will point out that the French national team only once won an important tournament to suggest that Parker struggled to be the best player on a winning squad. It might have been the case at the international level, but Tony had years when he was if not the best player on the perpetually contending Spurs, then he was at least as important as any other piece. Dirk Nowitzki might have done more for the rise of the international superstar, but Parker was part of a platoon that normalized the presence of foreign products as staples of championship teams.
Parker earned his Hall-of-Fame career on his own merits. Yes, he had good coaching and was blessed to play next to Tim Duncan for all but two seasons of his 18-year career, but it’s impossible to look at his journey and not marvel at how he managed to adapt and evolve while always retaining his individuality. That’s as big of an accomplishment as the championships and the individual accolades.