The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.
This week, you’ve read (and will read) excellent pieces about why a particular point guard is the best in the league. This article will be like that, except where the others have relied (and will rely) mostly on stats to inform their arguments, this one will be done anecdotally.
In 1991, Tecmo Super Bowl came out on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a profoundly excellent football game (if not a slightly exaggerated one), and it meant a great, great deal to me growing up, and so that’s why I asked my wife to buy me a Nintendo and a copy of Tecmo Super Bowl (among other games) for my birthday several years ago. I was very excited when she bought it, and I remain excited about it today, and I will remain excited about it forever, truly. And I mention it right now—in this article about why Tony Parker is the best point guard in the league, which, truthfully, is a thing I don’t all the way believe but will happily all the way argue since that’s how the internet works—because it will prove the point entirely.
Two summers ago, I started a new season campaign in the game. Prior to then, I’d played it only in passing—a single game here or a single game there—but I was bored one summer afternoon so I decided I’d try to play the game all the way through, from regular season to postseason to championship. The regular season was a total breeze. I’d opted to play as the Los Angeles Raiders (because the game designers made it so that Bo Jackson could run 40 miles per hour, and going for 90-yard runs is exceptionally fun), and we just sort of mowed through everybody. It was easy—possibly too easy, really. The game keeps season stats for you for the entire league, and my beloved Pixel Raiders had the league leader in pixel rushing (Bo Jackson, with something close to 8,000 yards, and I am being completely serious about that), the league leader in pixel sacks (Riki Ellison, who was a serviceable linebacker in real life but unblockable in video games), the league’s most overpowering pixel offense (we were hanging at least 50 points on everyone), and also its most intimidating pixel defense (we were holding most everyone to under 10 points). So of course when the playoffs started, we were the no. 1 seed and (in my head, at least) the odds-on-favorites to win the title. But then I played the first game of the playoffs. And oh fuck.
During the regular season, Tecmo Super Bowl uses the same background song for every single play of every single game. You get conditioned to it without even realizing it, really, because it’s just always, always, always playing. Buh-nuh, buh-nuh, buh-nuh, buh-nuh-nuh-nuh-NUH, is how it always starts, and I will remember it for the rest of my life because I have heard it so many times. Listen to it for yourself here:
The thing of it is, though, and what they don’t tell you ahead of time, is that the background music for playoff games is a completely different song. It’s a more intense song, a more menacing song. And, if you happen to be in a position where you are not expecting it (which I was when I played a Tecmo Super Bowl playoff game for the first time in over two decades), it is wholly and entirely discombobulating. This is the playoffs song:
I noticed it as soon as the game started, and I don’t mind telling you that it had exactly the intended effect on me: I was knocked off balance immediately, and it was basically impossible for me to recover. Everything felt rushed. Everything felt wrong. My beloved Bo suddenly was too shook to run like he had during the lower-stakes regular-season games. My beloved Riki couldn’t pound his way through the offensive line. I turned the ball over several times, and barely even managed to score a touchdown per half. In the closing seconds of the game, with my team down by six and fewer than 10 seconds to go, I ran a desperation play from my own 35-yard line, hoping Bo could bust free for a game winner—same as he’d done about a billion times before in the games leading up to that one. It didn’t even come close to working. He got, I think, maybe 7 yards and then was tackled by what seemed to me to be 40 defenders. Before the clock got to zero, I jumped up out of my seat and hit the reset button, erasing the game and saving my perfect season for another try.
Now, in the replacement game that I ended up playing a few hours later, things were normal. Bo was uncatchable, Riki was unstoppable, and both the offense and defense were uncompromising in their pursuits. It was a shellacking. And the only real difference (because it was still the same two teams playing with all the same players in exactly the same setting) is that I was expecting that playoff music to be there. I’d been taught, in the only way you can be taught those sorts of things, what the e-playoffs were like. Even if you’d have explained to me ahead of time that they were going to be different than the regular season, I’d still have needed to e-see it, to e-experience it, to e-feel it to really e-understand what it e-meant. It was a crucible moment, in the only sense of the word that matters.
Can I tell you something that will wrap up this Tecmo Super Bowl story? Assuming that Rajon Rondo, who suffered a sports hernia during the preseason, is out for the opening of the season, Tony Parker will have won more championships than all of the active starting point guards in the entire NBA combined. That’s a true fact. So if you want to say, “But Shea, Tony is 35 years old and he’ll be 36 before the playoffs are over,” then I would like to respond, “He heard that playoff music in 2003 and 2005 and neither time did he flinch.” And if you want to say, “But Shea, the muscles in his leg basically exploded during the Spurs’ postseason series against the Rockets just a few months ago,” then I would like to respond, “He heard that playoff music in 2007 and 2014 and neither time did he flinch.” And if you want to say, “But Shea, he won’t even be there at the start of the season, so how can he possibly be the best?” then I would like to respond, “But he’ll be there at the end of the season, and when has the best of anything ever been determined in the beginning?” And if you want to say, “But Shea, what about Chris Paul?” then I would like to respond, “Chris Paul is a master, but let’s not pretend like he knows how deep and how cold that water gets in June.” And if you want to say, “OK, fine, but what about Steph Curry?” then I would like to respond, “Granted, Steph is exceptional, and he has two rings of his own, but guess what ‘two rings’ is: only half of ‘four rings,’ which is how many Tony has.”
Even if everything about his basketball existence—his team, which is not as good as it once was; his body, which is not as good as it once was; his opponents, which are better than they once were—says otherwise, Tony Parker is the best point guard in the NBA. Experience has made him as such. Success under pressure is the measure of “best.”