We didn’t trust him at first. I don’t mind telling you that. We liked Tony Parker, for sure. How could you not? He was handsome, he was young, he was clearly a gifted basketball player; he was all of the things that you’d hope a young player your team just drafted would be. But we didn’t trust him. Because he couldn’t shoot. That was the knock on him. The Spurs drafted him in 2001 and everyone—when I say “everyone” here, what I really mean is “me and the people who I knew who were talking about the Spurs at the time”—was really excited about it, and then 10 or 15 games into his career we were all like, “Wait. Hold on. Does this guy not know how to shoot, or what’s going on here?”
And so we didn’t trust him. And that critique followed him for the first few years of his career. (A stat: Tony shot less than 36 percent on shots from 12 feet and farther from the rim during his first four years in the league.) And the very best example to point at is when the Spurs played the Nets in the 2003 Finals.
This, as a quick reminder, was right before Jason Kidd, the point guard for the Nets and one of the best point guards in the league, was about to be a free agent. And more than that, he was about to become a free agent that the Spurs had openly coveted. And so, one of the central conversations surrounding that Spurs-Nets series was that it was a matchup between the guy who the Spurs had versus the guy the Spurs wanted. And in Game 6, with a chance to close the series out and win it all in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich pulled Tony from the game. It was the second half and he had a couple of turnovers and a couple of misses early in the third quarter, and so Pop replaced him with veteran Speedy Claxton, who played really well and ended up finishing the game for the Spurs. It was Tony’s first championship, and he had to watch from the bench as the Spurs pulled away from the Nets after he sat down. (They went on a 19-0 run to win the game, and the series, and the title.)
But, again, that was 2003. In 2004, the Spurs lost to the Lakers in the second round, but Tony played well enough that he’d become a key figure in the series—and also the final third of the Big Three that the Spurs had been trying to build around Duncan. (I remember the Spurs went up 2-0 and Rick Fox—the villainous, villainous Rick Fox—was asked about slowing Tony down because he was fucking eating them alive, and Fox said something like, “We wanna knock him down, but you can’t hit what you can’t catch.” It was the coolest thing that anybody had ever said about a player on the Spurs.)
By 2005, Tony had become indispensable, and a clutch player of the highest order. (Two things here: First, everyone remembers Robert Horry hitting the 3 to steal Game 5 of the Finals against the Pistons and tilt the series in the Spurs’ favor, but what most people forget is that Richard Hamilton had a chance to win the game at the other end but was shut down by Tony. Second, the Spurs lost games 3 and 4 in Detroit, and part of the reason they lost is because nobody could do what Tony could do when he was subbed out. Popovich, in a rare show of emotion, explained during a press conference after one of the losses that everything seemed to fall apart when Tony sat down for a quick break, and that the Spurs needed to figure out a way to get him some rest without the wheels falling off.)
By 2007, Tony was the Finals MVP (when he won, almost every Spurs fan was like, “Tony figured this shit out, and all you bitches are gonna die now”). By 2013, he was headed toward another Finals MVP before Ray Allen decided to Ray Allen everything away. And by 2014, he was a war-tested, undeniable, unassailable four-time champion who owned the kind of situational immunity granted to a very rare few players.
If I had to put a date on it, I would say it was somewhere between that 2005 title and the 2007 title that Tony Parker became unquestionable, and someone who you knew was not only capable of playing in the deep, deep water of the late rounds of the playoffs, but also seemed excited about it, and seemed to enjoy the process of dragging an opponent away from the safety of the shore and drowning them. That’s what he became in his career. That’s the arc of his trajectory. He started as a lightning-quick young guy who Popovich felt like he had to put on the bench during the biggest moment of a season, and eventually became the lightning-quick old guy who Popovich trusted enough to set up plays for in the Finals and also rely on to inform his teammates what to do.
Tony Parker is retiring. After 18 seasons in the NBA, he is retiring. He wore a Hornets jersey this past year, but he has always only ever been a Spur, and will only ever be a Spur, the same as George Gervin (who played his final season as a Bull) or Sean Elliott (who played one season as a Piston). He’s first all time in Spurs history in assists, second all time in Spurs history in games played, second all time in Spurs history in minutes played, third all time in Spurs history in baskets made, fifth all time in Spurs history in steals, and fourth all time in Spurs history in points scored. I’m sure more substantial articles about Tony Parker and his place in basketball history are coming. (The second-youngest player ever to win a title! One of only 37 players in NBA history to win four or more titles! One-third of the winningest Big Three in modern league history!). But for now, just know that Tony Parker is retiring, and he is doing so as someone Spurs fans trusted, which is the highest compliment I can think to give to someone who has played basketball.
Here’s a video of Stuart Scott interviewing Tony after that 2003 title. Scott asks Tony about Speedy Claxton, and about watching the end of the game from the bench, and about Jason Kidd. And Tony is perfect in all of his answers (they’re all very much of the “I just want to win, and I hope now that we won the championship the Spurs want to keep me” variety). He was a champion already. We probably should’ve trusted him sooner.