Fellow Frenchman Nic Batum knows the many faces of Tony Parker better than most:
Emphatic Tony. Stern Tony. Outraged Tony (usually toward referees). Elated Tony. But nervous Tony isn’t usually in the rotation. Monday it was.
“I think he’s nervous,” said Batum, who recruited future Hall of Famer Tony Parker to be a Charlotte Hornet this season. “Him tonight here: Crazy. He was the starting point guard for the most historic franchise in NBA history.”
That’s debatable (see Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers), but you get the point. For the first time in 18 seasons, Parker faced the San Antonio Spurs as an opponent. After winning five championships (he was Finals MVP in 2007) and being named an All-Star six times, he was returning to AT&T Center in teal-and-purple rather than black-and-silver.
It’s a given he’d be treated warmly by the fans, a distinct contrast to how another former Spurs star, Kawhi Leonard, was received when the Toronto Raptors played here recently. Leonard forced a trade out of town, saying he didn’t intend to re-sign even at the risk of not getting the super-max contract he could have qualified for in San Antonio.
Parker’s situation is a dramatic contrast to that ill will. Well past his prime at 36, he was told last summer by the Spurs he was welcome back, but it would be more a mentoring role as the team’s third option at point guard. The Hornets offered the prospect of steady playing time behind starter Kemba Walker.
So partially on sales pitches by new Hornets coach James Borrego (a former Spurs assistant) and Batum (who Parker calls his “little brother” from many summers on the French national team), Parker agreed last July to a two-year contract: This season guaranteed a $5 million salary, next season a team option at $5.25 million.
Whether Parker chooses to play next season is undecided, but what he’s brought to the Hornets this season is unquestioned: He has filled a gaping hole on Charlotte’s roster the previous two seasons as Walker’s backup. He averages 18.4 minutes, 9.3 points and 3.8 assists, and often finishes games in the same backcourt with Walker.
That Parker would bring savvy and gravitas to the Hornets was a given. That he still would be so durable (missing only one game so far due to injury) and effective is a major plus two years removed from a torn tendon below his left knee that threatened his career.
The Hornets had an off-day in San Antonio Sunday after flying in from Sacramento. That gave Parker time to visit his San Antonio home for the first time in four months and touch base with ex-teammate Tim Duncan and former coach Gregg Popovich.
That made the inevitability of playing against the Spurs for the first time no longer feel academic.
“He’s like a second dad; I have a very, very special relationship to Coach Pop that goes beyond basketball,” Parker said at morning shootaround.
“When you’re the point guard, you’re always going to have a special relationship with your coach, but when you come (across the Atlantic) at 19 years old, and with what we went through — it’s very hard to win in this league consistently — it was very special. I will always be grateful.”
Parker immediately drove to Popovich’s home last April, upon hearing of the death of Popovich’s wife following a long illness, to offer comfort. This is way beyond a typical coach-player relationship; Popovich, a wine connoisseur, has shared many vintages with Parker over the years.
“We’re not going to drink red wine today,” Parker joked, “because I have a game to play.”
Leap of faith
No one could have blamed Parker had he chosen the safe route and re-signed with the Spurs as point guard-emeritus. As it turns out, with point guard Dejounte Murray suffering a torn ACL, Parker would have played plenty in San Antonio this season.
Both Parker and Popovich avoided the “what-if” discussion leading up to the game. Parker said rehashing his decision served no purpose Monday. Popovich took a similar approach when asked about Parker in a group interview over the weekend.
“It will really look weird seeing him in another uniform,” Popovich said. “It pulls at the heartstrings a little bit (that he’s elsewhere), but the situation is great for him. He’s playing.
“We didn’t know that Dejounte would go down when we made all those plans for the future. As long as (Parker is) happy, I’m happy.”
Parker is happy — with his minutes, with his relationship with Borrego, with how he’s free to be himself: Demanding, assertive and blunt in his leadership style.
Before the season ever started, Parker told new teammates not to mess with his streak of never missing the playoffs. The Hornets entered Monday’s game eighth in the Eastern Conference, which would be the last playoff spot. The Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic are in the chase for that spot.
“It’s a different challenge, and that’s what I was looking for,” Parker said of breaking a two-season Hornets absence from the playoffs. “We’ve got a lot of young guys trying to find their way.”
There are many terns that describe what Parker has provided the Hornets; “Guide” and “mentor” sure apply. Hall of Famer-in-residence? That, too.