Parker still hangs tough

Times Staff Writer

Who would have known that Gregg Popovich, from East Chicago -- that’s Indiana, not Illinois -- could parlez a little Francais like his point guard protege?

“Laissez faire,” the Spurs coach gruffly says of Tony Parker’s first workout before the NBA draft for San Antonio seven years ago. Translated, it amounts to let whatever is going to happen, happen.

It’s a French phrase that described a then-19-year-old French player.

Parker was dismal in that workout; he wasn’t ready to play for the Spurs. Not Popovich’s Spurs, a squad drilled in discipline and details. Au revoir, Popovich was willing to say.


“Luckily, we had a second one,” Popovich said of inviting Parker back for another workout.

Luckily for the Spurs. Since then, there have been three NBA championships, two All-Star appearances and one NBA Finals most-valuable-player award.

And that was also before his marriage to actress Eva Longoria, in the perfect blend of stardom between Hollywood and, er, San Antonio.

Parker, a slight-framed, lickety-split quick point guard with an innate ability to cut into the heart of an interior defense and launch a teardrop shot from the lane, declared he wanted to help the Spurs beat the Lakers come playoff time when he was drafted in 2001.


He has already done it. And he’s aiming to do it again.

And, to think, Parker just turned 26 this month. “It never gets old to win championships,” he said. “I just want to keep winning.”

Still, for all he has done at his age, Parker exists somewhere in purgatory among the elite Western Conference point guards. Through his seven regular seasons in the NBA, he has averaged 16 points and 5.5 assists.

He has yet to cement himself in MVP regular-season status like Steve Nash, though he’s in the discussion when the subject turns to the top young point guards such as Deron Williams and Chris Paul.


But if the end goal of an NBA season is an NBA championship, then Parker is by far the best finisher. Half of his six completed seasons have ended in champagne splashing and ring fittings.

“In the last couple of years, you added Chris Paul to the Western Conference, you’ve added Deron Williams, you’ve added Jason Kidd. Steve Nash was already there. Baron Davis was already there. And [Allen] Iverson,” said Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford. “But I think Tony gathers a great deal of pride and challenge in facing those players.”

This postseason he has already helped eliminate Nash’s Phoenix Suns and outlasted Paul’s New Orleans Hornets.

“At this point, he’s basically just learning how to take over the team,” Popovich said. “Like Avery [Johnson] used to do, he tells me what we need to do at times, calls off my play, runs his own thing. That’s good stuff, when he has the confidence and his teammates have the confidence in him to know that he can take over.”


A mere five games into Parker’s career, Popovich shook up things and inserted Parker into his starting lineup, and soon the torch was officially passed from Johnson, the Spurs’ point guard for much of the previous decade, to Parker.

“After a year of being with him and seeing the kind of player he was, I knew he had the potential to be a very good one,” said Tim Duncan, who called off his own request for the Spurs to land Kidd after witnessing Parker’s growth. “I think he’s improved beyond anyone’s expectations, including my own. He took it upon himself to really improve his game and become the player he is today.”

Parker’s interest in basketball was born from watching Michael Jordan and wanting to be like Mike. Only that was in France, where Parker would stay up at 3 a.m. to watch Jordan’s Bulls, unbeknown to his parents -- Tony Parker Sr., a pro basketball player who played overseas, and Pamela Firestone, a Dutch model.

That helped Parker toward learning motivation and mental toughness.


And physical toughness?

That was another story when the Spurs brought him in for that initial workout.

“First workout? It was terrible,” Parker said with a chuckle, adding that it didn’t help that he had just flown 15 hours and was suffering from jet lag.

The Spurs did not think he was tough enough. Not even close. Then, they watched film of him in an earlier game pitting young international players against an American high school squad that included future pros Zach Randolph and Darius Miles.


Nobody could keep the little Frenchman out of the lane. He brought his “A” game and scored 20 points.

So the Spurs brought him in for a second workout.

“We brought in some hit men to beat him up to see if we thought he had any toughness and that kind of thing, and he realized what we were doing,” Popovich said.

“He rose to that level and he knocked the hell out of all of them, so we knew he had some toughness in him.”


And soon some championships too, with more possibly just on the horizon.