SAN ANTONIO — James Silas, the first point guard in Spurs history, was an ardent Tony Parker fan from the beginning.
I remembered that Monday morning when I heard that Parker had announced his retirement after 18 seasons in the NBA.
Even when Parker struggled in the early days of his career and he incurred the wrath of coach Gregg Popovich, Silas never wavered in his belief that Parker had the physical skills and, more importantly, the mettle to be the Silver and Black’s starting point guard.
“Tony is going to be a great player,” Silas told me several occasions. “All he needs is a little time to learn the NBA game.”
Captain Late, as Silas was called during his stellar career with the Spurs, was right, of course. All Parker needed was some seasoning. But even then, Parker developed faster than anyone could have imagined.
Only 19 when he reported to his first training camp with the Spurs in 2001, Parker became San Antonio’s starting point guard five games into his rookie season. The next year, he won his first of four league championships with the Silver and Black.
Parker was the MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals, when the Spurs swept a young LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He went on to play 17 seasons with San Antonio before he signed with Charlotte as a free agent last summer.
A six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA pick, Parker is a lock for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But before he’s honored in Springfield, Mass., Parker will take center court after a Spurs game at the AT&T Center next season and watch his jersey number (9) retired. It will be another poignant, emotional moment for Parker, the Silver and Black and their many fans.
Parker, 37, is the last of the Spurs’ storied Big Three to retire and that’s reason to pause and reflect. Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili won more games as teammates than any other trio in NBA history. They won four championships together and set the tone for one of pro sports’ most successful franchises with their professionalism, loyalty and consistency.
In this day and age when players jump from team to team every few years, we may never see another three greats play for one franchise as long as Parker, Duncan and Ginobili did.
Popovich always said Parker was the Silver and Black’s offensive engine. Duncan was the cornerstone and Ginobili it’s heart and soul, but it was Parker who made the Spurs go with his lightning-quick drives to the basket and offensive execution.
Even after he signed with Charlotte, Parker said he always would be a Spur and love San Antonio. Since Parker was no longer a starter when he signed with the Hornets, fans understood when he opted to leave the Silver and Black and make a new start in Charlotte. He simply wanted to play for a team that would give him more playing time.
Unlike Kawhi Leonard, who was booed and jeered when he returned to the AT&T Center with Toronto in early January, Parker received a warm welcome when the Hornets played in San Antonio 11 days later.
“It will really look weird seeing him in another uniform, won’t it?” Popovich said. “But I’m anxious to see him. We talk frequently. He’s always going to be part of my thoughts. He’s a special young man and I’ve always felt like a second daddy to him over the years and he’s been like a son in all kinds of ways.
“He’s just a friend for life and somebody I will always care about. It will be great to see him when they come back into town and then we go there.”
Parker’s career took a downturn in May 2017, when he sustained a career-threatening quadriceps injury during the Spurs’ series against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. He had surgery two days later and wasn’t expected to return to the lineup until January, at the earliest, but he made his 2017-18 season debut on Nov. 27.
Parker remained in the starting lineup for 21 of the next 28 games he played in. Dejounte Murray supplanted Parker as the Spurs’ point guard on Jan. 21, 2018, marking the end of an era for the team. Parker had come off the bench only 13 times in 1,164 regular-season games before Popovich made the change.
The changing of the guard couldn’t have been easy for Parker, but he handled Popovich’s decision with his characteristic class and grace. In the end, that’s what I’ll remember about Tony Parker.
Besides retiring as the best point guard in Spurs history, Parker leaves an enduring legacy as an exemplary teammate who simply loved playing the game.
Adios, Tony. It was a great ride. The NBA will miss you.
Thanks for the memories.