Parker re­turns for first time in other uni­form tonight.

Popovich, fans wel­come back Parker, the point guard who guided four NBA ti­tles in S.A.

San Antonio Express-News - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Ors­born STAFF WRITER

From an Alam­od­ome wa­ter can­non go­ing off dur­ing the 199495 sea­son opener to Den­nis Rod­man’s out­ra­geous be­hav­ior to Manu Gi­no­bili swat­ting a bat in flight, Gregg Popovich has wit­nessed plenty of strange and some­times sur­real sights dur­ing his long ten­ure with the Spurs.

On Mon­day night, the coach will have to ad­just his eyes to an­other odd­ity when Tony Parker steps onto the AT&T Cen­ter court wear­ing pur­ple, teal and white rather than sil­ver and black.

“It will re­ally look weird, won’t it, see­ing him in an­other uni­form?” Popovich said.

Af­ter that ini­tial shock to the sys­tem sub­sides, Popovich will have to deal with an­other chal­lenge: Keep­ing his emo­tions in check while greet­ing Parker on the court for the first time since he signed with the Char­lotte Hor­nets last July.

“He’s a spe­cial young man,” Popovich said. “I al­ways felt like a sec­ond daddy to him over the years, and he’s been like a son in all kinds of ways.”

Eleven days af­ter fans booed for­mer Spur Kawhi Leonard mer­ci­lessly in his first game in San An­to­nio as a mem­ber of the Toronto Rap­tors, Parker is set to re­turn to a love­fest be­fit­ting a fran­chise icon.

“He is go­ing to get a very, very warm wel­come,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said. “The city loves him. They al­ways have, and vice versa. … He’s ex­cited about re­turn­ing.”

In an in­ter­view with the Ex­press-News shortly af­ter he left the Spurs af­ter 17 sea­sons and four cham­pi­onships to sign a two-year, $10 mil­lion con­tract with the Hor­nets, Parker pre­dicted his re­turn this sea­son would be “very, very emo­tional.”

“I won’t be sur­prised if there are tears in my eyes,” Parker said.

Oth­ers, es­pe­cially Popovich, might also well up.

“Anx­ious to see him,” the coach said.

To un­der­stand the depth of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Popovich and Parker, one must go back to the be­gin­ning of the friend­ship. To those days long be­fore the proud French­man be­came a six-time All-Star, a four-time Al­lNBA choice, the most valu­able player of the 2007 NBA Fi­nals and a slam-dunk fu­ture Hall of Fame point guard. To those painful times when Popovich ripped into Parker like he has no other player. To when Popovich had to find out quickly if the 19-year-old rookie had the men­tal tough­ness to han­dle the NBA and play its most dif­fi­cult po­si­tion.

“He gave me no time,” Parker told the San An­to­nio Ex­pressNews in a Fe­bru­ary 2017 in­ter­view. “He told me, ‘You’re ei­ther go­ing to make it or break it. If not, I’m go­ing to trade your ass.’ ”

Parker passed the stern test, prov­ing he could serve as an ex­ten­sion of Popovich on the court. In time, the coach gave the stu­dent more free­dom, and “our re­la­tion­ship grew,” Parker said.

But the bond be­tween the two wasn’t just about bas­ket­ball. Along the way, Popovich passed on valu­able life lessons.

“How to be a good per­son,” Parker said. “How to carry your­self and be a pro­fes­sional. He helped me a lot with that.”

And Parker paid Popovich back by be­ing there for him in the tough­est of times. When Popovich’s wife Erin died April 18, 2018, Parker rushed to com­fort his coach.

“To be with him last night at his house, to share those mo­ments with his fam­ily, it was very emo­tional,” Parker told re­porters the next day.

Less than three months later, Parker was headed to Char­lotte.

“The Spurs will al­ways be home,” he told the Ex­press-

News. “San An­to­nio will al­ways be a big part of my life. At the end, I just felt like the Hor­nets wanted me more.”

Make no mis­take. The Spurs wanted him to stay. The dif­fer­ence was the Hor­nets of­fered play­ing time, while the Spurs were in­ter­ested in bring­ing him back in a men­tor­ship role on a one-year con­tract with no as­sur­ances of steady min­utes.

But at age 36, Parker wasn’t ready to “be­come a coach be­fore I’m re­ally a coach.” Not af­ter vow­ing to play 20 sea­sons and cer­tainly not af­ter fight­ing his way back from a ca­reer-threat­en­ing quad in­jury he suf­fered in the 2017 play­offs.

“He’s ob­vi­ously got play­ing left in him,” Popovich said last week.

Af­ter in­form­ing Popovich of his plans, Parker fi­nal­ized the deal with the Hor­nets.

“He wasn’t ready to re­tire, that’s for sure,” Popovich said.

In­deed, Parker is av­er­ag­ing 9.4 points and 3.8 as­sists — both im­prove­ments over last sea­son — in 18.4 min­utes over 37 games as Al­lS­tar Kemba Walker’s backup.

Four times this sea­son Parker has scored 20 or more points af­ter pro­duc­ing only one such game in 55 ap­pear­ances last sea­son.

“The sit­u­a­tion is great for him,” Popovich said. “He is do­ing a great job. He’s play­ing.”

As it turns out, that also might have been the case had he stayed with the Spurs. When De­jounte Mur­ray suf­fered a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury in the pre­sea­son, the Spurs needed a vet­eran hand to run the of­fense.

“We didn’t know that De­jounte was go­ing to go down when all these de­ci­sions were made and we all talked about ev­ery­thing for the fu­ture,” Popovich said. “But (Parker has) landed in a good place and he’s hav­ing a good sea­son. And he’s happy. He’s en­joy­ing the heck out of it. As long as he is happy, I’m happy.”

But Popovich’s hap­pi­ness won’t make see­ing Parker wear­ing a dif­fer­ent uni­form any eas­ier.

“It pulls at the heart-strings a lit­tle bit,” Popovich said.

Parker’s re­turn will con­jure mem­o­ries of how great he was in his prime as a mem­ber of the Spurs’ vaunted Big Three along with Tim Dun­can and Gi­no­bili. The video trib­ute the Spurs will air on the Jum­boTron be­fore the game no doubt will in­clude many clips of his trade­mark teardrop shot and cat-quick drives, which of­ten ended with him flat on his back.

“Some­times I would tell him to stop fall­ing down, be­cause when you are 43 you are go­ing to have to have a hip re­place­ment,” Popovich said. “But he hit the deck quite a lot … and bounced right back up. It never both­ered him.”

Mills said Parker “al­ways putting his body on the line for the good of the team” in­spired his team­mates.

“You would see him cramp for a lit­tle bit or what­ever, and then the next sec­ond he is back up and do­ing the same thing again,” Mills said.

As a teenager in Aus­tralia, Mills watched Parker on TV and dreamed of play­ing pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball.

“He was an in­spi­ra­tion for a lot of short, quick guards in the NBA,” Mills said. “To watch him get to the rim with such ease at his height, that stood out.”

When Mills signed with the Spurs in 2011, he found a ready men­tor in Parker.

“He took me un­der his wing the first few years of be­ing here, helped me un­der­stand the ropes, what’s ex­pected from play­ers, and es­pe­cially point guards,” Mills said. “I learned a ton from him. … I have a lot to thank him for.”

The same is true of Mur­ray. Not only did Parker tu­tor him, but he gra­ciously stepped into a re­serve role af­ter Popovich anointed the then-sec­ond-year pro as the starter at point guard in Jan­uary 2018.

Parker made sure he passed the torch with­out drama, en­sur­ing a seam­less tran­si­tion for Mur­ray.

“That’s what you would ex­pect from some­body who has his char­ac­ter and who cares about other peo­ple,” Popovich said of Parker. “He’s been great on and off the court for all those years.”

Over the last five months, Parker and Popovich have talked “fre­quently,” the coach said. On Mon­day night, their con­ver­sa­tion will be face to face, in pub­lic and likely emo­tional.

Af­ter­ward, the two will hug, say good­bye and head their sep­a­rate ways with their bond as tight as ever.

“He’s al­ways go­ing to be part of my thoughts,” Popovich said. “He’s just a friend for life and some­body I will al­ways care about.”

Jack Dempsey / As­so­ci­ated Press

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, right, and his for­mer point guard Tony Parker will be re­united tonight when the Char­lotte Hor­nets visit San An­to­nio.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.