On a driveway in soccer-crazy France, making the NBA was never the goal. Boris Diaw, one unexpected star of the NBA Finals, just wanted to share something with his mother, to be able to love the thing that she poured so much time and passion into.
But it just so happened Elizabeth Riffiod was an elite French basketball player. Eventually, her son would be, too.
When Diaw does the things we saw in the Spurs' five-game Finals victory over the Heat -- a combination of expert spacing and passing that's almost unheard of for a player his size -- it's easy to marvel at the unconventionality of it all. Here's a guy who measures 6'8 and 250 pounds, and his best assets are passing, shooting and sticking to his role.
It's the kind of stuff that wouldn't make any sense unless you understood the kind of background Diaw has. This is a player cut from basketball cloth, a talent practically designed for a team-oriented system like the one San Antonio uses. His skills, seemingly so unorthodox, just need the right structure to shine.
And unlike most players, who credit their mothers for pretty much everything but their basketball skills, Diaw owes his entire game to Riffiod. He might not admit it, but she was an undersized forward-center in France and it's fascinating to see Diaw fill a similar role now.
"I want to be like my mom, but more like her career and the way she did it than how she plays," Diaw told the New York Times in 2007.
But even then, Diaw was referring to substance over style, to the idea that winning reflects a successful career more than anything else. And Riffiod, a 6'2 star in France, walked that walk during her entire -- her French club won the league title six times. While her national teams never qualified for the Olympics, it's athletes like her who set up the path for France's present-day national teams, which are some of the most competitive in the world.
When Riffiod had Boris and his older brother, Martin, she decided to retire from professional basketball to focus on her family. It's something the younger Diaw took to heart.
"I think all her life was a sacrifice," Diaw told the New York Times. "When she was playing, she sacrificed everything for basketball. When we were born, she made a life for me and my brother and put everything else on hold."
When it seems like Diaw is calm and collected all the time, that's probably because he is. Both Diaw and his mother own a unique genetic trait that keeps their resting heart rates unusually low, the New York Times writes. Diaw says his resting heart rate, when healthy during the season, sits around 35 beats per minute.
For some perspective, according to the American Heart Association, the average resting heart rate for a normal person is 60-80 beats per second. While physically fit people tend to have lower averages, Diaw's resting heart rate is like a shallow creak running through a meadow.
It's hard to speculate on how a lower heart rate might benefit an NBA player, but it's probably not a complete coincidence that few players look as comfortable in high-pressure situations as Diaw. While some guys get overhyped or fazed out by the atmosphere of it all, Diaw seems to react to each game like it's the same thing, just some guys playing hoops.
This is part of why Diaw fits so well into what the Spurs try to do. Building a team purely around sharing and caring, around beating teams with coordination instead of isolation, requires steady, heady players who don't compromise the system in different situations. Diaw, regardless of his assigned role, always fulfills that end of the bargain.
When you read about Diaw's fascinating pedigree and see his skills, it's easy to wonder how he hasn't been a bigger deal. Sure, he won Most Improved Player in 2006, but the next few years would be complicated by inconsistent and fitness issues.
As much as that talent made Diaw a successful player, it's also highlighted the fact that Diaw hasn't always brought his best effort to staying in shape. When the Charlotte Bobcats, then the worst team in the league, decided to waive Diaw in March 2012, it's not like people were up in arms. Diaw had lost his starting job a month earlier, and at that time, coach Paul Silas said "We weren't playing with that much energy and we weren't getting that much out of Boris, to tell you the truth."
Charlotte, all things considered, was probably the worst possible place for Diaw. A rebuilding project full of young players, frustrated coaches and mounting losses could never really maximize a player with Diaw's skills, something he seemed to figure out early in the season. And from all indications, he checked out until being waived.
But then something incredible happened: a day after hitting waivers, Gregg Popovich came calling. The Spurs wanted Diaw, and completed a deal with him that day. Suddenly, everything that had plagued Diaw in Charlotte could potentially be made right in San Antonio.
The 2014 playoffs have been Diaw's vindication. For all of the team-based and individual success that he experienced earlier in his career, falling from grace, only to be reborn as the ultimate Spurs role player tops them all.
In this Finals, Diaw has filled his role to perfection. In the Spurs' system, the spacing and passing he provides is far more beneficial than any brilliant individual scorer might be. That's why he played so much despite shooting below 40 percent from the field.
Ignore the points, because Diaw provided so much all-around play, from rebounding to passing and much more. He's also playing strong defense on a number of players, with his flexibility being a big part of why San Antonio never seemed to let down no matter who Popovich switched into the game.
Diaw could hardly stay on the court early in last year's Finals, averaging 4.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 15.7 minutes per game for the entire series. While we gush about the breakout of Kawhi Leonard, the surprising play of Patty Mills and the general brilliance of the Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili/Tim Duncan Big Three, Diaw's improvement is the single biggest difference between that Spurs team and this one.
For Diaw, it's doing a whole lot of little stuff. But in these games, it's adding up in the biggest way possible.
When Riffiod was starring for French clubs in the 1970s, she was blazing a trail few had ever attempted. As a female athlete in a European country playing a fledgling America sport just beginning to truly reach international audiences, convention was never a consideration.
Had it been, she likely would've done something else, the same of which can be said for Diaw. "It wasn’t something I had as a goal for him," Riffiod told the Times. "It was so selective for a French player, I never imagined it."
But once Diaw started playing -- and became infatuated with the 1992 Dream Team that blazed over Barcelona and captured the world's imagination -- following in his mother's footsteps was really the only option. And like a true mother's son, he did it her way.
Now he's finally a champion as the player he always wanted to be. Here's to hoping that somewhere, Riffiod is watching and smiling at what her son has become.