Tony Parker has one of the most fascinating living legacies in the NBA. He’s a four-time champion, six-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA honoree and the 2007 Finals MVP. He is, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, a top-three European player in the history of the NBA.
Yet, he’s finished in the top-five in MVP voting just once (2012), and has never been the consensus best point guard in the NBA. (The evidence: In Parker’s four top-10 MVP voting finishes, he finished behind at least one point guard every time. In three of those years, Parker was behind Chris Paul, who, as you may be aware, does not have an NBA championship.)
On paper, Parker has an almost mythic NBA point guard resumé. Steve Nash won the MVPs and will be written about for decades because of style, but it’s Parker who owns a fistful of rings. If Chauncey Billups (who everyone rightfully raves about as a leader) had Parker’s credentials, there’d be statues in Denver and Detroit. You can’t imagine Parker’s NBA career going any better than it has. He’s fulfilled every bit of his potential possible, even if he’s aging a bit more abruptly than you’d hope. Sure, he had Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobili. But they had Parker. It’s a two-way street.
Meanwhile, as Parker’s French national team prepares to face Spain (1:30 p.m. ET, streaming on NBCOlympics.com) in the Rio quarterfinals, the point guard’s bizarre international legacy comes into stark relief. For all of Parker’s team success in the NBA, he hasn’t found it on the global stage.
The common consensus is that non-American players hold the FIBA World Championship in higher esteem than the Olympics. Parker has actually never played in the FIBA Worlds: France didn’t qualify in 2002, and Parker skipped the 2006, 2010 and 2014 tournaments (usually due to one injury or another). France has won a medal at Worlds just once in history: bronze two years ago, with Parker out, Thomas Heurtel running the point and Nicolas Batum leading the way.
Meanwhile, this is just Parker’s second Olympic tournament. France missed qualification in Athens and Beijing and finished a disappointing sixth with Parker in London. France has won a medal in just one Olympic men’s basketball tournament in the last 60 years, earning a silver in Sydney in 2000, a year before Parker arrived on the scene. Before Rio, Antoine Rigaudeau had infinitely more Olympic success than Tony Parker.
Parker’s only international success has come in the biennial EuroBasket tournament. Parker has led France in eight EuroBaskets and is the tournament’s all-time leading scorer. Parker has four EuroBasket medals, including a gold in 2013 and a bronze at home in 2015. France has been a powerhouse in European competition every other year, always with Parker and a cast of equals like Batum and Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo. But in the even years, when the competition goes global, Parker has been absent or unable to pull his team together.
This tournament could be Parker’s final global romp. The next World Championship is slated for 2019, when Parker will be 37 ... and he’s never played at FIBA Worlds as it is. If Parker is to add a global medal to his full trophy case, it’s almost assuredly now or never.
How fitting, then, that this last chance comes against Pau Gasol and Spain. It was Pau who killed Parker’s chance at claiming Euro gold on home soil in an epic semifinal one year ago. It is Pau and Spain who have represented Europe’s best challenge to Team USA since 2008, winning silver in Beijing and London. It is Pau and Spain who have really dominated Europe during Parker’s generation, with three EuroBasket golds to France’s one.
The winner of France vs. Spain faces Team USA on Friday, presuming the Americans can handle Manu Ginobili and Argentina. France almost beat the United States in group play. Of course, because narratives are sometimes too on the nose, Parker sat out that game. But Team USA aside, beating Spain would at worst give France a shot at Olympic bronze. If nothing else, that’d be a triumphant cap on a strange international career for Parker.
However it ends for France, in pain or in glory, Parker will find himself back with Manu and Pop in the fall. In five or so years after he calls it quits, he’ll find himself in Springfield. Yet, if the French can’t wring an Olympic medal out of the Tony Parker era by the end of this tournament, there will be a gaping and mysterious hole in his resumé, a thoroughly odd omission in his gilded history.
It’s as if his international career is a mirror image of his NBA legacy: all numbers and limited team success. Just as FIBA Carmelo Anthony trumps NBA Melo, NBA Tony Parker trumps FIBA Tony. It’s just another weird prism through which to gaze at Parker’s fascinating basketball career.
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