SAN ANTONIO — Even after the San Antonio Spurs dropped a 113-109 snoozer at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, the majority of the sellout crowd of 18,627 at the AT&T Center stuck around to give thanks one last time.
A frigid chill had swept through earlier Monday evening, yet hundreds outside posed for picture after picture standing next to a sign bearing Tony Parker’s likeness below the words “Merci Tony.” As expected, gratitude served as the overall theme for all involved after the game as the organization celebrated Parker’s 18-year NBA career with a jersey retirement ceremony.
“San Antonio, it feels great to be home,” Parker told the crowd. “San Antonio is always going to be home to me. It’s very important that you know that. Thank you, Spurs fans.”
Parker’s jersey retirement becomes the franchise’s 10th, with the club raising No. 9 to the rafters alongside Spurs greats Tim Duncan (21), David Robinson (50), George Gervin (44), Manu Ginobili (20), Sean Elliott (32), Avery Johnson (6), Bruce Bowen (12), Johnny Moore (00) and James Silas (13). The ceremony included a six-minute Parker tribute video, followed by the point guard delivering a 16-minute speech to close out the festivities.
Having contributed to four NBA titles during 17 seasons in San Antonio, Parker became the third member of the franchise’s famed “Big Three” to have his jersey retired. The Spurs retired Duncan’s jersey in 2016 and Ginobili’s last season, with Parker serving as one of the speakers in both ceremonies.
This time around Duncan, Ginobili, Robinson and coach Gregg Popovich took turns lauding the 2007 NBA Finals MVP, who became the first European to win the award. With the four titles Parker helped win in San Antonio serving as the backdrop at midcourt, Ginobili thanked the point guard for being the only player on the team to believe in him when he arrived in the NBA from Argentina.
Duncan, Popovich and Robinson, who officiated Parker’s 2014 wedding, each discussed the growth they witnessed from the point guard during his tenure in San Antonio.
Popovich even jokingly apologized for all the abuse he put Parker through over the years.
“Pop saw something in him, and through the first couple of years, the respect just grew and grew and grew,” Duncan said of Parker. “He was the hardest-coached individual of anybody I’ve seen in this entire program, and Pop apologized for that. Rightfully so, he did.
“But through film sessions, through games, through everything, he was coached so hard. He accepted every bit of it. He grew so quickly, and I had no idea this kid would be my point guard, the point guard I’d love to play with for the rest of my career. It’s been an incredible ride. There’s no one else I would have rather been my point guard through this whole time. So, thank you Tony.”
Ginobili expressed similar sentiments.
“We had a point guard that really trusted me from Day 1. He knew what I could do,” Ginobili said as he turned toward Parker. “From Day 1, his optimism and confidence really got me going. That was really contagious, man. It was exciting. I didn’t know what I could do. Having him, and seeing what he could do, and starting at 19, really gave me optimism. I was 25. He was barely 20. But he was the experienced one.
“I ended up relying on him a lot, especially at the beginning. T.P., 15 years together, more than 1,000 games, a lot of wins, many losses, hundreds of long dinners and conversations in the back of the bus, and I don’t think we’ve ever had one argument. Man, not even one. As I said it eight months ago when I was in this spot, it’s been a true pleasure man. I wish you all the best post career. Thank you for everything.”
Other friends and colleagues on hand included Bowen, Ian Mahinmi, George Hill, Mike Budenholzer, Ime Udoka, Ronny Turiaf, Michael Finley, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner, as well as several current Spurs such as Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Patty Mills (wearing a Parker jersey backward) and Jakob Poeltl.
“I think I am, if not the most, one of the most fortunate coaches ever to get to do this,” Popovich said. “It’s just remarkable to be able to be with them for that period of time and watch them develop as people, as players, to see them interact with so many other people, to travel with them for whatever, eight months a year. It’s rare.
“Not a lot of people are going to be able to say they were with three Hall of Fame players for that long a period of time. Talk about serendipity, good fortune, whatever you want to call it. I certainly feel honored and fortunate to have been there.”
Parker, Duncan and Ginobili captured a total of 126 postseason wins together, the most by any trio in NBA playoff history. The No. 2 trio — Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Cooper — logged 110 victories.
The night before the ceremony, Parker held a private party in which rapper Nelly graced the microphone for the retired point guard and a bevy of other celebrity guests. In the hours leading into tipoff, Charlotte head coach James Borrego, who coached Parker as an assistant in San Antonio, was seen inside the AT&T Center awaiting the ceremony, along with Hornets forward and close friend Nicolas Batum and French soccer legend Thierry Henry.
Drafted 28th overall in 2001 as a 19-year-old from France, Parker earned recognition on the All-NBA team on four occasions, in addition to being named to six All-Star teams. Parker holds the San Antonio franchise record for assists (6,829) and ranks No. 2 in games played (1,198). Parker also sits at No. 4 on the Spurs career lists in points (18,943) and steals (1,032), finishing his career as one of five players in league annals along with Oscar Robertson, John Stockton, LeBron James and Gary Payton to register at least 19,000 points and 7,000 assists.
Remarkably, Parker took over as San Antonio’s starting point guard in just the fifth game of his rookie season.
“A lot was thrust onto Tony from a very young age,” said Spurs CEO R.C. Buford, who drafted Parker during his lengthy tenure as the team’s GM. “The responsibility of bringing a team to its next generation as a point guard after a championship team in ’99 with two Hall of Famers (Duncan and Robinson) on the floor expecting to continue that run. The expectations that he faced from Day 1 were pretty overwhelming.”
Popovich outlined Parker’s rapid ascension, starting with the point guard’s struggles in his first predraft workout, to earning the role of starter.
“We brought him in for a workout. Everybody heard about that. It was a disaster,” Popovich explained. “So, he asked to come back, and we did it again. In that second workout, I stacked it and brought in a couple of guys to beat him up more or less. All we did is post. We didn’t let him play out on the court at all.
“I just wanted to see what he was made of, if he was gonna fold, see how physical he could be or what he could take or what he could dish out. He really impressed me. So, during training camp and the first couple of games, I was really tough on him; gave him a lot of things to think about, a lot of things to do, put him on the best players on the other team whenever I could.
“And he showed that he had the fortitude and the courage to do this, and that the challenge of taking over a team that’s supposed to be successful wasn’t gonna matter to him. He was just gonna play. I gave him the ball and said, ‘This is yours. Figure it out, and I’m gonna love you and I’m gonna dump on you both at the same time.’ That’s what we did.”
Over 18 NBA seasons in San Antonio and with the Charlotte Hornets, Parker averaged 15.5 points, 5.6 assists and 2.7 rebounds.
Most importantly, Parker produced victories, finishing No. 7 in league history in that category with 892.
Parker finally ceded his starting job to Murray on Jan. 21, 2018, after recovering from a devastating ruptured quadriceps injury suffered during the 2017 Western Conference semifinals. Despite the injury being a potential career-ender, Parker rushed back the following season, making his season debut on Nov. 27, 2018.
Buford became emotional Monday discussing how Parker’s comeback effort embodied the point guard’s resilience and toughness.
“He probably didn’t get as much credit for [it] as he deserved,” Buford said, choking up.
Parker would start 21 games his final season in San Antonio, before approaching Popovich about moving Murray into the starting lineup in his place.
“That’s what you would expect from somebody who has his character,” Popovich said. “Players that have class, that have character, that understand more about the group than themselves do that. He knew his speed would fade, that he needed to shoot, and he learned how to do that much better.
“He understood younger players were probably going to get time, and his time would diminish, and he would need to be a mentor and help them along the way. From beginning to end, he was just a class act.”
Parker finally joining Duncan and Ginobili in AT&T Center immortality at last closes the greatest chapter of the franchise’s history, sending the point guard off as the last of San Antonio’s Big Three.
“It feels awful,” Buford joked. “They’re supposed to be on the floor. You don’t see it happening in sports. We were, as a community, as an organization, as an NBA, as a global basketball community, we were the beneficiaries of three unique personalities that probably wouldn’t have come together and grown together anyplace else like they did here.
“They all sacrificed for what was best for the team, for each other. It’s what made them the winningest trio that our organization will ever see probably.”