The shortest guy on the floor takes home a big trophy
CLEVELAND -- The shortest guy on the court grabbed the rebound under his own basket, scanned the floor once, and took off.
By the time all but one of the Cavaliers figured out Tony Parker had absolutely no intention of slowing down, only LeBron James remained between him and the rim at the other end. A shoulder feint left, followed by a lightning-quick cut back to the right, and the big man might as well have been a statue.
Parker went past James, then up, up, up, close enough to see his reflection in the backboard, and kissed the ball off the glass. What looked to all the world like just another moment of improvisation was almost a lifetime in the planning.
"I'll wake up tomorrow," Parker said.
Thursday night was just giving way to Friday morning, so maybe Parker was leery that the MVP trophy he was just handed was going to turn into a pumpkin.
That, or else somebody would wake him and explain the Spurs hadn't just swept Cleveland 83-82 and won their fourth championship -- and Parker's third -- or worse still, that his wedding to "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria next month had been called off.
Yet when Parker was asked which was more nerve-racking -- playing in the NBA finals or the impending nuptials, he replied, "That's a good question. I'm not nervous," Parker said. "I'm not nervous."
Nervous would have been an apt description, though, when Parker was selected by San Antonio in the 2001 draft after one of their assistant coaches pounded him in a pre-draft workout.
"Here was this skinny 19-year-old kid from France who had been eating croissants his whole life. I could tell by the middle of the workout," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford recalled, "it was a disaster."
Parker was born in Belgium and grew up playing ball in France, where his father, former Loyola University of Chicago player Tony Parker Sr. had gone to chase his own dreams of playing pro ball. His son, meanwhile, flourished in the French junior system and began hatching plans of his own. Without telling his parents, Parker would sneak down into the family's living room at 3 a.m. to watch Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals.
"I watched all of them," Parker said recently. "You learn a lot watching that."
The day after, he'd head over to the playground.
"When you're small you're always trying to repeat the moves, the post-ups and fadeaways," he said. "I was a point guard so I can't do fadeaways and post-ups. But I was still trying."
The Spurs never doubted Parker's desire or skills, only his toughness and the pre-draft workout the club had arranged was only the first taste. Soon after he showed up in San Antonio, coach Gregg Popovich began demanding -- in practice, during timeouts and after games -- that Parker learn to do everything better than he had the day before.
"There was growing pains for me, but I can't complain because I was in a great organization. But at the same time, you know, Coach Pop was really, really hard on me, always trying to push me and looking for perfection," Parker said. "I thought I was doing pretty good, being 21, but it was never enough. I could score 14, 15, it was never enough. Sometimes I felt like it wasn't fair, all the criticism.
"But I think," Parker added, "I will never be at that point today if I didn't go through that."
The toughest point, arguably, came after the Spurs won a second championship in 2003 and considered making a deal for Jason Kidd, who was already the point guard that Parker hoped one day to become. Though only 21, Parker felt he was already the best point guard for the Spurs and set out to prove himself one more time.
"I told Pop, 'I want to be the point guard on this team and I'm going to work hard to become a great player.' It made him mad at the time," Parker said, smiling, "but I think he understands now where I'm coming from.
"I put in a lot of work," he said, "to arrive here."
Under Popovich's critical eye, Parker became just as valuable as Kidd and a lot more successful. He patiently made himself a better outside shooter and learned to maximize the Spurs' offense by leveraging Tim Duncan's low-post scoring and passing skills. Lastly, he learned how to change speeds so he could run around or through opposing defenses as the situation demanded.
"When you add up all those intangibles," said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, who was an assistant in San Antonio when Parker joined the Spurs, "you see the growth from year one until now. Add that to the poise and determination and you've got a very good basketball player. He caused us problems the whole series."
And when it ended, the two of them, the shortest guy on the floor, and the coach who never doubted that the kid could learn to play big, shared a quiet moment as their teammates passed the championship trophy around.
"I reminded him that when we gave him that first workout, we didn't think he was tough enough and sent him home," Popovich chuckled.
"And I said, 'Now you're here standing on the stage with the finals MVP trophy.' And he just kept laughing. He couldn't believe it."
And Parker's run is just beginning. When somebody wanted to know which is better, the championship ring or the wedding band Longoria would hand him a month from now, Parker proved just as agile as he was on the court moments earlier.
"Both, both," he said quickly, "I can't choose. Both are very good."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org<
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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