"THEY REALLY DIDN'T take me seriously that I was going to leave," Tony Parker says in a room full of folding chairs at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, more than 1,200 miles from the place he still calls home.
Still hurt by his departure from San Antonio, Parker nonetheless wants to "focus on the great 17 years we had."
So when Parker does make it back home Monday to San Antonio's AT&T Center, there are a few things he wants you to know.
Parker loves San Antonio -- misses "everything about it," he says -- and plans to live there once his sure-to-be Hall of Fame career comes to a close. At the same time, Parker laments that he didn't get the opportunity to show the Spurs he could still perform at a high level one season removed from the ruptured left quadriceps tendon many thought would end his career. Especially after he rushed back in 208 days from what was initially diagnosed as a 10- or 11-month recovery to help a struggling San Antonio squad missing an injured Kawhi Leonard.
"But I don't want people to focus on that," Parker says now, envisioning the heartfelt reception his reunion with the Spurs will conjure.
Parker, 36, finds something invigorating about his new role with the Charlotte Hornets as a backup point guard and mentor. But the truth is the new role isn't much different from what Parker did for 17 years in San Antonio, aside from fewer minutes on the court. Parker, who owns the title of locker room leader in Charlotte, has been empowered by first-year Hornets coach James Borrego to help bring east the lessons learned in South Texas from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, as Borrego works to lay a winning foundation for a franchise that has advanced to the postseason 10 times in its 30-year existence.
"He's got more freedom here at this stage of his career than he probably had in San Antonio," Hornets starting point guard Kemba Walker says.
Adds Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, who worked with Parker as a Spurs assistant from 2001 to 2013: "He understands all the little things that it takes to win games, and in practices, film sessions and the locker room, he has a unique way about his message and how he talks to people that's great."
Those influences taken to Charlotte are the same ones now being missed in San Antonio.
"I think it's more difficult not having him with us every day than it was to see him make a decision he felt was right for him," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford says. "And I think all of us respected him too much to not honor his goals. We miss Tony because it's the first time in many years he hasn't been a big influence in our program. You don't lose those kinds of influences without them having an impact."
So if the Spurs valued Parker and Parker loved San Antonio, how exactly is it, then, that he became the only member of the Spurs' vaunted Big Three -- a trio that also included Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili -- to leave the franchise via free agency and not retirement? The complicated answer involves that quad injury, a conversation with Popovich, a phone call with an old friend and a wild boar hunt with Duncan.
BORREGO REMEMBERS WALKING into the Spurs facility when Parker started rehabilitation for his ruptured quadriceps tendon, and seeing the point guard sitting at a leg-extension machine wearing a hulking black brace on his left leg.
"His exact quote was, 'I'm not going out this way,'" says Borrego, who worked two stints with the Spurs as an assistant. "But the information we were getting was this could potentially be career-ending. That was devastating for everybody."
At the time, Parker was playing his best ball of the season, averaging 15.9 points per game during the 2017 postseason compared with 10.1 points in the regular season.
"For somebody who's meant so much to our franchise and to our team, and to have been playing as well as he was at the time, it was difficult to see," Buford says.
The rehab process was even more arduous after surgery that May.
Spearheaded by Spurs director of rehabilitation Marilyn Adams, director of sports science and athletic development Xavi Schelling, research and development coordinator Lorena Torres, and athletic performance coach Kelly Forbes, the club put together a recovery program involving hours of hiking every morning.
That's right, hiking.
Parker laughs thinking about it now, saying, "I never really hiked before in my life." But there he was, walking miles and miles every day, in addition to sweating through five-hour weightlifting sessions.
Parker spent his first two months post-surgery rehabbing in San Antonio. Then, he traveled to France for vacation -- with the Spurs' recovery team in tow. Parker boarded a yacht and cruised the south of France and Corsica -- "a little bit of everywhere," he says -- with San Antonio's rehab team putting him through the recovery paces every morning on the boat.
Parker then traveled to China. Same thing. The Spurs kept three people from the staff with him at all times, even as he hiked all over Beijing and visited the Great Wall.
"Those people made it very fun for me, and they made it very creative to try to make sure I didn't get bored with it," Parker says.
But throughout the process, Parker never thought less than a year later he'd be playing for another team.
"I worked so hard to come back that it hurt me a little bit to not be able to show the Spurs I can still play," Parker says. "I knew if I wanted to come back at the same level, I had to be patient and be out 10 or 11 months. But I wasn't ready to do that. That's why I rushed it. I'm not going to say it didn't hurt. Last year, I tried to come back fast, tried to do it for the Spurs and sacrificed my body to come back. Maybe now, I should have waited.
"But I'm not the type of guy who regrets. I will always love the Spurs. I have no grudges."
Pop on Tony Parker: 'I always felt like a second daddy to him'
Gregg Popovich praises Tony Parker prior to his return to San Antonio for the first time since he signed with the Hornets as a free agent.
PARKER RETURNED FROM injury for San Antonio's 115-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 27, 2017, contributing 6 points and 4 assists in 14 minutes while regaining his starting spot.
"It wasn't pretty early on," Borrego says. "He was trying to find his legs, and find his way back into NBA rhythm at a position where these guys are at an all-time high."
Fresh off early recovery from a potential career-ending injury, Parker knew he wasn't measuring up. Finally, on Jan. 21, 2018, he ceded the starting point guard position to 21-year-old second-year player Dejounte Murray, after starting 21 games. Parker approached Popovich with the idea, knowing it was likely he wouldn't be fully recovered until the 2018-19 season.
"That's what you would expect from somebody who has his character, and who cares about other people," Popovich says.
Parker's injury made national news again that March when he was asked what advice he'd give Leonard, who was recovering from quadriceps tendinopathy. Parker says he was trying to tell his former teammate to stay positive throughout rehab, but the only part of the statement that resonated around the NBA was the point guard saying his injury was "100 times worse" than Leonard's.
Parker regrets how that played out and finds it "unbelievable" some fans thought the comments played a role in Leonard's desire to leave San Antonio.
"If people think that, then they're really wrong," Parker says, addressing the situation publicly for the first time. "Because I'm definitely not the reason. I was saying that in a positive way. The sad thing is everybody ran with this and put me as the bad guy, and I had no problem playing with Kawhi.
"I loved playing with him. I'm kind of the one who passed him the torch because it was kind of my team between 2008 and 2015, and I passed the torch to him. So it was sad people tried to put me against Kawhi. It never happened like that. People like [former Spur] Danny Green and other people that knew Kawhi and could talk to them, I told them to tell him the real story."
Parker and Leonard never had a chance to hash out the issues one-on-one, and Leonard requested a trade in June.
Despite the drama, Parker thought he'd always remain a Spur, and the free-agent-to-be sat down with Popovich in June to discuss a potential role.
"Pop just told me that I was going to be the third point guard, and I had to think really hard about if I was going to stay," Parker says. "So then I told him I'm not gonna stay. I think they really didn't believe I was gonna leave anyway. I think they thought I'd be like Manu and just stay."
That set into motion for Parker thoughts about joining Charlotte, which in May had named Borrego head coach. Parker wanted to play for a coach who knew him well and would manage his minutes similar to the way Popovich did in San Antonio.
So Parker hit up Hornets forward and fellow Frenchman Nic Batum, with whom he owns and operates French professional basketball team ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne.
"When he called, he said, 'I'm gonna fly to Charlotte with my wife to spend a day or two at your house,'" Batum says. "So, I thought we were gonna talk business. But then he started to ask me questions about the team, the organization, the city. I'm like, 'Why are you asking me these questions?'"
The next day, a giddy Batum showed up to the Hornets' facility and grabbed Borrego. Batum believed Parker's experience, championship pedigree, leadership skills and brutally frank disposition were exactly what the Hornets needed in their young locker room, and as a backup to Walker.
"I think we've got a shot at Tony," an excited Batum told Borrego.
Borrego didn't believe it. In the past, he and Parker had discussed hypothetically the possibility of the point guard leaving San Antonio. Borrego was never convinced Parker would do it.
"For me, I had to tread lightly on that one," Borrego says. "It's very sensitive because of my time in San Antonio. I know what he represents, and I understood where the Spurs were also at the time, going through transition. So I had to be very sensitive to Tony's situation, Pop's situation, the entire Spurs organization.
"But as I started to think more about fit here for us, having someone come in here with that experience, someone that I've had a relationship with, someone that spoke my same language, someone that knew me, knew what I stood for, knew my principles, knew what I was looking to try to build here that could instantly bring credibility, he just fit. He has my full confidence that when he speaks, he has the full authority to get after guys, talk to them and mentor them."
When Parker finally picked up the phone to talk seriously with Borrego about joining the Hornets, it was still met with skepticism.
"A little bit like Pop and R.C. in that I don't think JB believed I was going to leave," Parker explains. "So then I called him again two or three days after that and told him: 'I'm not saying this to get an offer for the Spurs to match. You give me an offer, and I'll sign right away. I'm not even going to bring it to the Spurs.'"
Once Hornets owner Michael Jordan (Parker's childhood idol, and the reason he started playing basketball) and general manager Mitch Kupchak became involved, it would soon be time for Parker to say his goodbyes to San Antonio.
"I'm not the type of guy who regrets. I will always love the Spurs. I have no grudges."Hornets point guard Tony Parker
Parker says the decision became easier once Ginobili "told me he was like 99 percent sure" he was going to retire. "So I was like, if Manu's not coming back, and Timmy is not there anymore, it's not going to be the same," Parker says.
Still, he needed to meet with Popovich one last time.
"That was tough," Parker says. "Like, it was kind of shaky, his voice. But I was like, 'You know, Pop, I love you. And I will always love the Spurs. But I just can't do it because I don't think I'm done, and I don't think this is the right opportunity. I don't want to finish being on the bench and not playing.'"
In the days leading up to that conversation, Parker spent two days with Duncan on the former MVP's approximately 800-acre ranch on the outskirts of San Antonio talking life and family. Duncan did all the cooking, tossing steaks on the grill ("H-E-B prime," Parker jokes).
After dinner came an unsuccessful hunt for wild boar with Duncan as the instructor and guide. Once they returned, Parker and Duncan stayed up all night talking.
"It was just me and him," Parker says. "It was pretty cool. We talked about my situation, and he was like, 'I understand.' Because he was the same way as me. He could've come back, but he didn't want to finish not playing. He would rather have finished with a good role. It's better to finish while you are still playing and playing well like Timmy did. We talked about everything, and Timmy just told me to follow my heart."
That led Parker to Charlotte, where on July 7 he signed a two-year deal worth $10 million.
"In a situation like this, you try to be as honest as you can with each other, and then you respect whatever decisions are made in the person's best interest," Buford says. "Especially with Tony because he's earned so much respect from all of us."
WHEN CHARLOTTE OPENED its first training-camp practice in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Parker wasted no time directing teammates -- barking at them when they made mistakes and holding them accountable. In fact, some teammates were initially taken aback by Parker's brutal honesty and take-charge demeanor, before almost immediately realizing "something special was happening," according to center Willy Hernangomez, who grew up watching Parker and the Spurs win championships.
Budenholzer believes Parker's blunt nature enhances his communication skills and is the product of the culture in San Antonio, where "there's not much gray area" in locker room conversations. Especially not during Parker's formative NBA years, when he played on teams featuring Duncan, Ginobili, David Robinson, Steve Kerr, Steve Smith and Terry Porter.
Borrego knows firsthand, having spent more than 10 years in two stints in San Antonio.
"There are a lot of direct conversations," Borrego says. "That's what people are looking for. In leaders, you want honesty, and you want clarity. That's what he's trying to help us with. The beauty in San Antonio is there were multiple guys doing it, beginning with the head coach, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker. It rubs off on people over time. They all took turns leading, and that's why they had the success they had."
Walker sees a similar phenomenon unfolding in Charlotte, with Parker spearheading the movement. Although he's in his eighth NBA season, Walker says he's learning from Parker every day and now sees the game "in so many different ways."
One thing he's learning is when to be aggressive as opposed to bringing the ball back out to reset the offense and find better shots. "When I get into the lane, I'm usually going straight to the basket," Walker says, "and he lets me know sometimes."
Walker imitates Parker's French accent to illustrate the point.
"He's like, 'Kemba, you had somebody open,'" Walker says. "Or when things are not going well, and we have four possessions where we didn't get a great shot, we might get a stop, get a fast-break opportunity, and then turn it over. Then he's like, 'See, Kemba, right there is when you're supposed to slow the ball down and get a good shot.' He does so much for us, man. It's an honor to have him."
Adds Marvin Williams: "There's nothing that Tony has not seen four, five, six times throughout the course of his career. No moment has been too big for him."
Parker is no longer putting up the big stat lines he's accustomed to. He hasn't started a single game this season and is averaging a career-low 18.6 minutes to go with 9.4 points and 3.8 assists per game. That's all fine by the Hornets.
Asked what Parker brings to Charlotte, Batum rattles off the résumé without a thought: "Seventeen years, six All-Stars, four rings, Finals MVP playing for maybe the best franchise over the last 20 years as the starting point guard. He's brought all of that here, and that's so huge."
But how long will it last?
Parker once stated his goal was to play 20 years in the NBA, but now says that's changed.
"When I said that, I was thinking with the Spurs," he says. "But stuff happens, it's business. Now, I want to take it year by year because with my family being [in San Antonio], it's hard because I see them like every three or four weeks. I'm gonna go year by year like Manu did at the end."
For now, both Parker and Popovich look forward to the reunion in the city where the point guard started his career as a 19-year-old.
"It will really look weird, won't it, seeing him in another uniform?" Popovich says. "Anxious to see him. We talk frequently. He's always going to be a part of my thoughts. I always felt like a second daddy to him over the years, and he's been like a son. He's just a friend for life, and somebody I will always care about."
Parker shares the sentiment, but doesn't know how he'll react to the cheers and fans chanting his name, topped off by a tearjerker of a tribute video.
"There are going to be a lot of emotions because San Antonio is always going to be home," Parker says.
And long after the game ends, the one thought sure to be brewing in the minds of many -- the Spurs organization, the fans at AT&T and even Parker himself -- is how he ever left in the first place.