SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs and their fans said "Merci, Tony" as they celebrated former star point guard Tony Parker's career by retiring his No. 9 jersey on Monday night.
"Thanks for all those years. It was a crazy ride," Parker said.
Parker played for the Spurs for 17 seasons after they selected him with the 28th overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft. The Frenchman won four NBA championships with the Spurs' Big Three that also included Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Parker was also the first European to win Finals MVP in 2007 and a six-time All-Star. Moreover, Parker is considered the greatest Spurs point guard and is the franchise's all-time leader in assists (6,829). He finished his career playing for the Charlotte Hornets last season.
When asked to explain to a French audience unfamiliar with the tradition what merits a jersey retirement, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said: "NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, all our sports here in America, if somebody has exhibited a long career of excellence on the field, on the court and at the same time done in with class, a good community person, good teammate, all those things rolled into one, and a team has been successful because of their presence, a jersey retirement will naturally follow.
"It doesn't happen very often. But when it does happen, that individual was very special. And that was certainly Tony."
Parker's jersey retirement ceremony took place after the Spurs' 113-109 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies at AT&T Center, which tipped off an hour earlier than usual. In recent years the Spurs conducted postgame jersey retirements for Ginobili and Duncan so that there could be no time restrictions. Spurs fans on this night were given black T-shirts that read: "Merci Tony" with a cartoon of him making a layup.
Parker's former teammates in attendance included: Duncan (now a Spurs assistant coach), Ginobili, David Robinson, Bruce Bowen, Sean Elliott, Hornets forward Nicolas Batum, Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill, Washington Wizards center Ian Mahinmi, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Roger Mason, Ronny Turiaf, Tiago Splitter and Malik Rose. Also attending were French soccer legend Thierry Henry, Hornets coach James Borrego, Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Ime Udoka, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, French judo star Teddy Riner and executives from Asvel -- the French men's and women's basketball club that Parker owns. Parker said there were 300 people in attendance from his "French mafia."
Robinson actually walked into the arena wearing a Tony Parker VIP credential and was told by a Spurs official that he didn't need to wear it.
"I definitely had to be here for my guy Tony," Robinson said to the Spurs official.
Popovich was the first to speak at the retirement ceremony; he apologized to Parker for coaching him hard early in his career, said he will be a Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer and told him he loved him. Diaw spoke for the French contingent in attendance, saying, "You can't talk about French basketball without Tony coming up."
Robinson described the night as "very special for him" and added that Parker had a "great heart" and was "one of the best teammates" he ever had. Duncan said Parker was "the hardest coached individual" with the Spurs and a "point guard I loved to play with the rest of my career." Ginobili said that Parker's constant support gave him "optimism" early in his Spurs career and it has been a "true pleasure, wish you all the best in your post career and I thank you for everything."
Following a six-minute video tribute, Parker took the microphone at midcourt with the stands packed and his wife, two children, Popovich, Duncan, Ginobili, Robinson, Diaw, Bowen, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland sitting before him. His four NBA championship trophies were also on the floor.
Parker called Popovich by his personal nickname -- "Popo" -- and said he accepted his apology, called him a second father and thanked him for "believing in him."
Parker called Robinson by his nickname "5-0" and said he was the "picture of how to be a professional" and that Robinson did a lot for him off the court. Parker also told Duncan and Ginobili that he would not want to start a team with any two other players and that he loves their friendship and bond the most. He also thanked several former teammates, his wife and children, his French supporters and the fans.
Parker's speech lasted nearly about 17 minutes and he finished by saying, "Before I go, I want to do one thing with the Spurs fans all together. This is my last favor before I go. Just imagine we are in the [Alamo] Dome. I was 19. Just imagine. We're playing the Lakers and it's Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [O'Neal]. And I want a big, 'Go, Spurs, Go,' on three ... One more last time all together. One, two, three ..."
The Spurs fans loudly obliged Parker's request, and next came the long-awaited reveal of his No. 9 jersey hanging in the rafters.