Parker, Pop's partnership forged after rocky start takes them on joint HOF journey

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his longtime point guard, Tony Parker, are headlining a star-studded class of entrants into the Naismith Hall of Fame this weekend.

But, as Popovich detailed Friday, that partnership almost never got off the ground after Parker's initial workout didn't go well.

"I hated him," Popovich said here at Mohegan Sun, where the Hall of Fame held its news conferences Friday ahead of Saturday night's enshrinement in Springfield, Mass. "I said I don't want him. He's a weenie. He's unaggressive. He doesn't like contact, he's 19, and I don't want to see him."

After a plea from Parker's agent, who agreed that the workout wasn't great but asked Popovich to give him a second chance, the coach did so. That time, Popovich acknowledged, Parker "kicked ass."

"The rest," Popovich said, "is history."

The two men went on to spend 17 years together -- with Parker playing only the final season of his career with the Charlotte Hornets. They won five championships, and -- along with Tim Duncan, who entered the Hall two years ago, and Manu Ginobili, who did last year -- formed one of the winningest teams in NBA history.

Now, all four will be in, with Duncan and Ginobili serving as presenters for Parker and all three players -- plus David Robinson -- doing so for Popovich on Saturday.

Chairman Jerry Colangelo said the Hall specifically ordered the induction order so that Parker could be nominated first, then present Popovich alongside his former teammates. That's in keeping with Popovich's long-standing belief that he shouldn't go in before any of his four Hall of Fame-worthy players already had.

"It's pretty special," Parker said. "It started two years ago. I went to Timmy's, and Timmy gave me the honor to put the jacket on him the night before. So that was pretty cool. And then Manu last year was a lot of fun to see Manu getting in the Hall. Well deserved. And to finish it off, this year for a third year in a row, coming here and doing it with Pop ... it just shows that we had a special group, and that we would just build different."

The ties between Parker and Popovich as part of this year's class are obvious. But all five NBA greats inducted this year -- Parker, Popovich, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade -- have ties binding them beyond simply going into the Hall of Fame together.

Gasol spent years playing against Nowitzki, Parker and Popovich in the Western Conference, facing each multiple times in the playoffs, before joining Parker and Popovich in San Antonio for two-plus seasons. Nowitzki and Wade not only faced San Antonio repeatedly in the playoffs, but arguably had the signature moments of their respective careers against each other, with Wade winning a title and Finals MVP over Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 before Nowitzki returned the favor against Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat in 2011.

"We actually bonded here the last few weeks and months," Nowitzki said. "Obviously we competed at the highest level, on the highest stage, and there was some things said on both sides and it was emotional at times. So there were pretty frosty times between us. ... But now that's all said done, and the competition is over, I think there is an appreciation and a respect there for each other's career."

"It's crazy going to Hall of Fame with Dirk," Wade said. "Obviously being competitors and the parallels of our careers, and with Tony as well.

"It's fitting though, and it feels right."

The ties go beyond that, as Becky Hammon, the all-time great WNBA player and current head coach of the WNBA-leading Las Vegas Aces, also spent several years on the bench with Popovich. She coached both Parker and Gasol as an assistant with the Spurs, a role Popovich envisioned for her since he saw her play for the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars.

"I'm in love with her," Popovich said. "She is a fiery, competitive, take-no-prisoners gal. The first time I knew that was when I went to see the WNBA team for San Antonio. She was the point guard for that team and she reminded me of my youth. She was a wiseass out there on the court, chewing her gum, directing traffic, making everybody do what she wanted to do. And she just ruled the whole gym. It was amazing."

Then there's the fact that Parker, Gasol and Nowitzki are not just the greatest players in French, Spanish and German history, but three of the best European players ever. That tie links them together, particularly as the sport has seen an explosion of global talent in recent years, including five straight international MVP winners (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid).

"I think this class is an incredible accomplishment for international basketball," Gasol said. "I think the game has grown so much since we first started playing. ... I think we can be very proud of having taken the international game to a higher level and very proud of seeing how the present and current players are taking it to the next level."

Parker singled out Nowitzki for praise, in particular, calling him the "GOAT" of European basketball.

"He told me that yesterday," Nowitzki said. "I was very humbled by that. I always give credit to everybody else. I think there were guys that paved the way for me ... If I came in and helped inspire and motivate some guys along the way that makes me incredibly proud."

In addition to the NBA names in this year's class, other honorees include: the 1976 U.S. women's Olympic basketball team; longtime Division III coach David Hixon, who spent decades at Amherst College; longtime junior college coach Gene Bess; longtime Texas A&M women's basketball coach Gary Blair; and longtime Division I coaches Gene Keady, who spent decades at Purdue, and Jim Valvano, who coached at both Iona and North Carolina State.

In addition, Andscape's Marc J. Spears and ESPN's Holly Rowe are being honored as the Curt Gowdy award winners for print and electronic media, respectively.