The Frenchness of Tony Parker
I asked Guillaume Deschamps, French citizen and 48MoH reader, to contribute the following post. Guillaume goes by “Will” in our comments section, for those of you who stomp around in there. Earlier this summer, amidst discussions led by Brian Phillips and myself regarding NBA players and international play (follow the links in the first paragraph), I asked Guillaume to explain the history of Parker’s commitment to France.
Monsieur Parker, Here is Your Passport
Every summer we go back to the same discussions about international play and its consequences for the NBA season. For whatever reason the following adjectives: sharp, in shape, excited or confident never seem to qualify a player coming back from an international competition. Players get injured, or in the best case simply tired. Then it’s all about loyalty (starting with a NBA organization, of course), who signs the paycheck, owners grumbling, fans praying (that players don’t get injured, more rarely that national teams win), players letting teammates down and so on. A whole lot of drama for a handful of games over the summer. Maybe the offseason is too long for too many?
This year the main culprit is Tony Parker. After a summer when the Spurs ownership went off the deep end to win now (definition of now: as long as Tim Duncan’s legs can carry him), and barely a year after Manu Ginobili came back limping, Tony Parker has the gall to go and play for his national team–the hopeless, do-no-good French team, at that. He definitely seems to have taken an early start for the “2010 Most Ungrateful Bastard” award. As a French guy, I’m fine with all that. But when people start suggesting the Spurs trade him for Rajon Rondo and a bag of peanuts, I start to lose my patience.
So all this begins because Parker wants to play for his national team.
His national team? Wait a minute. Let’s imagine somebody whose father is American, whose mother is Dutch, and who was born in Belgium. Care to take a guess at his nationality? French, of course! Many of you might be wondering “how the **** did that happen?” and I can’t really blame them. It wasn’t really obvious to me either at first.
There is an easy answer to that, though: Tony Parker is French because he chose to. You read that right. And the past is key to understanding why. Way back when Parker was only three weeks old and his parents moved to France. At that point in the summer of 1982, Tony Parker Sr was playing in Belgium and had been invited by a French pro basketball club based in Rouen for a 2-week long assessment. The managers of the club weren’t convinced, but the two coaches, Jean-Pierre Staelens and Jean Degros, decided to keep him nevertheless — it would later become clear that Staelens had been following Parker Sr’s development since 1978.
This decision is where it all starts for Tony Parker — it will have a long-lasting effect on the life of the Parker family, since Parker Sr will end his career in Normandy, a region better known for the landings during World War 2, and incidentally a highly symbolic place in Franco-American history.
The character of Jean-Pierre Staelens, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 1999, deserves a few more words in this story: after being a strong supporter of Parker Sr, he became Tony’s godfather and later on his agent during his early pro years. Before being a coach he was a basketball player, among other things still holding the mythical record for most points scored in a pro (top level) basketball game in France, with 71 points in 1967 (aren’t all the non-NBA basketball games supposed to be low-scoring? I guess this one wasn’t).
There is no doubt that Staelens had a strong influence on Parker and it is not a coincidence that his jersey number as a player was #9 — a clear homage from Parker to his late friend and mentor. This relationship must have weighted a lot when Parker decided to apply for French citizenship at age 15 — having the choice between 4 nationalities, which says a lot about his mindset regarding France.
Tony Parker’s Formative Years
This is not the whole of the story, though. Other reasons explaining Parker’s special relationship with France can be found in the game of basketball itself, and where he played it. France in general doesn’t do much about arts and physical education at school, unlike other countries. On the other hand the French education system is well known for being elitist, and in this case it takes form as a special programme in Junior High and High Schools called “Sport – Etudes”, literally “Sports & Studies”.
Young people who possess enough talent and motivation can enroll into these special sections where academics are still the main focus, but where the whole curriculum is organized in a way to free as much time as possible for sport, or to be flexible enough to cater for special requirements, such as demanding game schedules. Parker participated in such a programme at the age of 11 in Normandy, and was successful enough to move later on to the top development center in France for sports — called INSEP (National Institute for Sports and Physical Education), based in Paris.
This institute is central to French sport in general: more than 50 percent of the French medalists at the ’96 Olympic Games in Atlanta had gone through INSEP at one point or another. Joining this prestigious organization might have been an important factor why Parker chose the French nationality — it is hard to find the facts but it could be that he actually had to take the French nationality to take this opportunity.
At INSEP Parker met young players such as Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf, players who moved on to win the Junior (18 or younger) Euro Championship in 2000 in Croatia — Turiaf scoring the winning basket at the end of a double overtime game against the home team. Parker was named the MVP of this tournament — something he definitely acquired a taste for. This event is one of Parker’s most cherished memories, and it is pretty obvious that he would love to reproduce this achievement at the highest level with the same group of friends. He also met Mamoutou Diarra (currently playing at PAOK in Greece) at INSEP, one of this best friends — Parker shared a lot of memories with Diaw and him as teenagers.
In 1999, Parker got his first pro contract in France with Paris. At age 17 he came off the bench and definitely learned a lot, but things did no go fast enough for him. He therefore entertained the idea of moving to Georgia Tech and playing 2 years in the NCAA. Events decided otherwise, as Paris got a new coach (Ron Stewart, who also had a hand in the development of Joakim Noah) and the starting point guard (Laurent Sciarra) decided to move on. Parker was suddenly the starting point guard of a team headed to the playoffs at only 18 years old (it would soon be history repeating), and after only one year moved on to the NBA draft to become the youngest starting point guard in the history of the NBA.
To better explain the ambivalence of Parker’s feeling towards France and the NBA, I would like to offer this video interview, which is itself mostly about music (and if there’s one thing we can all agree about it is that we’d rather see Parker spend his summers playing for France than singing). This interview dates back to 2007 after a busy summer for Parker where he got a 3rd ring, a NBA Finals MVP trophy and a highly publicized wedding.
At 0:59 he is asked “NBA or French basketball” and his quick answer is of course “NBA”. The next question: “Normandy or Texas?” is obviously a tougher one – he ends up replying “Texas, let’s say Texas” after a long, but meaningful hesitation. Next question: “NBA Finals MVP or World Championship MVP” and Tony picks the NBA Finals MVP (although I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the other one).
The first two decades of Parker’s life were strongly shaped by France: from childhood memories to best friends to early basketball successes. The next decade is definitely All-American: moving to Texas, getting married to an American icon, evolving into a NBA star (and maybe more). Still, Parker is looking back fondly to the time spent in France and everything draws him back to France in one way or another, especially the game he loves so much.
Despite his success overseas, the first ten years played in France at various level still proved instrumental in Parker’s investments as an owner, first with Paris in 2004, then currently with ASVEL, the equivalent of the Celtics in France. To understand Parker is first and foremost to understand this duality.
French basketball desperately needs some success on the international scene, and for that it needs Parker. Right now the state of basketball in France is pretty bleak. The French league is really bad (and I’m being kind because I’m having a good day), French clubs are the welfare guests of the Euroleague. International games are about the best (and only) kind of exposure that basketball will ever get in France (at least until ASVEL starts to shine), because it’s a very minor sport compared to the soccer powerhouse or even rugby, tennis or motorsports.
Basketball is hoping to do what handball does: winning on the international stage to get some attention via TV exposure. There would never be any handball on national TV in France if not for the national team’s brilliant results (in the last 10 years: Olympic champion, euro champion and twice world champion). Every minor sport in France has a surge in young players in the few years after a big result on the international stage. This is how France keeps producing champions in judo and fencing… and not in basketball.
The Proverbial Monkey
Dirk: 3rd at 2002 Worlds (and tournament MVP), 2nd at 2005 Euro.
Pau: Won 2006 Worlds (and tournament MVP), 2nd at 2008 Olympics, 2nd at 2003 and 2007 Euro, 3rd at 2001 Euro.
Manu: Won 2004 Olympics (and tournament MVP), 2nd at 2002 Worlds, 3rd at 2008 Olympics, Won 2001 Americas, 2nd at 2003 Americas.
Tony: 3rd at 2005 Euro
Notice a difference? Parker does, too. He has shown numerous times in the past that he was motivated by achievements, both team and personal ones. His heart is still strongly with the NBA, which is the biggest stage of all in his opinion. But the success (or rather lack thereof) of the French National Team is simply a thorn in his side. French fans fully expect him to come and turn games around for the French NT, and although he has been able to do that at times, it was never enough to carry the team to a major success. Instead of being hailed as a hero, Parker has to listen to commentators describing him as underrated, unable to live up to expectations or careless about the French NT’s future.
Even worse, French journalists have created the idea of “Parker dependence” (“Parker-addiction”) — the concept that everything in the national team revolves about Parker. It is not a new phenomenon for a star player, and a recent example would be Kobe and the Lakers, when they lose: if Kobe took a lot of shots, he is being selfish and not involving his teammates–but if he did just that and his teammates didn’t deliver, then it can only mean that Kobe isn’t taking responsibility, isn’t stepping up, isn’t carrying the team, isn’t clutch… the list is endless.
Whatever happens, it can somehow be linked back to the star player. This goes so far that some critics would suggest that Parker’s presence is actually counter-productive to the development of the French national team. Part of this is due to the contrasting styles of the NBA versus international basketball: many French pundits would have us believe that the “pure” form of basketball is by definition the international one and all the NBA players are characterized as ball-hogging athletic freaks with no “understanding of the game” (or any other vague definition of basketball excellence). Another part is simple delusion. I remember once when Duncan was injured and the rest of the team played hard to keep a good record: for some the only possible conclusion was “the Spurs play better without Duncan.” Yeah, right.
If there is such a thing as a “Parker dependence”, I see it more like what French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane had to deal with: the rest of the team would simply stop to watch him play, and every player thought it was ok to slack because, you know, Zidane will do his thing and we will go through. When Parker “does his thing”, e.g. during the first quarter of the first game against Belgium (16 points) a few weeks ago, other players slack and then complain that Parker didn’t put them in the right rhythm–in other words “sorry but we’re too slow for him”.
But of course they aren’t and a good coach can hopefully see right through that–I’m sure Collet, the current French coach, can. When other players stop making excuses, what we get is the second game against Belgium: a 38-point victory. Quite a relief after having wasted 4 opportunities to get directly to the Euro (at the cost of 2 coaches fired).
All of Parker’s achievements in the NBA are matched by an equal lack of performance on the international scene. Parker would probably feel a lot more relaxed about his duties towards the national team if he had already proven to the world that he could lead a national team to the top–in the meanwhile the proverbial monkey still sits squarely on his back, and it is unlikely that he will give this issue any rest until he reaches his goal: recognition at every level of play. He gets a new opportunity to do just that since France is now headed for the quarterfinals of the Euro.
The start of the tournament was particularly brutal with 3 games in as many days, and the three victories could all be linked to Parker’s late game heroics. During the second round, France moved on to two more victories while playing better as a team, both of them important in their own way: the first against Macedonia, a typically tricky game against a weaker opponent, the kind of games that France would botch in the past; the second against Croatia, a perennial contender, the kind of win that means France is definitely not flying under the radar any longer. France has one remaining game (against Greece) to determine the quarterfinals match-ups.
The team is in the best position in many years: hot after a tough qualification round that allowed the players to get some much needed play together; on a streak of 5 victories at the Euro; with a strong core of Parker, Diaw, Turiaf, Batum and Flo Pietrus, helped by young players (Diot, De Colo) stepping up when needed; with no important injuries (sorry Ian); and maybe more importantly than everything else, having all but secured a spot for the next World Championship. There is no pressure on the players because they have already reached their goal in this tournament. Anything else is a bonus, a chance to show what they are really worth–and we certainly hope they will. The rest, as they say, is history.