The Frenchness of Tony Parker

by

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.

Paris, Texas

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.

Paris, Texas

To better explain the ambivalence of Parker’s feeling towards France and the NBA, I would like to offer this video interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy6AGmTUrGU), 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.

  • SpursfanSteve

    great write up. thanks for your contribution. I have no problem with players playing for their national team. I wouldnt complain if Duncan was playing for the US. But it does suck when the players get hurt and have to miss lots of time for the NBA season. I completely understand why people complain. I’m proud of Parker and the others for doing something for their country and for basketball.

  • http://myspurslink.blogspot.com Robby

    Tim,

    actually I was working on Parker article (I’ll probably post it later) when I saw this update…. great work!

    Like SpursfanSteve, I don’t mind players representing their national team… For me it’s their right and it’s for pride and honor. But just the same if one or two of our main guys are playing international basketball, I kept crossing my fingers hoping and praying that they avoid a major injury…

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Thank Guillaume, Robby. He’s the whiz-kid.

  • Jones

    Very thorough. Incredible work.

  • buns

    Great piece of writing Guillaume!

  • Alain

    Another French 48MOH reader here, congratulating Will/Guillaume for his thorough analysis. I fully agree with his opinion of what’s going on with the French Team : poor performance mainly due to team-mates tending to stand around and watch Tony instead of playing the game. It seems the team is finally jelling at these Eurochampionships. I see Nick Batum raising his game and taking responsibility as well (look out for Batum and Portland this season…).

  • Bill

    I am a San Antonio native living in Paris (for 13 years now) and have enjoyed watching Parker build careers in both the US and France.

    Guillaume, please correct me if I am wrong, but when he signed his big 60+ million dollar contract a few years back, didn’t this make him France’s highest paid sports star globally — even more than Thierry Henry and other football stars? This might help explain his motivation….

  • Tim in Surrey

    Interesting as ever, guys. Thanks.

    By the way, since Tim’s role on the US Olympic team was brought up… Does it bother anyone else the way people consistently count him as an “international” player? It’s probably a little anal, but it really bugs me.

    Tim was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Technically speaking, that means that he was born in the United States of America, although not in any one of the states. There are “outlying possessions” of the US, such as American Samoa, where nationality is a little vague. But people born in Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the northern Mariana Islands, and (believe it or not) Puerto Rico are, by law, considered to be natural-born citizens of the US.

    You’d think the fact that Tim played for the USA Olympic team would have made it obvious that he’s an American citizen and no more of an international player than someone born on an overseas military base. But somehow it doesn’t. If you look at John Hollinger’s PER tables, the player at the top of his “international” category represented the United States in the Olympics!

    Just thought I’d mention it…

  • Alain

    Tim in Surrey : you’re right, Duncan listed as an international player is ridiculous.
    When the NBA finally decides to change the All-Star game format to USA vs. RestOfWorld, would Duncan really play for ROW??

  • Will

    I’m glad that you guys liked the article. Re: Parker’s salary yes he was the best paid French athlete, but that’s mostly because NBA basketball simply pays a lot compared to other sports. This is due to smaller teams (only 5 real big salaries per team, more or less) than other sports, and fewer franchises (30 for 350 million US inhabitants, versus typically 20 soccer teams for 50-80 million inhabitants).

    However I think at the time players like Zidane or Henry had much bigger advertisement contracts than Parker.

    Re: Duncan it’s weird that he’s listed as an international player, but I’ve never really seen him mentioned in these discussions except as an asterisk. Writers would discuss the best international players and warn: of course technically there’s also Duncan but you know…

  • Joe

    Very informative read, thanks.
    As far as players playing during the summer, I can understand how they would really want to. I would want to. I would have a problem with Duncan specifically playing in the summer because of his knees. TP is a different story, but I do just hope he leaves healthy. But you can’t say one player is allowed to play international and another player isn’t.

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  • Will Thompson

    Whether France, Belgium, Normandy or the U.S., he is still a black man, parlay vous what up my….

  • Frans van Egmond

    Don’t forget the Dutch years of Senior, playing in Haarlem and Leiden [club called ..... arker!]

  • Jab

    I take it you must have French envy! Your bitch does!

  • Rick Evans

    Maybe Parker understands that France has the best healthcare system in the world and is hedging his bets.

  • GregFromParis

    I find the article a bit strange. Why will absolutely prove that Tony Parker prefers america?

    First, all players from other countries know that they must always declare they love america to be quiet and accepted.

    Tony Parker has agreed a contract in place that is perhaps the most anti-French in united states! But it is a professional and maybe, he”ll change people’s opinions.

    Tony Parker married in France, played with Team France and three other French in San Antonio, you realize? Yes, but we did not care, he prefers america! Ah, I’m reassured!

    Just a question: why Tony is so far in the MVP’s rankin? If he decides to change of nationality for the next year, could he have a better place?^^

    Do not forget the most important: the spurs are a great team and the only thing that want the three frenchies is to give pleasure to people, such as Manu and Tiago!

    Go Spurs Go!

  • Noah Viitala

    Tiago is brazilian

  • Noah Viitala

    and Manu is Argentinian