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A point guard earns his Spurs

WashPost: Head coach Gregg Popovich's pushing has helped make point guard Tony Parker a star, and he's showing it against Gary Payton and the Lakers.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has pushed young point guard Tony Parker hard. "We wanted him to be a combination of John Stockton and Stephon Marbury, all rolled into one," Popovich said.Eric Gay / AP file

Bruce Bowen saw a name flash across the television three years ago and could not fathom what he was hearing: "With the 23rd pick in the 2001 NBA draft, the San Antonio Spurs select ... Tony Parker."

"No way, can't be that kid," Bowen, the Spurs shooting guard, said to himself.

Not the kid whose father, Tony Parker Sr., counseled an immature malcontent in the French League almost a decade ago, when Bowen was doing more complaining than playing for Evreux.

Not the koala-bear cute, little 12-year-old, who introduced himself in a halting Parisian accent, "You are Bruce Bowen, yes? Hi. Nice to meet you."

The kid who would grow up, find Bowen on the right wing, find Tim Duncan underneath the rim, find a way to direct the San Antonio Spurs past the Los Angeles Lakers and to a championship at a mere 21 years old -- while still managing to look 12?

The unquestioned floor leader, who skittered past the Lakers and made Gary Payton look 38 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals here on Sunday, the point guard who stopped and popped for 20 points and 9 assists in 42 minutes.

That kid?

That kid.

"It wasn't until I saw his face come across the screen that I was sure," Bowen said. "I remember thinking, 'It's him, with less hair.' "

Three years later, the growth spurt has not abated. Parker's sudden development since being drafted and starting at 19 has again made the league do a double-take -- and rethink conventional playoff wisdom.

In pro basketball, scouts and general managers contend that the evolution of a point guard does not genuinely begin until the third season. That's when a three-year veteran begins to understand the nuances and subtleties of when to pass, when to shoot, when to tell the franchise player when he is not in the right place on the floor for an offensive set.

In Game 1, Parker orchestrated the offense like a 10-year veteran and deflated the defensive confidence of his counterpart Payton, who was left muttering that he feels left out in Phil Jackson's triangle offense. Game 2 of the series is Wednesday night at SBC Center, where the Spurs and their all-grown-up point guard have yet to lose this postseason.

"From the very beginning, we told him we wanted him to be a 32 or 33-year-old point guard instead of being 19 or 20 or 21 -- and that we were going to get that done by being really hard on him and exacting," Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach, said. "We hoped he'd be able to handle that. And he has.

"I'm more of his adviser now than anything."

Prior to Parker's workout for the club in 2001, Popovich never wanted a European point guard, much less one from France, unless his last name ended in "ich." No offense to Parker, but Popovich just could not remember many Parisian playground legends.

But there was Parker in the summer of 2001, passed up by Orlando and Boston late in the first round. He reported to training camp sleight and smallish for a prototype point guard, 6-foot-2 and maybe 170 pounds, and it would take him a full season to win over Duncan.

"When I first came here, he was like, 'Man, that skinny little point guard, he's not going to take us to any titles," Parker said of Duncan. "I had to work hard. I think maybe in the playoffs my rookie year, when I started playing well and played good against Gary Payton, it was a step. I think that's when I got the respect from my teammates and the coaching staff that I was for real."

Parker, at times, outplayed Jason Kidd in the finals last season, which the Spurs won in six games. His quickness, the way he jabs out his left foot to force a defender to commit and then darts right, is one of the main reasons for almost averaging 21 points and nine assists during the playoffs -- up six points and almost four assists per game from the regular season. His passion and purpose simply grow during the postseason.

He never took it personally, either, when the Spurs recruited Kidd last summer to take his job. Kidd was the game's elite free agent, and Duncan and Popovich sold the Nets point guard on the organization hard, almost as if he had guided them to a title instead of Parker.

"He's wondering 'What do we want to do that for? I'm here.' " Popovich said. "It's a business, and I think it was great for Tony to learn that at 20. We said, 'We're going to go after Jason Kidd. We think he's the best point guard in the business, and that's what we're going to do, because we're running a team around here, and it's our job to get as good a team together as we can. Deal with it, and we'll figure out what will happen. I know what's going to happen. You guys will learn to play together. If you can't play together, we'll have to make a trade.

"He understood. He might not have liked it, but he understood, and it really helped him grow, I think."

"I understand it hurt his feelings in some way," Duncan said. "It's natural. It's human. But he came out to play. He's here and he's happy to be here."

Parker never made his feelings known until a few days before Kidd made his decision. He finally got the gumption to tell Popovich, "I didn't appreciate that."

"Pop was mad at me, because I didn't tell him before," Parker said. "But I think we learned a lot from it, and that I would need to prove to him that I could carry that team and be the leader of that team and be the point guard."

On occasion, Parker uses his improvisation to make the 11 p.m. SportsCenter more than merely a basket. It's those open-court, off-kilter forays like that that draws Popovich's ire. Being a pass-first point guard in a shoot-and-ask-questions-later league is not in vogue anymore, what with And1, Nike and Adidas paying young players for their marketability more than their efficiency. (Sebastian Telfair, Stephon Marbury's cousin and the latest New York schoolboy legend, announced his decision to skip college yesterday -- after he announced he had signed a deal with Adidas to move product for the sneaker and apparel company.) Popovich has tried to break some of Parker's habits, and he has often gotten in his point guard's ear to achieve that goal.

"Sometimes people on the outside think, he's always screaming at me, oh, he doesn't like me, and stuff like that," Parker said. "But it's not like that. He just tries to push me, and he expects a lot from me, and so he's hard on me. He just wants me to improve. And now you can see the results. I'm getting mature, and Pop had a lot to do with that."

Said Popovich: "We wanted him to be a combination of John Stockton and Stephon Marbury, all rolled into one. That's what I want. I don't want much. And he told me the other day, when I said that to him, 'No, no, Pop. I'm Tony Parker.' That's the greatest answer he could have given."

"Yeah, I said that," Parker said. "He started laughing. I said that because I want to be myself."

He still has that French lilt to his English. And the confidence instilled him through his father, who made a successful living playing in Europe, eventually married a Belgian model and had a son who grew up to be an NBA champion.

Ten years after they first met, Bowen is trying to find the right recollection, something that stood out about Tony Parker that made him see that corn-silk thin French youth as his future NBA teammate.

"He didn't know too much English, so it was just, 'Hi.' " Bowen said. "I'd look at him and say, 'Hey, what's happenin', kid, how ya doin'?' All I remember, honestly, was a bright-eyed kid.

"But you know how sometimes you see kids and they have that look like, 'One day I'm going to be a police officer,' and in life that kid becomes a police officer? That was Tony with basketball. He was going to succeed at basketball -- and he did."