- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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From the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, where he's serving as an assistant coach with Team USA, Gregg Popovich plans to accompany head coach Larry Brown to scout the European Championships in September. That tournament is in Sweden, where Popovich will inevitably bump into a French point guard named Tony Parker.
"I'm going to totally ignore him," he said.
Popovich said it with a straight face, knowing he had French journalists in his midst, but he was actually kidding. The San Antonio Spurs' coach insists he loves Parker "like I always have."
No one denies that there could be some tensions to ease when the San Antonio Spurs commence the defense of their second championship in a five-year span. L'Affaire Parker saw the 21-year-old voice loud opposition to the Spurs' free-agent pursuit of Jason Kidd after publicly supporting it on many previous occasions. Popovich then scolded Parker, privately and publicly. This figures to linger as a story with the Spurs until the season starts, when Parker can prove through his play that there is no carryover effect.
Parker's change of heart still rankles Popovich, who attributes the comments to bad advice Parker received from two of his confidantes. "We talked after the Finals and he was still fine with it," said Popovich, who maintains that the Spurs had made their Kidd interest clear to Parker well in advance, with no protest from the incumbent floor leader.
"It changed maybe two days before Jason's visit," Popovich continued. "As somebody who cares about him the way I do, and having tried to mentor him for his two years in the league, it was just disappointing to me that he didn't say, 'Hey, Pop, this is how I really feel.' "
After a good start to the NBA Finals, Parker faded badly and wound up spending long stretches of the Spurs' clinching Game 6 victory on the bench. It's not known if the mounting speculation about San Antonio's forthcoming attempts to sign Kidd were a factor in the fade, but Parker was scolded at one point during the Finals by soon-to-retire Spurs center David Robinson. "I told him, 'You look like you're not having any fun out there,' " Robinson shared during the series.
Knowing Popovich, his real plan undoubtedly calls for clear-the-air talks with Parker as soon as possible, because he doesn't want any distaste to linger and because the Parker plans Popovich did reveal call for Parker to "take more control of the team, kind of like Avery Johnson used to do for me." Although it's difficult to envision the Spurs operating as such, since Popovich generally runs all things non-Duncan with such a firm hand, the coach says that it's time, in Parker's third season, to give him "a little bit of room."
"It's not about being angry at Tony, or 'I'm going to make him really pay the price,' or any of that silly stuff," Popovich said. "... It'll be another lesson in his maturation process. I'm almost, in a philosophical sense, happy to have this happen. He's going to learn a big lesson from it. But we've had too much wine and bread together to be (at odds). We'll always be good."
Convinced that Arvydas Sabonis is intent on retirement, or at least retirement from the NBA, Portland elected not to pick up Sabonis' $7 million option. The contract, though, stipulates that Sabonis will receive $3 million from the Blazers this season.
Dallas considered itself on the short list of teams that had a shot at convincing Sabonis (39 in December) to play one more NBA season, and the Mavericks did try. Mavs assistant coach and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, an assistant with the Lithuanian national team for more than a decade, was in the country for a training camp last week and reached out to Sabonis after the Blazers made him a free agent. Sabonis continues to resist any NBA interest, but apparently still might play for the Lithuanian club team Zalgiris, in which he holds an ownership stake.
New Jersey's Kidd, in one sense, actually welcomes all the recent downbeat speculation about the Nets regarding his relationship with Byron Scott, Kenyon Martin's contract stalemate and a possible franchise sale and move. The interest, Kidd claims, confirms that the Nets are an NBA powerhouse. "Nobody's talking about the bad teams," Kidd said. "They're talking about all the elite teams -- the Lakers, San Antonio, Minnesota -- all the teams that have a chance to win a championship. It's always good to be in that class." Most amazing part of that statement? Did you notice that Kidd mentioned Minnesota at the expense of, say, Sacramento? Seems that the Wolves' reputation is changing, even though Kevin Garnett hasn't had a practice yet with new teammates Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Michael Olowokandi.
As for the Kings, center Vlade Divac insists there's no reason to worry about Peja Stojakovic's insistence on playing for Serbia and Montenegro this summer at the European Championships in Sweden -- a curious decision since Serbia and Montenegro, while still competing as Yugoslavia, clinched a 2004 Olympic berth by winning last summer's World Championships in Indianapolis. "Peja is in the best shape of anyone in the league," Divac said. In the league, Vlade? "He takes incredible care of his body," added Divac, who, at 35, isn't playing in Sweden and keeps saying his international career is over. Stojakovic missed 10 games last season with a heel injury that was attributed to playing in Indianapolis on an injury from the previous NBA season that hadn't fully healed. The sharpshooter finished the 2002-03 season healthy, but Sacramento could do without any more risks, given that Chris Webber could be out until mid-November (or even December) while recovering from knee surgery.
Sacramento's problem? Because of the league's promise of cooperation to FIBA, the sport's international governing body, NBA teams can't prevent their guys from playing in international competitions during the offseason as long as the player is willing and the country in question secures what the league deems "adequate" insurance. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been the league's most outspoken critic regarding what passes for "adequate" insurance and the general risks to the teams paying their guaranteed contracts, but that won't stop Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Steve Nash (Canada) and Eduardo Najera (Mexico) from representing their countries this summer. "I'm proud of our guys for wanting to represent their countries, but it goes against every business rule I know," Cuban said. "You don't put your employees in a situation that might prevent them from doing their jobs, or that could end their careers. Reggie Miller was a perfect example last year. Reggie has so much heart and patriotism, like all of our (American) guys, and he went out there after he had hurt his ankle. It (eventually) kept him from being able to play some games for the Pacers. Is that fair for the Pacers and their fans? They, of course, have to decide that, but I don't think so. But the reality is that, because of the FIBA-NBA deal, I have no say in the matter."
Cuban did have some say last summer with two of his players, because Germany struggled to meet the NBA's insurance requirements for Nowitzki and German-born Shawn Bradley. To play last summer in Indianapolis, Nowitzki and the German federation wound up securing an additional insurance policy at a cost of nearly $200,000 to earn Cuban's blessing and league approval. The Germans could not afford the same for Bradley. Nowitzki is scheduled to play for Germany again this summer in Sweden, in hopes of realizing his lifelong dream of leading his country to an Olympic berth -- and in spite of the knee strain that forced him to miss the final three games of Dallas' Western Conference finals loss to San Antonio. "The knee feels great," Nowitzki said last week. "Holger has had me going for a month." Holger is Holger Geschwindner, Nowitzki's longtime mentor. Their recent drills have focused extensively on defense, quickness and footwork, all new areas of emphasis. "We changed my whole running style," Nowitzki said.
Popovich is aware that Tim Duncan has voiced his angst about having to face his native Virgin Islands in an Olympic qualifying game Saturday in Puerto Rico. He's also convinced that Duncan won't ask not to play, as the two-time MVP suggested last week. "He'll be available," Popovich said. Born in St. Croix, Duncan -- like all Virgin Islanders -- had the option of representing either his home country or the United States in Olympic competition. The Virgin Islands, however, did not have a senior men's basketball team when Duncan started representing the United States in 1994, and even though it does now, FIBA does not allow players to switch countries after representing one nation at senior level.
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss