French love all things Parker

10/16/2006 - San Antonio Spurs

PARIS -- Just how big is the Tony Parker phenomenon here in his native France?

Just ask your taxi driver as he negotiates the chronic logjam of a Paris rush hour.

What the Parisian cabbie tells you is not important. What matters is the fact that he can hold a well-informed basketball discussion with you at all.

Travel anywhere in Europe and your taxi driver will undoubtedly be a soccer expert, keen to engage you in a football debate that would do a sports talk radio jock in the States proud.

But "Tee Pee" -- as his adoring Gallic public knows him -- has burst onto the French sporting landscape with such an impact that the chauffeur's repertoire now extends to Le Basket.

"Tony is huge here," your cabbie tells you. "Football is still the biggest, and Tony is no [French soccer icon] Zinedine Zidane! But everybody knows Tony Parker.

"Me? I think Boris Diaw is the better player now but Tony was the first to leave here and make it in the NBA, so he is still best known.

"Every time you see him on television, he is so professional, so modest, he handles himself so well. It's just a pity he was injured in the World Championship because with him in the team, who knows? Maybe we would have won a medal."

That finger, broken before the Worlds even started, sank a nation's basketball hopes although the enforced rest suited the Spurs just fine. More importantly, as Parker showed in scoring 26 points with 10 assists in Thursday's 115-90 win over Asvel Villeurbanne and 27 points in the 97-84 stroll over Maccabi Tel Aviv in Paris Sunday, the troublesome digit is fully healed.

"We had it X-rayed a final time before we left San Antonio," coach Gregg Popovich said. "To make sure it was 100 percent healed -- not 80, not 90, because he would not have participated at all if that was the case. But it is totally healed."

"I feel I'm 100 percent," Parker confirmed. "The X-rays looked good, everything was straight. I just get kind of scared sometimes when I go for a steal, something like that, but overall, it feels great."

Generally, Parker, clearly inspired by familiar surroundings, has looked immaculate. Considering the time of season, he's looked way ahead of the level at which he might reasonably be expected to play.

When Maccabi cut the deficit to nine points in the second quarter on Sunday, it was Parker who took over and killed the Israelis' rally. A blown attempted dunk on a unopposed breakaway late in the game was the only negative from the two games, and a funny one at that.

Parker's phenomenal play is the main reason the Parisian cabbie was so keen to continue the hoops discussion, moving on to a discourse on the lack of depth on the French national team and a debate about how Greece could beat the U.S. in the semis then lose in the final to Spain.

Imagine an American cabbie in Manhattan or downtown Chicago wanting to discuss whether Landon Donovan should have been used as a center forward or in a deeper-lying midfield role by the U.S. national team during this summer's soccer World Cup.

That is how big the Tony Parker phenomenon is here in France.

A Niketown appearance, a team photo at the Eiffel Tower, a hospital visit for the NBA Cares program, a meet-and-greet with EA Sports, the unveiling of his waxwork likeness at La Musee Grevin -- oh and a 90-minute practice with the Spurs -- all crammed into little more than 24 hours upon his arrival in Paris from Lyon on Friday.

That is how big the Tony Parker phenomenon is here in France.

"Since his first championship with the Spurs in 2003, things have really taken off," said Tom Marchesi of NBA Europe, whose headquarters are here in Paris. "That year he was named Sportsman of the Year by L'Equipe, which is the most widely read newspaper in France. When you consider the list of people who have won that award, that was an incredible achievement for a basketball player. From there, his popularity and people's awareness of him went up in leaps and bounds.

"Maybe the last year or so, things had maybe reached saturation point with him, especially with other French players, like Boris Diaw emerging. But then with what is happening in his private life, there is a whole new level of interest again."

Ah yes, the private life. Actress Eva Longoria flew into Paris this weekend to be with Parker amid rumors, fueled in large part by her own publicist, that their relationship was rocky.

Photographers were delighted, therefore, to not only see Longoria at Parker's waxwork unveiling Saturday but dutifully sitting courtside on Sunday, alongside Parker's friend Thierry Henry, the French international soccer star.

The European media, largely built upon paparazzi-driven celebrity "stories," have granted Parker a whole new level of fame, simply for his role as "Mr. Eva Longoria."

For example, rarely does a week go by in the United Kingdom, owners of the world's most voracious tabloid press (but very little interest in basketball), without Parker being mentioned or photographed alongside his partner.

Parker and Longoria are now, arguably, the world's most famous sports-pop culture crossover couple -- with the exception of soccer player David Beckham and his wife Victoria, the former Spice Girl pop singer.

However, the one important difference between the Beckhams and Parker-Longorias is that the basketball player has never let his celebrity couple status affect his performance and play.

Famously, Manchester United's legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson -- whose old-school character is not dissimilar to Popovich's -- insisted on Beckham being traded to Real Madrid when his celebrity lifestyle, his media appearances and some embarrassing comments by his wife proved too big a distraction not only for him but for the club in general.

That has never been an issue for Popovich and the Spurs.

"Not a bit of it," Popovich said when asked if Parker's popularity and lifestyle had been problematic. "I have never had to worry about him in that regard. I haven't ever had to draw him in and give him talks about that. He has handled everything with class since he got here.

"In fact, he has been great. Ever since Tony came to us at 19 he has proven himself mature beyond his years. He is very intelligent, very mature.

"I am amazed how, at his age, he handles all the hoopla, all the focus around the game. Yet, I still expect so much from him on the court. He is unique in that situation."

Yet, even though it has been impossible to miss Parker's promotional might around his home city -- via campaigns for suits, video games, sneakers, sports drinks -- one can only imagine how huge his profile would have been if a broken finger had not robbed France of his services at the Worlds.

Of course, in Tony world, every cloud

"With the finger injury, he had a great amount of recuperation time and he's managed to get his energy back," Tim Duncan said. "He's a lot more confident, a lot more aggressive. He's excited about the new season."

As well he might be, given the form he enjoyed last season, not least in his gaudy 54.8 field-goal percentage and averages of 18.9 points, 5.8 assists and 1.04 steals.

Naturally, the obvious question that will be lodged should Parker fail to match that sort of production will be whether his triumphant, but unavoidably exhausting, homecoming was the best preparation for a season in which the Spurs must improve on last season's Western Conference semifinals exit against the Dallas Mavericks.

Popovich has no such concerns.

"If he's not tired now, he'll never be tired," Popovich said. "He's been going 22 hours a day, practice or appearances or dinners. He's just shown what a consummate professional he is."

"I'm a little bit worn out but I'll rest in San Antonio," added Parker, a grin permanently fixed to his face. "We play on the 14th [against Orlando] then we don't play for five days, so I'll rest those five days. But I'm enjoying the trip and hope I can make everybody happy, do all my appearances. It's been great.

"I've not really been surprised by the response. Every time I come to France, they always treat me very well. They always follow me around, the fans get up at 3 a.m. here to watch my games.

"I was surprised by that the first two years, but remember, I come back every summer, so I know what to expect by now."

Spurs GM R.C. Buford, who arguably spends more time in Europe scouting these days than does his point guard, has watched the Parker phenomenon with great interest.

"I think he is gaining a presence here with what he has accomplished," Buford said. "The people here are very proud of him and have embraced him and I think he enjoys that affection.

"But I also think he handles it with a great deal of respect for his country and humility. You don't see him overwhelmed, you don't see him abusing the privilege and affection they've shown him. He's a tremendous ambassador for this team."

And that, at a time when relations between the U.S. and his homeland are less than ideal, is how big the Tony Parker phenomenon is here in France.

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times and BSkyB.