Alright — so imagine this: You have a really big job interview coming up. You’ve been working your whole life to make it into this field. And it’s with this company that, wow … for this job, in this industry? It’s gotta be one of the top few places to work. The interview is halfway around the world, but you don’t mind. You get on a plane, and you fly across the ocean to meet the company’s bosses.
Sounds promising, right?
Only, now here’s where things get bad. Maybe it’s jet-lag, or maybe it’s nerves — but whatever it is, when you get to the interview, you’re really not feeling like yourself. They run you through some exercises, and, man … it’s frustrating. Because no matter how hard you try, today you’re just a step slow. You look overwhelmed — and unqualified. And after about 10 minutes, the big boss says he’s seen all he needs to see. That’s it. You’re done. Thanks for coming.
Sounds like a nightmare, right?
Well, as you can probably guess, that story is my story. That was my first workout with an NBA team, during the pre-draft process in ’01 — and it was a disaster. I absolutely sucked. And when it ended, I thought for sure my NBA dreams had ended too.
But while you probably guessed that the story is mine, I bet not as many of you will guess which of the teams in the league my nightmare workout was with.
It was with the Spurs.
It’s true — I played maybe the most brutal basketball in my life, at the worst moment possible, right in front of Coach Pop and all of them. Pop and R.C., they had brought in this guy named Lance Blanks, a former NBA player, to run my workout, and he just dominated me. He made me look … well, he made me look like the teenage kid that I was.
And I guess I bring this story up because, you know — a lot of people, they think of Coach Popovich as this “hard-ass” guy. But I’ll tell you, it’s funny: I might not have even made it to the league at all if Pop had not decided to give me a second chance to make a first impression on him. He invited me back in for another workout, and I made sure not to mess it up. I played a lot better against Lance this time. He still gave it to me pretty good, but I held my own a little bit. And I think I showed off some of the things that I could do on the court. And man, it’s crazy. Because the next thing you know, I’m watching the draft, and it’s — With the 28th pick in the 2001 Draft, the San Antonio Spurs select Tony Parker, of Racing Club Paris, France.
In other words: I got the job :)
And now it’s 17 years later — and I almost can’t even believe it, you know? Here I am, that same 19-year-old kid. Only now, all of a sudden, I’m this 36-year-old grown man. And I’m leaving for a job somewhere else.
But before I move on to my next opportunity in Charlotte, I hope it’s O.K. with everyone if I just write down a few words.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
People talk about “Spurs Culture” a lot … so much that I think sometimes you can almost lose sight of what it means. But even with all of this talk, there are certain moments from my time in San Antonio that still really stand out — and I think help me to understand what is the difference, and great privilege, of having come up in this league as a Spur.
One of the things about coming up as a young player on a veteran team, a team that has already won a championship and has a goal in mind to win more of them, is that there is not this same room for error that you might get as a young player drafted to a lottery team — where they can just say to you, “O.K., don’t worry about the rest, we will just focus on your development this year.” And yes, it’s true: with the Spurs, we were built to win. Winning was the most important thing. But what I will always remember, and always be grateful for during those years, is how — even with these priorities — somehow my development was never left behind.
The veterans took me under their wing right away. They just always made room for it — and I don’t mean in these huge, obvious, “stop everything and teach the French kid about the meaning of life” kind of ways. Just very subtle things: a quick lesson here, a short conversation there.
With a guy like David … I mean, it was just amazing to see. You have this first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he’s in the middle of another championship run — and yet somehow he is not viewing me, this young guy getting brought along at the same time, as a burden. With David, and with the other veteran players on the Spurs, it always felt like this was just the natural way of things. Everyone had their expectation of winning championships. But then they also had this other responsibility, that they valued just as much, of, like … leaving the team in better shape than when they found it. And that’s Spurs Culture, to me, you know? Fulfilling your expectations, while also making room for this larger responsibility to the whole.
Of course, the biggest reason why Spurs Culture exists … this is pretty simple, isn’t it? We had one of the best players of all time, for 19 seasons, in Tim. But the thing with Tim is that he wasn’t only the greatest player for those years. He was also the greatest teammate. O.K., maybe this is a cliché. But I don’t think people realize how much of our team’s entire culture could really be brought back to just Tim being Tim. That’s the truth.
Here’s an example: People would always ask about why the guys on our teams were so coachable — about how we always seemed to squeeze nearly the best results possible from any player who came through our organization. And how, when new guys would come here, they would seem to just sort of magically get better, you know, or transform their work ethic, or get rid of this one flaw that had been holding their game back. And I tell people, always, that this wasn’t magic. I tell them that we had an elite coaching staff, an elite training staff, sure. I tell them that we obviously had a one-of-a-kind head coach in Pop. But if you want to know the thing that set us apart the most in these situations? It’s Timmy, man. It really was Timmy. Simple as that.
Because here’s the thing with Tim Duncan: Was he the greatest player of all time? I don’t know — he’s the greatest I ever played with, I’ll say that, and I’ll let the experts take it from there. But here’s one thing I’ll tell you, absolutely: Timmy was the most coachable great player of all time.
That was always our secret weapon, to me: You see this all-world player, this All-NBA First Team, MVP of the Finals, about to be MVP of the league guy, and here he is in practice, willing to be coached like he’s fighting for a spot on the team. It was unreal. And if you think that’s too passive for a star player to be? Well, then you’re not thinking it through on Tim’s level. Because Tim knew the truth: which was that to let himself be coached in this way, you know … that’s true charisma, and that’s true swagger. It’s like he was challenging everyone else in our gym: The best player in the entire league is willing to put his ego aside for the good of this team — are you?
And that was the deal, you know? Guys would come in, take a look around, and eventually they would do as Tim does.
That was Spurs Culture.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
And then if Tim was the driving force of the program that we built — I’d have to say Pop was a close second.
It’s hard to explain what makes Pop such a special leader. Of course, there’s the stuff you know: He’s a genius communicator, a sharp Xs-and-Os thinker, a brilliant motivator, and an all-around great guy. But I think what makes him unique as an NBA coach are his principles: the way that he established them from the start — and then the way that he has stuck to them ever since.
Sometimes these principles are in your favor, and it’s what you want to hear. When I got that second workout, pre-draft, even though I tanked the first one … that was Pop just acting on his principles, you know? He thought he saw a good player in me, period. And so it didn’t matter to him that I’d had one bad workout — he wasn’t going to let that noise get in the way of what his gut told him to do: which was to give me another look, and then draft me. And it was the same thing when, in my rookie year, Pop started to give me more and more playing time down the stretch — to the point where I was second to Tim in minutes for our playoff series against the Lakers, at almost 40 per night. And it was the same thing when, around five years later, Pop gave us the green light to start running the offense my way a little more — to the point where I led the team in ’06 in scoring, and then, as I got it going during the ’07 playoffs, even won Finals MVP.
But there is also the other side of that coin, when it comes to Pop’s principles. Sometimes these same ideas, now they are not in your favor … and this can be very tough to hear. It’s what happened to me in the 2003 playoffs. All season long, I’d started at the point. But then during the playoffs, when I began struggling a little bit, Pop made the call to have Speedy and Steve come in for me late in games. It’s also what happened later that same summer, when — after I had helped the team to its second championship (my first) as a 21-year-old point guard — the talk of free agency became about how we were going to go hard after Jason Kidd, a star, veteran point. And then another tough experience as a young player was the Finals in ’05, when we won our third championship (my second), but Pop decided to give some of my responsibilities for that series over to Manu.
You see what I’m saying?
Here’s the thing, though, with all those experiences, both the “good” ones and the “bad” ones: They all made me a better player — and they all made me a better person. And that’s just Pop, man. That’s what makes him so special. It’s no B.S. when he’s giving you these words of encouragement … and it’s no B.S. when he’s giving you these words of criticism. When he’s starting you, when he’s benching you, when he’s handing you the keys to the offense, or even when he’s shopping the keys around in free agency to someone else … man, you’re still getting the same Pop, operating on the same principle, every time. And that principle is: anything that happens on his watch, it happens for one reason and one reason only. The good of the Spurs.
How can you not respect that?
And the truth is, before long, you don’t just respect it — you also learn from it.
I think this is why you see the Spurs, as an organization, just being so good at juggling a lot of these big names, a lot of these great players, all at the same time. Because whoever the guy is, it doesn’t matter — the question never changes. It’s always that same Pop question: What will happen here so it’s for the good of the Spurs?
If Timmy is dominating in the ’03 Finals — then Manu and I, we’ve got smiles on our faces.
If Manu and that floppy hair of his — Manu, why you change your hair?? Dude was unstoppable with the floppy hair, SMH — is dominating in the ’05 Finals, then Timmy and I, we’ve got smiles on our faces.
If things are going my way in the ’07 Finals, and I’m getting in a bit of a zone there — then Manu and Timmy, you know, you can bet they’ve got smiles on their faces, too.
And then even if it’s none of us, you know? If it’s none of the original Big Three, and now all of a sudden it’s the young gun, Kawhi, dominating in the ’14 Finals — man, Timmy and Manu and I, you’ve never seen such smiles as the ones we had on when we are lifting that trophy.
All we wanted, in the end, was to win titles together. That’s all that mattered. It was Pop’s way, which meant it was our way.
Which meant it was the Spurs Way.
The last “Pop decision” of my Spurs career, I’ll say, I think it’s very telling — because it was like the shoe now was on the other foot. This time it was Dejounte who was playing my role, as the young Spurs point who was going to get some news. And then it was almost like, for this one, I was the Pop figure leading the conversation now.
I came up to Pop one day, and I told him my thoughts: It was time for Dejounte to take over full-time as our starting point guard. I didn’t want it to be a dramatic thing, or this ego thing, or one of these big media things, but I just wanted to get it out in the open — for the good of Dejounte’s development, and for the good of the team. Pop agreed, and thanked me. And then I went and had the same conversation with Dejounte. He was grateful.
Was it bittersweet? You know what, I’m not trying to seem like a robot here or anything, but it really wasn’t. It’s a discipline thing, I think. That’s just kind of the way that I was raised, and how I’ve grown up as a player — to always stay moving forward. Of course don’t get me wrong: every now and then, you know, Manu and Timmy and I, we’ll get together for dinner … and when this happens, for sure, then it’s time for a little bit of nostalgia. You can’t help it — and we have this great time, sharing all these great memories back and forth. But when it’s in-season? And I’m in work mode? When you’re in work mode in this league, I think, you have to be pretty disciplined: about letting the present stay the present, and the past stay the past.
And so that’s how I tried to keep that moment. I wanted Dejounte to know that he’d earned it — but also that what the decision came down to, in the end, was the exact same thing that it would always come down to during his time in San Antonio: the good of the Spurs.
And for the most part, I think, that’s how I’ve wanted for this summer to go as well. A few years from now, when I retire, I figure there will be time for nostalgia. But in the meanwhile? I signed a two-year contract with Charlotte, and I’m very excited to play that out. It will be this brand new experience for me, with a brand new organization. And if you are looking for a second team to root for, in the East, you know … maybe even give us a look :) I promise we are going to give them hell.
But mostly I just wanted to say thank you.
Thank you to the Spurs organization, from top to bottom, for the most amazing opportunity of my life — and for 17 years of the greatest job on earth. Thank you to Spurs fans, everywhere, for always showing up, always being loud, and always, always having my back. And thank you to the city of San Antonio, for being the only thing that I could ever possibly call it now: home.
Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE/Getty Images
The truth is, I know it’s impossible to summarize what my time with the Spurs has meant to me, in a letter like this.
But I guess that’s also the beauty of basketball, and of life in a way. How it can become less about the summary of things — and more about a collection of moments. How you just … become these moments, you know what I mean? All of these relationships, and conversations, and lessons, and decisions. All of these little things that just sort of sneak up on you, and begin to shape you, and eventually, if you’re lucky, even come to define you.
And while I won’t try to define who I’ve become, over these last 17 years, in a single letter … I can say this for sure: I have the Spurs and I have San Antonio to thank for it.
And I will carry that with pride.