There are many small luxuries that distinguish NBA players' lives from nearly everyone else's. Among them are the golf carts with drivers at the ready that spare the San Antonio Spurs the 100-yard walk between the Alamodome locker room and the team parking lot. When rookie playmaker Tony Parker finished a workout last week and found one of the carts unmanned, a mischievous smile crossed his face. Waving off the driver, who was rushing back to the vehicle, Parker jumped behind the wheel and motioned for anyone who wanted a ride to get on. A few Spurs staff members climbed aboard and Parker took off, laughing as he zigzagged through the Alamodome hallway and looking like a teenager on a joyride—which, in fact, he was.
The 19-year-old Parker isn't just another college-skipping pro, however. He's a rookie starting point guard who was born in Belgium and raised in France—a profile that until this season seemed about as common in the NBA as a Barry Manilow-loving, Beetle-driving All-Star power forward. Parker is an old soul in basketball terms, having played professionally in France since he was 15, and he has taken over the controls of San Antonio's offense as quickly and surprisingly as he grabbed the wheel of that golf cart.
He joined the starting lineup after only four games and has run the team with a veteran's aplomb, accelerating the attack and making sure that All-Star big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson—or Teem and Dahveed, as Parker, with his French accent, calls them—get the ball when and where they want it. Through Sunday, Parker was averaging 11.7 points and more than twice as many assists (4.4) as turnovers (1.8) for the Midwest Division-leading Spurs. To San Antonio fans, who have begun to wave ON AIME TONY (We Love Tony) banners, Parker appears to be the best Belgian import since the waffle. "I did not expect this so soon," Parker says. "I was hoping to be in the starting five, but I didn't think it would happen until the second half of the season."
San Antonio coach and general manager Gregg Popovich didn't think it would happen in his lifetime—at least not when he first heard about Parker. Assistant general manager R.C. Buford had to prod Popovich to look at a tape of Parker from the Nike Hoops Summit of April 2000. "Everybody knows you don't get point guards from Europe, because they're generally not quick enough and they don't have a grasp of the NBA game," Popovich says. "I said, 'If you've got a shooter with a vie on the end of his name, or somebody from Dirk Nowitzki's neighborhood in Germany, I'll watch.' "
When Popovich finally sat through the tape, he saw the 6'2", 177-pound Parker holding his own against U.S. high school stars like Darius Miles, Zach Randolph and Omar Cook, flashing past defenders into the lane, setting up teammates for easy shots and playing chest-to-chest defense. "The more I watched, the more obvious it was," Popovich says. "This kid was the real thing."
After the Spurs selected Parker with the 28th pick in last June's draft, he continued to pass tests as easily as he beat defenders off the dribble. He was impressive on the Spurs' summer league team, then in training camp, then coming off the bench in the first few games of the regular season. "As a coaching staff we kind of looked at one another and said, 'What else is there?' " says Popovich, who soon inserted Parker into the lineup in place of Antonio Daniels. ( Daniels, more comfortable at shooting guard, willingly stepped aside.)
Since then Parker has shown an instinct for the league's style and pace that belies his age and background. "He runs the pick-and-roll really well, he knows when to push the ball and when to slow it down and settle the offense, and he knows how to feed Tim and David," says backup point guard Terry Porter, who is twice Parker's age. "You watch him and think this kid must have watched a lot of NBA ball in France."
Parker does have an extensive NBA video collection, but his closest connection to U.S. basketball comes from his father, Tony Sr., who was a shooting guard at Loyola in his native Chicago before embarking on a 15-year pro career in Europe. He began in Amsterdam, where he met his wife, Pamela Firestone, a fashion model at the time. They moved to Belgium and then to France, where Tony Jr. spent most of his childhood and where his two younger brothers, Terrence, 17, and Pierre, 15, were born. (Tony Sr. and Pamela are divorced; he and the two younger boys now live in Chicago, while she resides in Paris.) "I grew up 50-50—my father would talk to me in English, and I would answer him in French," says Tony Jr. "I went to a French school, but I would come to the States to visit my father's parents in the summer."
Along the way Parker picked up some decidedly American tastes. His musical preferences run toward R&B artists Brian McKnight and Montell Jordan, and he's partial to And 1 athletic gear and the NBA Live video game. However, it was the Parisian in Parker that led him to the French restaurant L'Etoile after he and his girlfriend, Loraine, arrived in San Antonio. Parker spends much of his free time at L'Etoile, as much for the company of the French staff as for the food. "But there is nothing that I miss about France," he says. "Ever since I was small I have changed cities often, so this is not new." He doesn't have any trouble processing information from the Spurs' coaches, either. "When my father got mad," he says, "he would talk fast, just like they do."
The San Antonio staff has had little reason to get angry at Parker. "He sometimes asks, 'Coach, am I doing anything wrong? Am I making everyone happy?' " Popovich says. "I tell him, 'Get away from me. You're doing a good job.' " Parker's questions do not reflect a lack of confidence. "You'll start to tell him about a certain players' tendencies, and before you can finish, he says, 'Yes, yes, I know thees,' " says Popovich. Parker's teammates marvel at his unflappable nature. "He doesn't get nervous; he just plays," says Robinson. "The last time I saw a young player who acted like that, it was Tim."