Olympics in sight for Parker, France
KAUNAS, Lithuania -- One victory away from achieving one of his remaining ambitions, Tony Parker is focused on helping France defeat Russia on Friday to reach the championship game of EuroBasket 2011 and secure his first trip to the Olympic Games.
To come this far and come up short, even to an opponent that has not yet tasted defeat in Lithuania, is simply unimaginable for the San Antonio Spurs guard.
"We've been so close over the years, losing in the semifinal twice [in 2003 and 2005]," Parker said. "I think everyone feels that it's going to be our year. I just want to make sure everyone stays focused because nothing is guaranteed. That's the beauty of sport."
The French team, historically, has been a fragile creature, filled with high-level talent but with divisions forcing open the cracks. Which is one reason why Parker discreetly acted as a de facto general manager in ensuring every player -- and, in particular, the French NBA contingent -- bought into the program in advance of this summer.
Each year our motivation grew. We've felt that this year, we can't go out in the quarterfinals or the semifinals and not make [the finals].” -- France guard Tony Parker
With only one loss here in Lithuania (the giveaway defeat to Spain which Parker sat out to rest), the results have hinted at a unity of purpose, one that might see the team attain its goal of bringing the European title home for the very first time in the country's history.
"The chemistry is great," Parker said. "The ambience is unbelievable. There's a great atmosphere on the bus and there's a great attitude. We're all focused on the same goal."
More than in the past, he confirms. It is a changed outlook. "I think because every year there is more motivation," he said. "You're more thirsty. You're so close but you're not quite there. Each year our motivation grew. We've felt that this year, we can't go out in the quarterfinals or the semifinals and not make it."
Greece so nearly wrecked their dreams in Thursday's quarterfinal until Parker took charge in the fourth quarter, hitting a game-high 18 points to spark his side in a 64-56 win.
He has had to pace himself to avoid the same kind of burnout that saw Dirk Nowitzki run out of energy. It helps that, unlike the German, he was able to take an extended postseason break.
"[The Spurs] lost in the first round of the playoffs, which was very sad for us," Parker says. "I felt like two months of vacation left me in great shape when we started the European championship."
Parker was far from idle during his spell off the court. His BlackBerry was buzzing as he pursued his parallel career: moving and shaking as the GM and vice president of French League club Asvel-Villeurbanne, in which he has an ownership stake.
He said he has no plans to play for the club, remaining optimistic that the NBA lockout will be resolved. But he is pulling the other strings for his club behind the scenes.
"I make all the decisions in terms of recruiting players, deciding on the strategy of our youth teams and all that," he said.
For once, however, he cannot pick up the phone to his own GM, San Antonio's RC Buford, for a second opinion. "RC is a great guy to get advice from," he said. "The Spurs [are] one of the best franchises in the world so any time I can look to them for advice, I'll take it."
There is no salary heading his way from Asvel, which is based in Lyon and is considered one of France's best clubs. Instead, he has an eye fixed on the future while also improving the present.
It is, quite certainly, not an ego trip. "I do it because I love the game. I want to give back to French basketball. I always wanted to do that after my career. I don't do it for the money."
Of course, the greatest legacy imaginable would be to deliver a tangible reward for Mother France.
Lifting the EuroBasket title would leave a mark in history. Anything less would simply leave Parker feeling Bleu.
Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.