When four-time NBA champion Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets, coach James Borrego told Parker he was empowered to lead.
More importantly, Borrego told everyone else on the Hornets roster of that empowerment.
So in that first training camp practice in Chapel Hill, when Parker immediately started directing traffic, correcting execution, holding brand-new teammates accountable, players listened and conformed.
“It’s like having a second coach, but with a jersey on,” guard Malik Monk said of Parker’s presence. “He is going to put you in the right spots. Tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. Tell you what he thinks you should be doing
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“He knows what spots you are going to be in before you even know it. That man knows his game of basketball!”
Of course he does. Parker spent his first 17 NBA seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, a model franchise. He won four championships with the Spurs and was named Most Valuable Player of the 2007 NBA Finals.
He’s 36 years old, but his play this season — averaging 9.6 points and 4.5 assists as Kemba Walker’s backup — demonstrates he is here for far more than ceremonial reasons. As Parker said the day before training camp, he didn’t come to Charlotte to be a coach on the bench.
Fellow Frenchman Nic Batum lobbied for the Hornets to sign Parker last summer, making the argument that the Hornets needed a veteran with both the credibility and blunt personality to hold teammates accountable.
Asked how he prepared the players for Parker’s forceful presence, Borrego described it this way: “We’re bringing in a champion and he’s going to have a voice. Take advantage of what you have in-house. You may never play again with an NBA champion, a Hall-of-Famer.”
It took one game for Parker to wield that sway.
In the Hornets’ season-opening loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the starters played a lackadaisical first quarter. After a team film session the next day, Parker asked Batum, Walker and Borrego to stay behind.
That’s when Parker pointed out that his expectations hadn’t been met.
He made his point.: The next night, the Hornets won in Orlando by 32.
Finding a voice
There’s a perception, fair or unfair, that the French can be laid-back to a fault. The common French term “laissez-faire” is defined as an approach to life of “letting things take their own course.”
Parker couldn’t be more different from that. The word those who have known him for decades frequently use to describe Parker is “direct.”
“I think if you know me and you know my body of work and my reputation, you know that it is pure,” Parker told the Observer. “The only thing I want is for (teammates in Charlotte) is to get better. I have no secret agenda for myself, especially at this stage in my career.”
His early basketball influences reinforced his directness. Parker was 19 when the Spurs selected him late in the first round of the 2001 draft. He was surrounded by strong personalities: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich. It was a culture where bluntness wasn’t just tolerated, it was celebrated.
“He has a unique way about his message and the way he talks to people that is great,” said Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant. “He can impart a ton of wisdom on what it takes to win at a high level.
“I would say it’s uncommon,” Budenholzer said of Parker’s way. “As much as we want players to hold each other accountable, and for there to be leadership in the locker room … even a lot of great leaders do it in a different way that isn’t so direct.
“There is a lot of directness there, and it has served Tony well.”
An example: Parker has always been passionate about the French national team performing well. One game, when he was excelling but the team was trailing, he let everyone know with one gesture he demanded more from them and was confident they would deliver..
“It was the semifinals of Eurobasket and we were down 15 at halftime. Tony had carried us all first half,” Batum recalled. “He said, ‘Coach, don’t even call a play for me. Guys, you are going to do it for me.’”
“We won,” Batum said, nodding about the Parker Effect.
Picking his spots
If you’ve been to a Hornets game this season, you’ve probably seen from a distance one of Parker’s animated conversations with teammates.
It’s often with the younger guys — Monk, center Willy Hernangomez or rookie point guard Devonte Graham — but not exclusively. There was a moment caught on a game telecast early this season when Parker was correcting a defensive switch by seventh-season pro Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Parker tries to be surgical about it, to give input without being a nag such that it could dull his message
“Naturally,” Parker said of his interactions. “I try not to do it too much and go straight to the point.
“Try to be helpful, but not (correct) every day. Just try to pick my moments when it’s most needed.”
Batum said team video reviews are when Parker can often add the most value beyond what he provides on the court.
“Tony will say, ‘Freeze (the video).’ When somebody is doing something wrong, he doesn’t say, “Don’t do this!’ He says, “Why did you do this? What were you thinking to make that mistake?’
“He is helping you correct it. That’s a different approach (from just scolding). He’s asking a question to get you to think about it.”
Parker took charge even before the Hornets began training camp. Every NBA team holds informal scrimmages in the month leading up to camp. The first time Parker played in one in Charlotte, it took him two minutes to light into a teammate.
It was Batum, who welcomed that. It sent a message to all the Hornets that if Parker would immediately poke at buddy “Nico,” then no one else should mind.
“Sometimes he can be really harsh, but I think everybody understands it’s not personal,” Batum concluded.
“If he has something to say to you, he’s going to go straight at you. He tells you how he feels.”