HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Nobody’s telling Tony Parker to knit berets from a rocking chair for three months. But in light of this week’s second international knee scare and a cross-your-fingers MRI, perhaps it is time for some summer R&R for the All-NBA point guard.
Parker has nobly led his countrymen as team captain of the French national team since 2003 and has represented his country on the senior level since 2002, and on the junior level since 1997 (when he was 16).
Parker, 31, has a career’s worth of bumps, bruises, twists, strains and sprains that rivals the number of countries he’s competed in. His latest scare came days ago in an exhibition game preparing for next week’s FIBA European Championships. The details from the French national team were vague, but for a second time during the run-up to the tournament, Parker did something to his right knee that didn’t feel good.
The MRI came back negative and Parker declared he will be 100 percent for France’s opener against Germany. Germany’s star, Dirk Nowitzki, is forsaking the tourney to have more time to manage his right knee that required surgery last October. That doesn’t mean the game will be a cakewalk for Parker’s club — which includes Portland’s Nicolas Batum and Spurs teammates Boris Diaw and Nando De Colo. Overall, this French team is one devoid of NBA veterans, including Joakim Noah, a wounded warrior much of last season, and key cogs Ian Mahinmi and Ronny Turiaf.
No one could have blamed Parker had he graciously bowed out of the FIBA tourney considering he missed 16 games last season, scared the bejesus out of coach Gregg Popovich two weeks before the playoffs and gutted through a Grade 1 hamstring strain in the final four games of The Finals.
But when it comes to the French National team, there is no stopping Tony. He delivered France its first medal in 50 years in the 2005 European Championship and got them to the finals for the first time in 2011, followed by a sixth-place finish at the 2012 Olympics.
And speaking of the Olympics, in a recent overseas interview, Parker said he plans to play for France through the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. At that point, he’ll be 34 and coming off a 15th NBA season.
It leads to one question with no defined answer: With meaningful international tournaments staged around the globe each summer, when, if ever, does loyalty to one’s NBA team supersede loyalty to country? The Spurs have paid Parker $95 million over 12 seasons and will pay him $12.5 million more this season.
Parker is the irreplaceable driving force behind the Spurs as Tim Duncan, 37, and Manu Ginobili, 36, hit their twilight years. Ginobili, a fixture on the Argentinian national team, is not playing in the FIBA Americas Championship after dealing with frustrating injuries last season.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has long been the loudest critic among NBA owners of international competition. He bemoans that NBA teams assume all the risk when their handsomely paid players suit up for their countries. Cuban saw once-promising guard Rodrigue Beaubois, a Parker protege, break his foot during a French national team practice several years ago. Requiring two surgeries, Beaubois never bounced back, is no longer with Dallas and remains unsigned.
Two months after winning the 2011 NBA championship, Nowitzki led an inexperienced German national team into the European Championships pushing for a second consecutive OIympic bid. Germany failed to advance and Nowitzki started the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season with a bothersome right knee he pinned on the additional physical toll of playing that summer: “Playing in the Euros, looking back now, was obviously not the right decision, but it was a decision I made for my country,” Nowitzki said in January 2012.
Interestingly, Mavs rookie guard Gal Mekel, a star for the Israeli national team, told his coach in late July that he would not play in the European Championship. Israeli coach Arik Shivek said the Mavs strong-armed Mekel to pull out.
Even if Parker breezes through the Euro championships without another nick, the additional wear-and-tear on his body after another long season has to be concerning to the Spurs and their fans (who have seen this play out with Ginobili). A number of NBA players, some of whom dealt with health issues last season, decided to sit this summer out, with the Lakers’ Pau Gasol (Spain) and the Spurs’ Tiago Splitter (Brazil) among them.
The Spurs have signed and drafted numerous international players. The current roster boasts nine foreign players from six countries, not including Duncan, who hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Six are currently playing internationally.
But there’s only one Parker. And with training camp opening in less than five weeks, all of San Antonio waits stateside with bated breath. Because nobody wants to watch Parker knitting berets from the Spurs’ bench.