Tony Parker spent time in the summer playing basketball in his father's native Chicago during his youth, but was mostly raised in France.
When it came time to decide the next step of his burgeoning basketball career, the San Antonio Spurs' guard was "very close" to going to UCLA or Georgia Tech before opting to begin his pro career in France.
That decision, according to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, is the primary reason why Parker has seemingly flown under the radar for so long.
"I've often thought that he didn't have a name here," Popovich said. "He just came in from Europe. Had he been a college player here and done what he did at 19, he wouldn't have been the 28th pick for sure. He would have been first, second or third. He would have been high in the draft and would have been talked about here like the kids who were young studs that are just coming out."
Parker, who has been dealing with a right triceps contusion and is a game-time decision, is averaging 21.1 points on 53.6 percent shooting and is seventh in the NBA in assists, averaging 7.6 entering Wednesday's matchup against Phoenix. He is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 20 points and seven assists while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line. Hall of Famer Larry Bird is the only player to do that for an entire season, accomplishing the feat with the 1986-87 Boston Celtics.
What makes Parker's numbers even more impressive is the Spurs are an NBA-best 45-13. Add in the 2007 NBA Finals MVP, three championships and five All-Star honors, and you have the most decorated point guard in basketball.
Still, Parker is overshadowed by the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook. Playing for the "boring" small-market Spurs and having Tim Duncan, perhaps the greatest power forward of all time, at his side hasn't helped Parker's case, but the perceived lack of respect riles Popovich.
"With such a long experience of playing so well year after year after year and winning championships, you'd think he'd be in conversations as one of the better point guards in the league," Popovich said. "It's funny. It's taken all these years until now for him to get into these conversations. Name me a point guard who's had a better season? I can't think of one. I don't know who has had a better season than him."
Parker is aware of the lack of attention, but he is more concerned about wins.
"It's better late than never," Parker said. "That's not what drives me. What drives me is winning championships. I always knew my time would come because Pop always challenged me."
LeBron James is viewed as the front-runner for the MVP award because of his dominating all-around play for the reigning champion Miami Heat. But even with 12 straight wins entering Wednesday, the Heat still have four fewer wins than San Antonio. That's good enough for NBA analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who recently endorsed Parker for the MVP award.
Parker was flattered by Barkley's backing and believes some past MVP winners who weren't viewed as the game's top player give him hope.
"LeBron is the best player in the NBA, by far. But if you want to give it to someone to change it, why not [me]?" Parker said with a laugh. "Charles Barkley had it one year [1992-93] even though M.J. [Michael Jordan] was the best player. Steve Nash got it [twice from 2004-06] even though Kobe [Bryant] was the best player in the NBA. But for me the most important thing is we win.
"If it [the MVP] happens, it happens. If not, LeBron is unbelievable. But for me, I don't think about it. It's not in my hands."
The Spurs were tied for the league's best record last season and appeared poised to make it to the Finals for the first time since 2007 after taking a 2-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder, however, won the next four to earn their first trip to the Finals.
The pain of that collapse has motivated Parker, especially playing alongside a rejuvenated Duncan. With the lead reins now in Parker's hands, he embraces the "huge pressure" to get San Antonio back to the championship series. And as much as Parker would love to win the MVP award, he'd much prefer another Finals MVP award.
"It's hard to explain how we can win 20 in a row [last season] and then lose four [straight]," Parker said. "It's just weird. But that's the beauty of sports. It's hard to understand, but that is what has fueled me for this year.
"I want to do it one more time for Timmy. I think everyone on the team would understand that."
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