The call came from the Bahamas. Tony Parker was on the other line, and he wasn’t happy. He had gone to the Caribbean to soak up some sun, and yet his mind kept drifting 1,300 miles to the northwest. The San Antonio Spurs were actually interviewing someone for his job.
This wasn’t news to Parker. He knew the Spurs had planned to bring Jason Kidd to town. Parker had said all the right things, too. Publicly, and in private to his coach, Gregg Popovich. He told everyone he understood why the Spurs would want to shower their free-agent dollars on Kidd. This wasn’t any point guard. It was Jason Kidd! The NBA’s best. Who wouldn’t want him?
Deep down in his heart, though, Parker was never comfortable with the idea. Hadn’t he just beaten Kidd in the NBA Finals? He didn’t play his best, but he was only 21. He would get better. Kidd was 30. And all this talk about the two of them playing together? Neither of them could shoot. Someone would eventually have to go. Parker was betting it wouldn’t be the guy getting the $94 million contract.
Parker’s family and friends called to tell him the Spurs had rolled out the red carpet for Kidd the second his private jet touched down at San Antonio International Airport. Tim Duncan drove Kidd around town. Popovich arranged for a chef to cook dinner for Kidd and his wife. Parker grew more frustrated. Finally, he picked up the phone and called a reporter.
“I know I'm the best point guard for this team,” Parker said. “I can lead this team.”
The following morning Kidd announced he was staying in New Jersey. Parker’s comments didn’t have much, if any, impact on his decision. The Nets had secured a commitment from Alonzo Mourning to join them, and Kidd’s friends had always doubted his wife would ever agree to move to San Antonio.
But what happened next said something about Parker and why the Spurs should feel optimistic Thursday night when Kidd again visits. Every time the two point guards have met since that fateful week in July 2003, Parker has walked away the winner.
Kidd never had the benefit of playing next to a big man of Duncan’s caliber in New Jersey, and he has a significantly better supporting cast now that he’s lining up next to Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. But there’s also a reason why Parker said he was “very happy” to hear that the Dallas Mavericks had traded for Kidd: It meant he no longer had to worry about Devin Harris.
No team has matched up better with the Spurs in recent seasons than the Mavericks. Harris was a part of that. He’s one of the few guards quick enough to stay in front of Parker, and he also gives him trouble on the other end of the floor. The trade also cost Dallas 7-foot backup center DeSagana Diop, whose length had bothered Duncan on occasion.
Kidd’s arrival in Dallas very well may end up being filed in the Spurs’ be-careful-what-you-wish-for folder. The Mavericks need an on-court leader experienced enough to wrestle away some of the sideline play-calling from coach Avery Johnson. The hope, at least, is that Kidd will coax his new teammates to run and to cut back on Dallas’ isolation-heavy offense. The Mavericks also welcome Kidd’s toughness.
“You can't say Jason Kidd isn't going to help them,” Parker told reporters in San Antonio. Privately, however, Parker is surprised Dallas made the trade. He never understood why Mavericks owner Mark Cuban didn’t re-sign Steve Nash and he doesn’t understand now why he would part with Harris. When Chris Paul used his own quickness to expose Kidd during Dallas’ loss to the New Orleans Hornets last week, Parker smiled.
Parker never had a problem with Kidd listening to the Spurs’ recruiting pitch. He likes Kidd and has long marveled at his game. Popovich and GM RC Buford were the targets of Parker’s frustration, and there are other reasons why their decision to pursue Kidd, while entirely justifiable, wasn’t the best.
To free up more salary-cap room to sign Kidd, the Spurs traded their first-round pick that summer. Duncan had urged them to consider drafting a fellow Wake Forest product. When the Spurs sent the pick to Phoenix and Dallas immediately followed by taking Duncan’s preferred choice – the same Josh Howard who will be running alongside Kidd Thursday – Popovich wondered aloud in the draft room whether they had made a mistake. The Suns, meanwhile, used the Spurs’ pick on Leandro Barbosa, who developed into the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year.
Looking back, the Spurs helped improve their two biggest rivals all for the right to insult their own young point guard. Two championships later, Buford can afford to joke that his tombstone won’t be complete if the names “Howard” and “Barbosa” aren’t engraved under his own. At times, Popovich has sounded more than willing to even hammer them onto Buford’s granite himself.
But there’s something else that came from the Spurs’ interest in Kidd: It made Parker better. Parker may never admit it, but whenever he sees Kidd there’s part of him that feels like he needs to prove himself all over again.
After Parker arrived for training camp in the fall of 2003, Popovich reminded him of his comments. You think you’re the best point guard for us? You think you can lead this team? Then show me.
For the next month whenever Parker threw away a pass, whenever he took an ill-advised shot, Popovich was in his ear again. Show me.
Sitting on a podium in Cleveland last June, Parker showed his coach and everyone else. The best point guard for the Spurs?
In one hand he cradled the Finals MVP award. The other held his third championship trophy.