French connection

CLEVELAND – Late Wednesday night, in a private back room at the elegant Johnny's Downtown, Tony Parker sat at the head of a table, surrounded by old friends and family from France and his soon-to-be wife, Eva Longoria.

There were steaks and pasta and wine (for some), a mini-celebration for what was set to happen the next night – a third NBA title in five years for Parker and his San Antonio Spurs, capped with perhaps the greatest of individual honors – becoming the first European to be named NBA finals MVP.

If you can have a better year than the 25-year-old Parisian is working on, we're not sure how. Championship ring this month, wedding ring next. And it's all coming after a season in which Parker's game was quickly elevated to superstar status.

"I'm not complaining," he said with a smile Thursday.

One night after clinked glasses and long laughs with those closest to him, Parker torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for 24 more points, one darting length of the court drive after another, to help the Spurs to an 83-82 clincher. In the series, he averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Postgame, he wore a French flag, had a prideful Longoria snapping photos like crazy and shared hugs and jokes with his self-described "French Mafia" that he tries to bring over for every big event in his life.

"One of my best friends came from London," he said of soccer star Thierry Henry. "I've got my brothers and my dad. I want to make sure they get to live those moments."

On top of the world, professional satisfaction and personal bliss; fame, fortune and a starlet on his arm, for Parker, it was still about so many little things.

What ring is better, he was asked, the championship or the pending wedding?

"Both, both," he said, laughing. "Can't choose. Both are very good."

This is almost more than Parker could have dreamed back when he was a hoops-obsessed kid, slipping out of his bed in the quiet of the night to secretly tune into the 3 a.m. NBA finals broadcasts. He'd watch Michael Jordan and, like millions of kids in the States, dream of being like Mike.

"I didn't tell (my parents)," Parker said. "I was sneaking and watching. I watched all the Chicago Bulls finals. I watched all of them. You learn a lot watching that."

But what he saw was the flash of the NBA, not necessarily the fight of it, the nightly physical grind that is essential to success. For all the highlights set to soaring music, the NBA is really a man's league, full of trash talk and direct confrontation. The weak, no matter how skilled, can't survive.

Parker was just 19 when he was trying to get drafted. He was slight. He tended to avoid contact. And in a world where old stereotypes die hard, he was French, of all things. When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich first worked him out, he thought Parker was so soft he sent him home.

"We didn't think he was tough enough," Popovich said.

"Coach Pop said, 'I never want to see him again,' " Parker said.

Another workout was set up, though. The Spurs still loved the talent. "We stacked it and had some people go after him physically," Popovich said. "And he was fantastic in that one."

It was enough for San Antonio to take Parker with the 28th pick of the 2001 draft. But from there things got even tougher. His first days were brutal. His older American teammates challenged him physically. Popovich rode him mentally. He may have become a starter just five games into his career, but there were days he wasn't sure if he'd survive, let alone thrive.

"There (were) growing pains for me," Parker said. "You know, Coach Pop was really, really hard on me, always trying to push me and looking for perfection. I thought I was doing pretty good. But it was never enough. I could score 14, 15; it was never enough. Sometimes I felt like it wasn't fair, all the criticism."

In his second year, 2003, he helped the Spurs to a title, but the doubts still lingered. That summer, the Spurs cleared salary-cap space in an effort to sign Nets star Jason Kidd. For Parker, it was a slap. But when Kidd decided to stay in New Jersey, Parker didn't pout. He just rededicated himself.

"(That year) was a tough time for me because I was 21 and we just won a championship and they wanted Jason Kidd," Parker said. "It's hard to accept.

"I told Pop, 'I want to be the point guard. I want to do it and I'm going to work hard to become a great player.' "

"You know," he continued, "it worked out for the best even if it was harder. I was happy to go through that because it made me a better player. With Pop, it was like a father-and-son relationship. And even sometimes, you know, I thought he was crazy, but it made me a great player."

On Thursday night, the "father" had his arm slung around the shoulders of the "son," who held the finals MVP trophy. The two stood on the championship stage again.

"I reminded him of (those predraft workouts)," Popovich said. "I said, 'Now you're here with the finals MVP trophy.' He just kept laughing. He couldn't believe it."

The dominance of the American-born and trained player ended a long time ago. It was Argentina that won gold at the 2004 Olympics. The past three years, the regular season MVP has been won by Steve Nash (Canada) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany).

But there was still an old school of thought that hung on, clinging to the fact that it was always an American who wound up with the trophy that was most about toughness, heart and delivering in the biggest of moments.

But then here in this series, in these finals, no one was more dominant, no one more devastating, than Parker. Whatever last bit of nationalistic ridiculousness, of European insults, went up in smoke faster than Parker driving in the open court or barreling into the lane without fear or knocking down a deep jumper in the loneliest of moments.

He made plays, he made passes, he snagged rebounds and he delivered just about every last nail into the Cavs' coffin.

It's been a great spring. Various waves of the French Mafia had come to San Antonio the last few weeks, crowding into his house, watching his game soar. They'd hang around at night and share old stories, with Longoria, many times, actually cooking dinner for the entire crew, the very un-desperate housewife to be.

America, in so many ways, had never felt more at home, life had never felt more complete. He was no longer that 19-year-old with so much to prove. Now, it seemed, he had it all.

And so, after all the doubts, after all the knockdowns, after all the ups and downs, all the far-off, little-kid dreams, here was Parker, the best of them all in the most important games of them all.

Here was Tony Parker, head of the table now, new wife and old friends all gathered around in the greatest year of his life, toasting to it all, toasting to tomorrow.