Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose tries to block the shot by San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker as he drives to the basket during the first half of a game Saturday.
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Watching San Antonio point guard Tony Parker jet through the Bulls defense for 20 points and 8 assists Saturday at the United Center, it's easy to forget how strange his entry to the NBA seemed at the time.
Back in 2001, the only French basketball moment known to most Americans was Vince Carter jumping clear over 7-foot center Frederic Weis, also known as a useless Knicks draft pick, on the way to a dunk at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Then the Spurs, a team known for making smart moves, made a surprising choice with the 28th pick of the 2001 draft. They plucked Parker, a Frenchman with an American name, from a club team known as Paris Basket Racing.
Who knew such an obscure player would become an NBA star and help lead the Spurs to three NBA titles? And who knew France could even develop a talented basketball player?
Parker did. Area basketball fans should be familiar with his family history. His father, Tony, grew up in Chicago, played in college at Loyola, pursued a pro career in Europe and married a Dutch model, Pamela Firestone.
Tony Jr.'s two younger brothers, T.J. and Pierre, both migrated from France to play basketball at Lisle High School. T.J. had a decent career at Northwestern and now plays professionally in France, while Pierre made brief stops at Loyola and Texas-San Antonio before giving up the sport.
Tony Parker grew up with dreams of playing in the NBA. When he lived in France, he used to wake up at 3 a.m. and sneak into the living room to watch the Bulls in the NBA Finals.
To the American basketball snob, it would have seemed that Parker's only viable path to the NBA was to play against better competition in the United States. But Parker didn't agree, then proved it can be done. He said he turned down a chance to play at Lisle or a similar suburban high school.
"My dad always gave me a choice if I wanted to play in the States or in France," he said following Saturday's win over the Bulls. "I liked it in France. There were a lot of good people and everybody was very friendly and I was playing with the national team, so it worked well for me."
Instead of a high school in the Western Suburbs, Tony was able to attend the prestigious National Institute of Sport in Paris. While other kids rode the bus on snowy days to get to school, Parker was living on his own in one of the world's great cities, best friend Boris Diaw at his side.
Looking at it from that perspective, it's easy to see why Parker passed on American high school basketball.
"I was on a campus having a good time," he said. "I almost went to college. I was that close to going to UCLA. At the last moment I changed my mind and I stayed playing professional in Paris."
Parker did get a taste of American basketball growing up. He would visit Chicago with his father during the summers and find pickup games in nearby playgrounds.
"I just remember it was very physical, a lot of trash-talking on the playgrounds in Chicago," he said. "Good competition."
Thanks mostly to Parker, French basketball is no longer a joke to Americans. Players like Diaw, Ronny Turiaf and Mickael Pietrus have had success in the NBA, while rookie Nicholas Batum is starting at forward for Portland.
"I don't care about what people think," Parker continued. "I'm very happy to be in San Antonio. We've got championships, I've been very lucky. But France is getting better. We've got almost 10 guys in the league. Slowly, but surely, we're getting more French in the NBA. Hopefully we can translate that to good competition in the World Championships and the Olympics."