SAN ANTONIO – One game into the NBA playoffs, the Jazz have a gigantic problem and it's actually not 7-foot Tim Duncan, master of all things Spurrific.
Their big, big worry is a small, small guy: 6-foot-2 Tony Parker, he of the film star eyes and Depardieu accent. Tony on the dribble, Tony at the rim. Qu'est-ce que c'est?
The Spurs point guard has always been a problem for the Jazz, but this year even more. Aside from the usual vexations by future hall of famer Duncan, the Jazz must now enter Wednesday's game concerned about Parker's next move. In Game 1 on Sunday he scored 28 points with eight assists, clearly the best player of the day.
The Jazz were outmanned off the bench, outshot from the field and forced into too many turnovers. But mostly they were crowded to the rim or simply outraced on Parker's slashing drives.
Although explanations are plentiful, answers are few on how to stop him.
"Um, maybe kidnap him?" Spurs swingman Stephen Jackson offered. "I don't think there's any legal way to stop him."
With his 30th birthday this month, Parker is having what coach Gregg Popovich and others are characterizing as his best season. The crowd at AT&T Center chanted "MVP" on Sunday when Parker went to the line.
"Any time people are screaming your name — MVP — you must have been doing something right all season," Jackson said.
Yet it's more than just basketball fans that scream his name. Now it's fashion groupies, too. Suave, composed and oh-so-international, he's known for modeling London Fog, as well as playing hoops. When Parker married — but later divorced — TV star Eva Longoria, his glamour profile spiked.
The son of a Dutch model and a college and European basketball player, he was drafted by San Antonio in 2001. The leap to fame wasn't all that far. Even so, he has had his moments of criticism. Asked on Sunday about Popovich's claim last year that Parker had played harder for the French national team than for the Spurs, Parker didn't blink.
"He always likes to challenge me," Parker said, his accent as smooth as cream and caramel. "He's been doing that over the years."
While Parker's emergence is being called a change of leadership — he is six years younger than Duncan — it's not as though he's a new addition. He has been in the NBA more than a decade. He was drafted 28th by the Spurs. This has been a sore spot for Jazz fans, who know Utah chose Raul Lopez from Spain at No. 24, when it could have been Parker.
At the time, the Jazz were spending at an unprecedented rate. Karl Malone was making $17 million, John Stockton $7 million and Greg Ostertag $6.9 million. (Yes, Ostertag made nearly as much as Stockton.) Andrei Kirilenko was on his way to Utah that offseason.
The Jazz already had 13 players under contract when they selected Lopez, who still had a year left on his European contract, while Parker's was up. Experts were split on who was the better player. By taking Lopez, the Jazz avoided paying his salary that year and kept him in the wings for Stockton's retirement.
As it turned out, Lopez tore his ACL in the summer of 2002 during the FIBA World Championships, his second such injury. He only played less than two seasons for the Jazz. Meanwhile, Parker helped the Spurs become one of the league's great franchises. In hindsight, it was a terrible move for the Jazz, though nobody at the time was expecting he'd become a four-time All-Star. Otherwise, he wouldn't have lasted until the late first round.
Now in his 11th season, Parker is storming the Jazz like Napoleon stormed Europe, playing what teammates say is his best basketball.
"That isn't the first time I've heard that," forward Boris Diaw said. "Every year he's been getting better, since his first year, and every year he keeps improving."