Something was rotten in Atlanta. A series of ill-fated draft picks, trades, and managerial blunders had rendered the Hawks the most woebegone franchise in the NBA. They wobbled to a league-worst 13 wins in 2004-05, fewer than even the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. And as the team’s record sagged, so did attendance and local interest. When asked what the franchise lacked, Atlanta general manager Billy Knight identified, well, everything. “We need some interior scoring,” he said. “We need rebounding. We need more shot-blocking. We need some perimeter shooting. We need some depth, and we need more athleticism.”
Mike Woodson, a disciple of Indiana’s Bob Knight, had just completed his first year as Atlanta’s coach. He preferred the glass-half-full outlook — even if only a couple of drops remained. “For the most part, our young guys are better,” he told reporters at a season-ending press conference.
In a few short weeks, Boris Diaw would no longer be a part of that group. Diaw, 22, had just completed his second season and taken a major step back in the estimation of the organization. He was a unique player: an oversize point guard from France. The game was in his blood. His mother was one of France’s most renowned female players. A slender 6-foot-8, with a deceptively rangy athleticism, Diaw could do it all: score, pass, rebound, and defend. Everything Woodson needed.
“Boris has always been a multitalented type of player,” said Tony Parker Sr., the father of Diaw’s best friend. “He could just do everything. It just depends on whatever the situation calls for. He’s [like] a cleanup hitter in baseball — he was just there to pick everybody up. He never really had any qualms about star status. He was just always out there doing his thing.”
At its core, basketball revolves around one thing: scoring. And Woodson wanted Diaw to score more. But Diaw was no Allen Iverson. He hated to shoot, let alone dominate. He declined Woodson’s request, a defiance that has caused coaches to both celebrate and curse Diaw over the last decade. Diaw wants basketball to be democratic, a communal game. He wants to see the ball whipped around the court and shared. A good shot should never be settled for when a great shot could be had. “The way we play over there, it’s everybody touching the ball, and you try to be unselfish, be a good teammate, play for your teammates, try to get everybody to have fun,” Diaw said of playing in France.
Diaw and Tony Parker once had it all mapped out. When they were boys, they’d talk about their future in the NBA, the unlikely duo from France, playing against the best, in the style they wanted to play. Rhythmic, unselfish, flowing.
But Diaw’s dream was dashed in Atlanta, where Woodson employed heavy isolation sets and the ball stagnated. It’s a great system when you have a transcendent scorer and leader to whom teammates will defer. It’s not so pretty when Al Harrington or Antoine Walker are jacking up jumpers to their hearts’ content. Diaw’s game suffered. Parker called almost every day to console his friend.
“He went to Atlanta and it was not a good fit for him, because they don’t play as a team, and he’s a team player,” Parker said. “For you to see Boris at a high level and to appreciate his game, he needs to play with unselfish guys. So it was very hard for him in the beginning. I just told him to stay positive, and hopefully something good will happen.”
After Atlanta’s season mercifully ended, Woodson asked Diaw during his exit interview to come back the next season with a scorer’s mentality. “I cannot play for you,” Diaw simply responded.
His offseason — one that would eventually alter his NBA future and help lead him all the way to San Antonio, where he won a championship on Sunday — had started. But his friend Parker’s had not. Diaw would soon plant himself in the stands at the 2005 NBA Finals, watching Parker capture his second NBA championship when the Spurs dethroned the Detroit Pistons.
Diaw was happy for Parker, despite his own predicament. Everything had arrived so quickly for Parker. But quick and easy are two different things.
Tony Parker Sr. grew up in Chicago, playing in games where “if you don’t have enough game to be out there, you won’t be,” he said. “You’ll be sitting on the side watching.” He was a 6-5 guard and played at Loyola-Chicago before moving overseas in 1977 to start his professional career. In Europe, he married a former tennis champion and Dutch model, Pamela Firestone. The couple had three sons. Tony, the eldest, was born in Belgium. He was followed by T.J. and Pierre. Tony Jr. was always full of energy. He wrestled with a dog and was bitten in the cheek at the age of 3. He tumbled down a set of stairs the next year and was left with a scar between his eyebrows.
The boys started playing soccer, France’s premier sport. But Parker Sr. returned to Chicago every winter and always caught a Bulls game. The boys accompanied him in 1995. “They were playing soccer before that Christmas trip, and then when we returned to France after that, they all decided they wanted to play basketball instead of football,” Parker Sr. said. Soccer players in France are seen as graceful, skillful athletes. In Chicago, Tony Jr. saw the same qualities in Michael Jordan’s footwork and doggedness. He took a picture with Jordan after the game. “That’s when it first started — I was thinking, That’s my dream. I want to go to the NBA,” Parker said. “But you have to put it in perspective: There was not a lot of Europeans, ’cause I’m the first European point guard to make it in the NBA … so when I say, at the time, my dream is to play in the NBA, they thought I was crazy. They said, ‘You’re too small, you’re too skinny.’”
He was small. He was skinny. But he was quick and used his diminutiveness to his advantage. He loved to score and enjoyed the challenge of darting and skirting past bigger players. “I was very small growing up,” Parker said. “I was never tall, so that was the only way for me to get some buckets — to get the teardrop and create contact and different angles to try to go to the basket.” The brothers played basketball video games when they weren’t playing the game outside. “I’ll be there one day,” Tony Parker would casually announce whenever they played NBA Live.
That mind-set carried Parker, at 14, to the National Institute of Sports and Physical Education, commonly known as INSEP. In the southeast part of Paris, the institute molds the country’s most gifted young athletes. “I don’t think you can get any more mature than that,” Parker Sr. said. “Leaving home at 14, you have to become a man on your own.”
Tony Jr. figured it out quickly. “We had no pressure,” Parker said. “Everything was adapted for us to go to school and practice twice a day. That’s when I started thinking, OK, I want to be a professional, because before it was just a dream. Then it became a goal.” At 15, Parker began playing against French professionals. “I never meet a player like him, and I am coaching and teaching since I am 25, 26,” Lucien Legrand, the institute’s basketball director, told the New York Times in 2003. “He wants to play, play, play. His first year, I pick him for a team to play in the European championships for our Cadets. I say to Tony, ‘I am happy for you.’ He says, ‘Lucien, for me, this is not a finish. It is a beginning. I want the team to win the championships and I want to be the M.V.P. of Europe.’ I was surprised, what’s in the mouth of this little guy, but not, you know, arrogant. He says and after, he makes.”
A gangly Boris Diaw soon joined Parker at the institute. He knew Parker’s reputation, but the pair had never met. “He was already like a mini star in France, as far as everybody knew him from playing with the young teams and doing great,” Diaw said. “There was already a little Parker phenomenon when I met him. He was already great.”
Likewise, Parker had heard of Diaw — or his mother, to be precise. “She was one of the best women basketball players,” Parker said. “When he first came, they always talked about, ‘Oh, that’s the son of the mom … ’ And so I was like, Oh, OK, that’s pretty good, so I guess he’s got a big basketball IQ.”
Decades earlier, Élisabeth Riffiod had also attended INSEP. She was a center who’d gained acclaim as the first Frenchwoman to shoot a jump shot. Riffiod spent 13 years on the French national team, and one of her jerseys is now displayed at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. While at INSEP, Riffiod met Issa Diaw, a high-jump champion from Senegal. When Boris Diaw was born in 1982, Issa Diaw returned to Senegal as a lawyer. Riffiod, now a single mother, steered her son to sports beyond basketball. Diaw played soccer and tennis — but they hardly took, and when he turned 10, she finally relented, allowing him to play organized basketball. “She kind of delayed me,” Diaw said. “She didn’t want me to start too early, and then just decide to stop because I had too much of basketball.”
While Jordan had entranced Parker, Diaw idolized Magic Johnson. He was already tall — about 6-5 when Parker met him — but he had point guard aspirations, too. “He was so unselfish,” Parker said. “It’s contagious, ’cause then the whole team wants to pass the ball. He didn’t care about stats. He always thinks about the team, what’s good for the team, before himself.” Diaw was the offense’s fulcrum, getting the ball to where it needed to be, setting screens, crashing the boards, and dunking. “I used to throw alley-oops all the time to him; he was super-athletic,” Parker said.
Ronny Turiaf, another future NBA player, joined the duo at the institute at the same time. “We was in the room together until three o’clock in the morning watching games and just wishing one day we’d be in that situation to be in the NBA,” Turiaf said. France was hardly represented in the NBA. This class promised a renaissance. They studied in the morning and afternoons, ate lunch, and went through two-a-day practices before dinner. “All three of us in the back of the classroom, and yeah, we were helping each other. We were helping each other, on the court and in class,” Diaw said. “So it was a good time.”
Parker Sr. gave his son the option to continue his basketball education in America, but Parker had decided he was comfortable in France, playing against older players. “We talked about him going to Oak Hill Academy, but he decided he wanted to stay at INSEP,” Parker Sr. said. Parker became a professional and signed with Paris Basket Racing in 1999. France captured the under-18 European championship against favored Croatia the next year. When Parker fouled out of the game, his teammates rallied in his absence. Diaw blocked a shot. Turiaf hit a layup to tie the game at the buzzer, and France prevailed in overtime. “I remember after I scored that layup, who was the first one to tackle me?” Turiaf said. “Tony Parker.” That summer, Parker played at the Nike Hoop Summit in Indianapolis. He dazzled with 20 points, seven assists, and four rebounds against future NBA players Darius Miles and Zach Randolph. “We almost had him at Georgia Tech or UCLA, but the NCAA wouldn’t allow him to have amateur status because he was already with a professional club at the age of 17,” Parker Sr. said. Instead, Parker returned to Paris and averaged 14.7 points and 5.6 assists for Basket Racing. One year later, he entered the NBA draft.
Gregg Popovich refused to look at the video of Tony Parker. Why would he? A teenage point guard from France? This is who would help bridge the Spurs from one championship to another?
Popovich, at the time, was both San Antonio’s coach and its general manager. He had guided the Spurs to a championship in the lockout-shortened season of 1999. But he knew that roster had a fast-approaching expiration date. Veterans manned that team, most notably David Robinson, along with Mario Elie, Sean Elliott, and Avery Johnson. Tim Duncan’s late-season injury prevented San Antonio from a repeat in 2000. The Lakers swept the Spurs in the following year’s Western Conference finals.
Popovich was acutely aware the Spurs needed to retool around their other tower, the dominant Duncan. But he didn’t think Parker was the answer. Parker had already worked out for the Spurs, jet-lagged and tired after arriving from France. Popovich dismissed the workout and the player, labeling Parker soft and “just another little skinny guy.” R.C. Buford, Popovich’s assistant general manager, had watched Parker in Indianapolis. The Americans could not bottle him up. Buford asked Sam Presti, then a front-office intern, to compile a video of Parker’s highlights. After Buford’s insistence, Popovich finally relented and watched. Popovich gave Parker another shot, bringing him in for one workout — this one ended prematurely. This time, he’d seen enough. Popovich was convinced.
San Antonio took Parker with the 28th selection overall, the last pick of the first round.
By the fifth game of the season, a 19-year-old Parker had supplanted Antonio Daniels, San Antonio’s incumbent starter. He was the youngest point guard to start in the NBA since Magic Johnson did so for the Lakers in 1979. The decision wasn’t easy for Popovich. He grappled with burdening the young Parker with that much responsibility. If Popovich broke his spirit, Parker would likely wash out of the league.
Popovich wanted Parker to run his offense like a 30-year-old veteran, not a 19-year-old kid. The occasional turnover would drive the coach crazy. “He’s been coached really hard basically right out of the gate and his ability to take that, appreciate it, come back, and want more was really something that stood out early,” said Mike Budenholzer, then a San Antonio assistant coach. “He’s got a confidence, too, that was there from the very beginning.” The coaching, the criticism and constant counseling to be better, reminded Parker Sr. of the tutelage he had offered his son. “Pop was good for Tony,” Parker Sr. said. “It was one of those make-or-break types of situations, and fortunately, Popovich was the way he was. Because Tony wouldn’t be where he is today if Pop hadn’t pushed him to be the best player he could be.”
Parker posted 9.2 points and 4.3 assists as a rookie, becoming the third Frenchman to play in the NBA, behind Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Jerome Moiso. San Antonio fell to the Lakers in the conference semifinals that year, but the following season, Parker had arrived. He helped dethrone the three-time defending champion Lakers and outplayed New Jersey’s Jason Kidd for much of the NBA Finals. That didn’t prevent Popovich from wooing Kidd in free agency to supplant Parker.
“I thought that Jason Kidd being there, being the mentally tough person that he is and with his skills, would be the greatest education for Tony Parker,” Popovich told the New York Times. “And Tony can go play the 2; he was a scoring guard, anyway. As Jason gets older, let him move over to the 2; let Tony take 1. Brilliant, brilliant. Let’s go get this thing done.”
“Tony did not love that idea at all,” he said. “We still tried to do it. And Jason didn’t come.”
Kidd stayed in New Jersey and Parker continued on. Diaw soon joined him in the NBA. Diaw had averaged only 7 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists for Pau-Orthez, but was anointed MVP of the French League, a signal that the voting coaches and players valued a well-rounded game above all else. Diaw had seen enough of Parker and success to understand the fame and acclaim a hardworking international player could attain in the NBA.
Parker’s problems would be minuscule compared with what Diaw encountered.
Atlanta selected Diaw with the 21st-overall pick in 2003, just 11 days after Parker celebrated his first NBA title.
Diaw arrived in Atlanta with just a duffel bag of gym clothes and moved into a Buckhead apartment, unfurnished save for a bed and big-screen television. Riffiod soon arrived to help with the transition to a new country and language. “You gotta adapt to the country, to the way of living,” Diaw said. “But I get settled anywhere pretty easily. I’m easygoing, so it was not a tough time adapting to the life here. I think the main change was the game, the way I was playing, the way they played basketball here versus the way we played in Europe.”
Diaw played as a point forward. His teammates loved his pass-first mentality. Hawks coach Terry Stotts appreciated it as well — except when Diaw refused to shoot. “His biggest adjustment was really being a scoring threat,” Stotts said. “I think that was the biggest adjustment for him, because we did a lot of things and then the league figured that out, they started going under screens and forcing him to make an offensive play.”
Diaw played in 76 games his rookie season, averaging 4.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. Atlanta finished 28-54 and replaced Stotts with Woodson. Diaw’s play stagnated like the ball in Woodson’s offense the following season. He needed out, and he knew it.
“Hey, Boris couldn’t play for me,” Woodson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He said he didn’t want to play for me. He wanted out. But all I can do as a coach is coach a guy the best way I know how and if he doesn’t want to play for me, we have to try and accommodate him.”
Mike D’Antoni and the Suns modernized today’s NBA, reshaping it from its pound-it-in, isolation era into the frenetic, up-and-down pace that defines the league now. Phoenix jumped from 29 wins in 2003-2004 to 62 a season later, D’Antoni’s first full year as the Suns’ head coach. His roster included young and exciting fliers like Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion and a dynamic Steve Nash deftly guiding the team. Phoenix fell to San Antonio and Parker in five games in the Western Conference finals before making an unpopular decision during the offseason. Young and smooth-shooting Joe Johnson, a restricted free agent, would be too costly to retain.
Phoenix jettisoned Johnson to Atlanta for Diaw and two future first-round draft picks in a sign-and-trade that netted Johnson a five-year, $70 million contract. Diaw was viewed as a throw-in. “He came to us with the reputation of being the worst competitor in the NBA,” Dan D’Antoni, an assistant coach to his brother, said of Diaw. “I will say this: He has to feel like the system is playing the right way.”
Raja Bell had played against Diaw in France. He hardly recognized the dispassionate player who trudged through his final months in Atlanta. “I knew what he did there and I saw how Atlanta kind of robbed him of his joy of the game,” said Bell, who joined Phoenix the same offseason as Diaw.
Mike D’Antoni envisioned Diaw as Nash’s backup point guard, but Diaw was forced to become D’Antoni’s center when Stoudemire struggled with knee problems and Kurt Thomas went down with an injury. D’Antoni sometimes joked with the slender Diaw that he was the second-best center in his family — behind his mother.
“I think it was a comfort-level thing,” Mike D’Antoni said. “At the first stop in Atlanta, he just didn’t feel like he fit in and didn’t feel good about it. I think [it was] the combination of Steve Nash being on the team and different guys who could pass the ball really well, too. And trusting him — he just felt comfortable, and that happens with a lot of players. Sometimes their second stop is where they figure it out. But the way we played did enhance his game. He had certain traits that he had from France, just his ability to pass and his unselfishness. He really wanted to play basketball at a high level and have everybody on the team buy in.”
Buying in to D’Antoni’s system is crucial to its success. He wanted his offense to score before the defense even had a chance to position itself. Diaw was oil to Nash’s engine. They created chaos when taller, slower centers struggled to chase Diaw on the perimeter. “He had a little bit of what [Suns assistant] Phil Weber said was that c’est la vie attitude, which, maybe they thought he had too much of, but it also allowed him to be a little bit more compromising in terms of what his role was,” said Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum, who spent a season with the team writing his book :07 Seconds or Less.
Diaw had finally found the right system and the right teammates. “I loved it when I got there,” Diaw said. “We were playing up-tempo, we were playing smart basketball, just moving the ball, smart players all around the court, and it was just reading each other, reading plays, sometimes backdoor, sometimes handoffs. We had great players to execute it and be able to adapt to whatever the defense would give us.” Diaw won the league’s Most Improved Player Award, averaging 13.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.2 assists. In reality, he had hardly transformed his game. It was his teammates who had changed.
Still, he could be stubborn. Once, Dan D’Antoni recalled an adamant assistant telling Diaw to guard an opponent a certain way. Diaw was insistent that it would lead to an easy score — sure enough, it did. “Boris goes by the bench in his French accent and goes, ‘I try it your way and now I do it my way,’” D’Antoni said. “I started laughing on the bench.”
The Spurs won a franchise-best 63 games in 2006, but fell to Dallas in seven games in the conference semifinals. Parker attended the Western Conference finals, where he watched Diaw’s Suns attempt to topple Dallas. Diaw poured in 34 points in the series opener, a surprising contribution for a player who practically had “PASS FIRST” tattooed on his forehead. His turnaround 7-footer with a half second remaining sealed Phoenix’s 121-118 victory.
But the Suns lost Bell to a calf injury in the game, and Dallas rallied and prevailed against Phoenix in six games before losing to Miami in the Finals. Against Dallas, Diaw followed his 34 points with games of 25, 20, 20, 16, and 30 points.
“Not that I was the key to our season or anything, but we were so thin that we couldn’t afford an injury,” Bell said. “Boris hit some huge shots in the game to win it and we felt good. We had beat the Heat [earlier in the season] by maybe 35 once and probably by 27 the next time,1 so there was no way they were going to be able to play with us. We just didn’t have enough bodies.”
In fact, the Suns defeated the Heat by 28 points in 2007.
Diaw seemed to finally have secured for himself what Parker had found immediately in the NBA: a creative system and a coach who knew how to use him. Diaw’s Suns and Parker’s Spurs met in a classic and heavily debated conference semifinal in 2007. Parker and Nash collided late in the series opener. The collision left Nash with a bloody nose that wouldn’t stop gushing. The game continued as Nash bled through the bandages and San Antonio won, 108-101. The teams traded wins the next two games. The Suns took a three-point lead late in the fourth game, when San Antonio’s Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer’s table. The Suns took a 104-98 win, but Diaw and Stoudemire had momentarily left the bench during the brief chaos that followed. NBA rules state that any player who leaves the bench during a melee is automatically suspended. Horry received two games, while Diaw and Stoudemire were barred for one game, a move that decimated Phoenix’s frontcourt. San Antonio closed out the series with two additional wins.
“I felt that it was the toughest series that they had,” Diaw said. “Before that, they were sweeping, and after us, same thing, and they pretty much won every series 4-0, 4-1 all the way to the Finals and got that championship. That was definitely one year that we felt really close.”
San Antonio eventually defeated Cleveland and LeBron James in the Finals, securing Parker’s third title.
“I talked trash to [Boris] sometimes,” Parker said. “He always says, ‘That was our championship,’ and I’m like, ‘Nope.’ Those Phoenix years, they were very hard to beat. And they came very close in 2007.”
The series and the suspensions essentially closed the window on the D’Antoni and Nash era in Phoenix.
“It’s easy for me to say yes, but you don’t know,” D’Antoni said when asked if he thought the suspensions prevented the Suns from advancing. “I do know we were going back to a fifth game on our home floor, so we were in a good spot. That doesn’t mean the Spurs, who have proven over and over that they can win anywhere at any time, [weren’t going to win]. But I would’ve liked the chances.”
Newly hired general manager Steve Kerr traded for a past-his-prime Shaquille O’Neal the following season and sent Marion to Miami. Phoenix’s high-octane offense sputtered. The Suns failed to get out of the playoffs’ first round, leading to D’Antoni’s departure.
Terry Porter had once been Parker’s mentor as a guard in San Antonio, and when he was hired to replace D’Antoni, he further tempered Phoenix’s offense. He once scolded Diaw for taking a bad shot, Bell said. “Boris took offense to it, so the next night we came out in Minnesota, Boris — in only the way Boris can do it — would work his way to the basket and get to within point-blank range and fire passes back out all night,” Bell said. “I don’t think he shot a field goal all night. I chuckled to myself, because I knew what was going on. It was hilarious.
“Let’s just put it like this,” Bell added. “Boris has a super-high basketball IQ and Boris knows he has one.”
With Stoudemire healthy, Diaw’s playing time dwindled. In December 2008, Phoenix traded Diaw to Charlotte, along with Bell and Sean Singletary, for Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley, and a second-round pick.
“It definitely wasn’t as fun,” Diaw told the Arizona Republic. “It wasn’t as exciting for the fans. It’s not as fun for everybody [on the team]. I’ll always remember Phoenix with Mike [D’Antoni]. We went from a winning team that was the most exciting team in the league to a half-winning team that wasn’t exciting at all.”
The Bobcats had not achieved anything close to success in their short existence. Michael Jordan hired Larry Brown to coach the team in 2008, and the addition of Bell and Diaw helped stabilize a young roster. Charlotte finished 35-47, but stayed in playoff contention until the end of the season. “Our situation was one where he had to play well and [Boris] had to be aggressive offensively,” Bell said. “We counted on him to do a lot in Charlotte.”
Charlotte improved to 44-38 the following year, its first winning season, and qualified for the playoffs. Diaw started every game, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“I would get a little frustrated with him because there were times when he was too unselfish,” Brown said of Diaw. “But at the end of the day, that’s a good thing. He could play five positions and is a good teammate. The only thing you’d get frustrated at him about is you thought he could do so much more.”
Orlando swept Charlotte from the playoffs that year, and Brown resigned the following season, when Charlotte started 9-19. Paul Silas replaced Brown, marking the beginning of Diaw’s frustrations with the Bobcats. “You know, he had fun,” Parker said. “And then after that, it went downhill.”
Silas was a popular figure, having already coached the franchise from 1998 to 2003. As a player, he’d won two championships in Boston and one in Seattle.
“We initially had a good relationship,” Silas said of Diaw. “When I got the job, I talked to him about where he came from and what he wanted to do. I asked him did he want to be an All-Star and he said, ‘Not really.’ It didn’t upset me, but I wondered why he would say that.”
Other coaches had wanted Diaw to score. Silas needed him to. “I didn’t have a really good team that could score that much, so when he got the ball, I asked him to score, but he wouldn’t do that,” Silas said. “That was a little upsetting to me. He would be so close to put the ball in the hole and he would throw it out so somebody could shoot a 3. I would tell him, ‘You’re open. Just lay the ball in.’ But he just didn’t want to hear it. There was just nothing I could really do.”
Charlotte regressed, finishing 34-48 in 2010-11. Jordan hired Rich Cho, formerly Portland’s general manager, and again remade the roster. The franchise traded Stephen Jackson over the summer and Gerald Wallace in the winter, its two leading scorers.
Charlotte was clearly trying to rebuild and Diaw wanted no part of the reconstruction. His weight ballooned. Silas counseled him on the benefits of staying in shape, explained that in his own playing time Silas had won a championship only once he’d committed himself to the game and dropped those excess pounds. Diaw wasn’t interested — he asked the front office to trade him. “He didn’t tell me that initially, and that was just something that really upset me, and I told him, ‘Look, if that’s what you want, come to me first and tell me and then go to someone else,’” Silas said. “But it just didn’t happen that way.”
Like Atlanta, Charlotte worked to accommodate Diaw. But the team found it difficult to trade an uninterested player. He was often listed as inactive and played in only four games in March 2012 before reaching a buyout with Charlotte that month.
Parker, meanwhile, had become the Spurs’ premier option. They were a quality team each season, but had failed to reach the Finals since 2007. The Spurs claimed the Western Conference’s top seed in 2011, but lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. Parker’s spotlight had grown beyond basketball thanks to his marriage to and eventual divorce from actress Eva Longoria.
After Diaw was bought out by Charlotte, the Spurs conferred with Parker. They wanted Diaw. “Probably talked to Manu and Tim as well,” Buford said. “There are not a lot of decisions that those three aren’t involved in.”
Diaw considered his two most viable options.
“I was thinking of going to Boston, or coming here, and I was wooed before Boston split up, so that was when Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were still there,” Diaw said. “It was definitely weighing in the balance that Tony was here and I would come to familiar faces, and I felt the team was fitting me most. And I felt like I knew the team, I knew where it was going, because I’ve been friends with Tony all these years, and so I knew the way they were functioning inside this team.”
Diaw signed in time to be eligible for the playoffs and moved in with his best friend. It was high school in Paris all over again. “When the Spurs asked me, ‘Do you think Boris would be a great fit?’ I was like, ‘Man, if we can get Boris, it’d be a good addition to our team,’” Parker said. “We spent some great time together ’cause it’s not every day you can play with your best friend and compete for an NBA championship.”
Diaw played in 20 games for San Antonio to end the 2011-12 season and became immediately entrenched in Popovich’s rotation. “What works with us is that when Tim, Tony, and Manu play a certain way, they set the standard for anyone who comes to join us,” Buford said. “When your best players are committed to the ideals that you’re [preaching], and the coach holds them as accountable as anyone on the team, then it’s easy for people to recognize: If I want to be successful here, here’s what I need to do.”
Mike Budenholzer said Diaw mostly impressed the coaching staff with his defense. “I don’t think until you are with Boris every day, battling in the playoffs and different matchups and different difficult situations, I don’t think people appreciate how good a defender Boris is, and how unique and versatile he is defensively,” Budenholzer said.
San Antonio advanced to the 2012 Western Conference finals with Parker and Diaw finally united in the NBA. But while Parker already had his championships, it wasn’t yet Diaw’s time. Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in 2012. Then last year, Miami rallied in the NBA Finals against San Antonio.
“It’s never easy to lose a game, and we’d been so close,” Diaw said. “The main thing that we were thinking about was that Game 6 that we let go. That’s really the one that we should have won and should have put an end to it. But we know we were close. We gave it our all.”
After two years bunking with Parker, Diaw finally left his home this season. But their lives are still deely entwined. And they’re hugely supportive of each other. Each regards the other as the better passer.
“Obviously, I’m a point guard and I’ll pass the ball and try to do both, but Boris, I’ll give him that,” Parker said.
“Yeah, he’s just a nice guy,” Diaw replied.
They’re still close off the court, too. Diaw’s c’est la vie attitude hasn’t gone anywhere. “Boris, what makes me laugh, is he’s not scared of anything,” said T.J. Parker, Tony’s brother. “He goes to Peru or Africa, goes swimming in crazy lakes, and if it looks like a crocodile is in there, I’m like, ‘No way. I’m not going in there. That looks like the movie Anaconda.’ He’s not scared of those things. He’s like, ‘I don’t care,’ and he’ll just jump in. He just amazes me.”
But Parker still has to keep an eye on his old pal. “It’s tough — Boris, he has to be careful because he loves to eat,” Parker said. “He’s a machine. As French people, we definitely love to eat and drink our wine.” Parker appreciates how unique their situation is. “I think that’s very rare in life, period, that you can have a friend since you’re 15 years old and go through a lot of stuff together and to experience all that with somebody.”
Parker and Diaw now both also operate professional teams. Parker owns a stake in ASVEL Villeurbanne. He is vice-president of the franchise and often asks Buford for advice on personnel. Diaw, meanwhile, is the president of JSA Bordeaux Basket, the team he played with as a teenager. Their basketball union may not end in San Antonio either. “Why not?” Diaw said of ending his career playing with Parker in France. “It’s something I always talk about with Tony, and he’s like, ‘OK, when we retire from real professional basketball, maybe we can settle down and transition by playing somewhere in Europe. Maybe.’”
A nagging sore ankle relegated Tony Parker to the bench in Game 6 of this year’s Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Diaw, as he had done when they played with France’s junior team, rallied in Parker’s absence. He had 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting in the win, which would send San Antonio to the Finals for a rematch against Miami. He took the open shot, luring smaller defenders into the post and drawing bigger ones to the perimeter. He also spent much of the game defending Kevin Durant. Somehow, with his playing time increased and his role amplified, he was always a step or two ahead of the play. It’s innate to him.
“Sometimes I feel it, I kind of know what’s going to happen, depending on the angle, the screen, or where somebody’s gonna be open,” Diaw said. “When you play a long time with some players, you get to know them, know what they’re gonna do, and that’s why it’s important to get to know your teammates. Some guys that we’ve played years together, we don’t need to talk to switch on defense. We know when we’re gonna switch, we know when we’re not gonna switch, depending on the situation. And same thing offensively — with some guys, I know when they’re gonna go backdoor. I know when they’re gonna come back around a screen to shoot.”
The scoring output shocked some of the coaches at Diaw’s previous stops.
“It surprises me that he’s scoring because he’s never really wanted to do that, to be honest with you,” Brown said. “He feels more comfortable getting everybody else involved. But he’s playing with a team that shares the ball and plays the right way, so I would think that really motivates him a lot, because that’s the way he wants to play and has always wanted to play. I talk to Pop about it a lot. I think having Boris play with the second unit where a lot of stuff goes through him is really something he enjoys.”
Said Silas: “The game that he played against OKC when he shot four or five 3s, that was just unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe that he would do that. But [in Game 1 of the NBA Finals], he really didn’t shoot any 3s. It’s just interesting the way he looks at the ballgame.”
For Jack McCallum, Diaw has finally fulfilled the role Mike D’Antoni had envisioned for him. “There were two ultimate D’Antoni players,” McCallum said. “One was Nash and the other was Boris. From the beginning, D’Antoni just couldn’t say enough about Boris. It’s funny that eight years later, what he thought he could always get from Boris has manifested.”
The Spurs were a better team this season, but made few changes to the roster. San Antonio lost Gary Neal, a factor in last year’s Finals. They benefited internally from the improvements of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills. But Diaw’s comfort level in Popovich’s system may have been the biggest game-changer.
“Some players have a feel for the game that is better than others,” Popovich said during a practice day after Game 1. “And he’s one of those. He can pass the basketball. He sees the floor in a spatial-relationship sort of way. He knows where people are. He knows where the ball should go. He anticipates. On defense, although he’s carrying around a little bit of luggage, he does his work early and positions himself pretty well.”
The series between Miami and San Antonio shifted when Popovich inserted Diaw into his starting lineup before Game 3. Diaw averaged 35 minutes a game in the Finals, up more than 10 minutes over his regular-season numbers. His presence bedeviled the Heat throughout. Diaw’s 43 total rebounds trailed only Tim Duncan’s 50. His 29 assists were the most of any player in the five-game series.
“Implementing Diaw into the lineup has given them another point guard on the floor,” LeBron James said after Game 5. “So Manu, Tony, and Diaw and Patty Mills on the floor at once — they’ve got four point guards basically on the floor at once. So all of them are live, and they all can make plays. It’s a challenge for us all.”
Last summer, Parker and Diaw accomplished one long-term goal: winning gold at the EuroBasket Tournament. Lithuania concentrated on stopping Parker in the final game, limiting him to 12 points, but Diaw’s 15 points, six rebounds, and four assists carried the team. “My only wish now is for Boris to win a championship because I was lucky enough to win three championships,” Parker said before the Finals. “We made our dream last year, winning with the national team, winning the first title for our country. And now I’d love for him to experience it at the NBA level.” Two weeks later, he has.
“We’re a true team, and everybody contributes,” Parker said after Miami’s 104-87 dethroning of Miami in Game 5. “Everybody did their job defensively, offensively. We did it together, and that was the whole key this season.” Parker missed his first 10 shots on Sunday, but closed out the game and Miami by making seven of his final eight attempts. Diaw impacted the clincher just as he had throughout the series, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing six assists, while playing a season-high 38 minutes.
To be one of these Spurs is to sacrifice the self for the team, to give over getting. Diaw wouldn’t have it any other way. And it finally paid off.