Tony Parker (right) hugs Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich after Popovich gives a speech at Parker's jersey retirement ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Tony Parker brought the teardrop to San Antonio: the burst into the paint, the sudden hop, the one-handed release. The ball floated over giants, arcing toward the rafters and the jerseys of  legends, then fell like a feather through the net.

The teardrop terrorized. Most nights, Dwight Howard couldn’t reach it. Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t block it. Kevin Garnett couldn’t stop it. Lots of 7-footers didn’t try. Which is why, in a career highlight video that spans 18 seasons, a defining image emerges: The NBA’s biggest and best looking up at No. 9, who stands 6 foot 2. 

They’ll have to look higher now, 85 feet above the AT&T Center floor, where Parker’s jersey hangs. The teardrop elevated his game (a six-time All-Star) and reputation (best European-born guard in NBA history). So did the spin move and tour-de-force speed that shot him across the league like a Tour de France champ.

Tony Parker’s jersey (right) hangs from the AT&T Center rafters.

When Parker arrived from French team Paris Basket Racing in 2001 – 19 and so baby-faced he shaved but once a week – he could not have imagined where he would land: as one piece of a fabled Big Three that would win more regular season games (575) and postseason games (126) than any threesome in NBA history.

Tim Duncan was the greatest Spur, Manu Ginobili the most beloved Spur. Parker? He was the glamorous Spur (see People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and Glamour magazine’s “Sexiest Basketball Player Alive”).

Parker cut a unique profile. He was the guy who married and divorced a famous actress, the dashing star who brought a touch of Hollywood to a team Steve Kerr once called “The Milk and Cookies Gang.” He was, in many ways, the anti-Spur who cut across culture and tradition, and yet found a way to fit with Duncan, blend with Ginobili, and win four NBA championships.  

The Big Fundamental, El Contusion, and Glamour Boy. A Big Three for the ages. Three years after Duncan retired, they were reunited, in spirit, flesh, and fabric. Monday night, Parker’s No. 9 took its rightful place high above the arena floor, following No. 20 and No. 21, in a moving jersey retirement ceremony.

(From left) Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan pose for a photo after the ceremony.

“It was an honor to play with you guys,” Parker said to roaring applause after the Spurs fells to the Memphis Grizzlies 113-109. “I love you, too. And we’ll be together forever.” 

Where did the time go? It took five games for Tony Parker to break into the starting lineup. It took more than five years to win the city’s heart. One problem was his jump shot. He didn’t have one. Another was his youth.  

Jane Ann Craig, a season ticket holder from Austin, did a double-take the first time she saw Parker. “He looked like such a baby,” recalled Craig, a government teacher who kept the scorebook for Westlake High basketball team at the time. “I was teaching 18-year-olds who looked like Tony.” 

She never taught anyone who could play like him. As a rookie, Parker outplayed Seattle All-Star Gary Payton in the 2002 playoffs. The next season, he dropped 27 on the Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals and left Kobe Bryant in tears. For an encore, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili – and a retiring David Robinson – took down the New Jersey Nets. At 21, Parker popped his first cork of championship champagne.

The run to that first title did not go smoothly. Parker routinely infuriated Gregg Popovich, turning a pale, white-haired coach into a red-faced, sideline eruption. Three turnovers and three missed shots in the third quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals put Parker on the bench. Down by 10, his replacement, Speedy Claxton, sparked a 19-0 Spurs run in the fourth and never left the floor.

That first bottle of bubbly came with a cup of bitterness. Parker grew, though, year by year, developing a jumper, smoothing out his game. By the 2007 postseason, he had found a new gear, a new level of fan appreciation. 

“When Tony won the Finals MVP, that’s when you started to a see a shift,” said Spurs radio voice Bill Schoening. “In ’07, Tony took off and dominated the playoff run. In the finals, he was unstoppable.” 

He was never more unstoppable than the night of Nov. 5, 2008. Parker dropped 55 points on Minnesota with 10 assists in double overtime. “He was scoring from all over,” Schoening said. “Pull up. Mid-range. From the perimeter. Fans in Minnesota were oohing and aahing. Tony did so many things that were eye-opening.”

Parker dazzled again Monday night. Dressed in a dark blazer with a black T-shirt, he grabbed Spurs Nation by the heart. He recalled soaring highs and crushing lows, championships and losses, tongue-lashings and friendships and late-night talks on the back of buses and airplanes.

On a night intended to honor No. 9, Parker offered tributes to former teammates at center court. He thanked Bruce Bowen for befriending him and offering encouragement. He thanked David Robinson for modeling class and character, for marrying him and his wife, Axelle, in 2014, and for inspiring him to be a better human being. As Parker put it, he never wanted to “disappoint” the Spur he idolized in his youth: No. 50.

Tony Parker (left) and his wife, Axelle, hold their children Josh and Liam during the ceremony.

Parker hated to disappoint Pop, too. But for the longest time he thought that pleasing him was impossible. Pop, in turn, apologized – wink, wink – for the “physical and mental abuse” he heaped on No. 9. When Parker accepted, the AT&T Center burst into laughter. 

And then … 

“Pop,” Parker said, “you were like a second dad to me. You made me a better player.”

Poignancy, levity, and serendipity wove through the night. Bats swooped low over the floor, prompting chants of “Manu! Manu!” At which point, Ginobili rolled up his sleeves as if it were Halloween Night 2009, when he famously killed a bat with a single swat. 

Ginobili recalled that he and Parker played hundreds of games together, shared endless dinners on the road, and had more heart-to-heart conversations than he could count. “I don’t think we ever had one argument,” Ginobili said. Parker nodded. 

After four games that first season, Pop handed the starting job to Parker. Sixteen years later, Parker went full circle of life. He approached Pop and told him it was time for the talented Dejounte Murray to start. As Parker explained in a piece he wrote for The Players’ Tribune:

“Pop agreed, and thanked me. And then I went and had the same conversation with Dejounte. He was grateful. Was it bittersweet? You know what, I’m not trying to seem like a robot here or anything, but it really wasn’t. It’s a discipline thing, I think. That’s just kind of the way that I was raised, and how I’ve grown up as a player — to always stay moving forward.”

Parker moved forward one last time Monday night. He asked the fans to stand, to imagine the Spurs were facing the Lakers and Shaq and Kobe in the playoffs. Then he asked them, on the count of three, to let go with a shout that, fittingly, consists of three words. Go Spurs Go!

Three claps of thunder. One each for Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker. Forever The Big Three.

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.