Michael C. WrightESPN Staff WriterClose
- Joined ESPN in 2010
- Previously covered Bears for ESPN.com
- Played college football at West Texas A&M
“I am drained physically and emotionally,” Parker said. “It as an awesome night, and I just want to thank the fans for the way they reacted tonight. It was unbelievable, and I appreciate it. It was a great memory for me that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Parker played 19 minutes in Charlotte’s win, contributing eight points on 4-of-12 shooting, including a couple of key buckets late, such as his 20-foot jumper to start the fourth quarter that extended the Hornets’ lead to six points.
Parker also contributed four assists without any turnovers.
“I’m really excited for Tony,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “Just to see him embraced and loved tonight. And he helped us tonight. I think it was a pretty good ending to a fun night.”
In stark contrast to the way Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard was received when he returned to San Antonio to face his former team on Jan. 3, the fans at AT&T greeted Parker warmly with a standing ovation that lasted almost a minute after a nearly three-minute tribute video.
As Parker acknowledged the crowd with a wave, the fans broke out in a chant of, “To-ny, To-ny, To-ny.”
Parker first entered the contest with 4:50 left in the first quarter and missed his initial four attempts. He finally knocked down his first shot with 2:56 left in the third quarter, and it drew applause from the home crowd. Borrego subbed in Parker with just 17.6 seconds remaining in the game to dribble out the clock and to give the fans in San Antonio one last chance to cheer on the point guard.
Parker received another standing ovation as the clock expired.
“They supported Tony like I expected,” Spurs guard Derrick White said. “He did great things for the organization, so it’s well-deserved. It was definitely good to see him.”
Once the game concluded, Parker immediately hugged teammates Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams, then he walked over to San Antonio’s bench to embrace Spurs security man David Birch and coach Gregg Popovich, as well as assistants Ime Udoka, Becky Hammon, Ettore Messina and Chip Engelland.
Popovich said he “expected nothing less” from the crowd at the AT&T Center, even after Spurs fans booed Leonard constantly during his return to San Antonio as a member of the Raptors.
“Tony is a wonderful human being,” Popovich said. “He was a great player for us, and he deserved all of the love that he received. That is for sure.”
Several of Parker’s family members from France flew to San Antonio to surprise him for his return to the AT&T Center. Parker’s father, Tony, was in attendance, as well.
Parker had talked to his family earlier and was told they would stay awake at 3 a.m. local time in France to watch the game on television.
“Then, when I got in the warm-ups and saw them, I started shaking a little bit, you know, like the goose bumps,” Parker said.
Parker also spent time Sunday with former Spurs teammate Tim Duncan and said he received text messages from former San Antonio running mates Manu Ginobili and David Robinson, who officiated Parker’s wedding in 2014.
Outside the Hornets locker room immediately after the game, a chorus of cheers could be heard from behind the closed door.
Earlier in the day, Hornets forward Nicolas Batum mentioned that Monday’s morning shootaround marked one of the few times he had ever seen Parker nervous.
Walker also said Parker was “a little bit different” going into the contest.
“We really wanted to get this W for him,” Walker said. “It’s for Tony.”
Parker spent the first 17 years of his career with San Antonio, which selected him 28th overall in the 2001 NBA draft as a 19-year-old out of France. He left the organization in July to join the Hornets as a free agent.
In addition to the four titles Parker helped San Antonio capture (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), he was named 2007 NBA Finals MVP. Intriguingly, Parker’s visit to San Antonio put him in elite company with Hornets owner Michael Jordan as one of just two players in NBA history to play against the team for which he won at least four championships and a Finals MVP trophy.
Borrego joked prior to Monday’s matchup that at some point Parker would look to the Spurs bench, waiting for Popovich to call a play for him to run.
But Parker promised just as he took the court for warm-ups that he would avoid such a mistake.
“I care so much about the Spurs. It was very weird to play against them,” Parker said. “I don’t know if I was nervous. It was a little bit of everything. They [the Hornets] told me before the game they wanted it for me. Then after the game I was like, ‘Why don’t we play like that every road game? C’mon, no excuses.’ I am going to be on them now.
“The thing for me was before the game — the tribute. And I appreciated all the love. It means a lot.”