A few years ago, Tony Parker won an argument no one was having. This was 2013 and Chris Paul—it’s been said that Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s handle on magical realism is such that no one else should even bother with it; Paul is like that with pure point guardery—was going through a minor but noticeable dip in form as he adjusted to his new teammates in Los Angeles. As Paul was sizing up Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Parker reached that blessed space where an athlete understands the game almost perfectly while still in something close to his physical prime. In concert with the Spurs’ late-Duncan Era renaissance, Parker briefly crested. He scored as efficiently as he ever has, dished assists at his highest rate, but this something you needed to have watched to fully grasp. He was, for maybe six months or a year, the best point guard in the league.
Parker was well into a splendid career by this point, but he hadn’t ascended into what I’m going to apologize for calling the league’s uppermost echelon. What kept him from it is hard to define, but you know what it is. It’s the thing that separates a star from a superstar. (We really do sound like eight-year-olds constructing a dorkily specific hierarchy of Fisher Price pirates sometimes, when we’re talking about sports.) It’s just a feeling, a flicker of not quite-ness, but it’s real nonetheless. And besides, Parker hadn’t even ever been the most remarkable talent on his own team. Tim Duncan was the all-time great and Manu Ginobili was more lovably strange. Plus the Spurs don’t conceive of the point guard position like most organizations do. Parker doesn’t run the offense so much as he yanks its pull-cord.
At age 30, The Frenchman had solved the peculiar role. He ran pick-and-pops with Boris Diaw, slashed and kicked to Manu and Danny Green, could easily get to his spot for a left elbow pull-up or spin into the lane and arc a teardrop or finish among the trees. He had even extended his range with a decent three-point shot that meant he had to be accounted for as a spot-up threat. At their very best, our relationships with athletes are like our relationships with close friends: we spend time with them because we like how they make us feel, the way they think, and what they do, and sometimes, they surprise us. Peak Tony Parker had added to the characteristic slipperiness of his game an unanticipated degree of intelligence and polish.
The Spurs concluded Parker’s finest season with a Finals loss. They wouldn’t nab their fifth title—Parker’s fourth—until the following year, and by then the injuries that nagged him through his prime had begun to drag him down. As with everything about him, Parker’s decline has been smooth, but he’s 34 now and looks like it. The Spurs are the league’s old guard, only two seasons removed from their championship. Duncan’s retired. There’s chatter about Parker moving to the bench. The Warriors have been to the last two NBA Finals and are heavy favorites to win the Western Conference for the next few seasons. All of this happened both slowly and all at once.
Here’s a disorder I suffer from, and perhaps you do too: you are following a thing—in this case, the NBA—so closely day-to-day that even three years ago feels like a long time, and when you try to return to that recent past, it’s been made somehow less legible by all that you’ve consumed in the meantime. This is not a modern phenomenon—duh, you recall people and events less clearly as you get further away from them—but is the modern world and the immense volume of text and video and audio it flings into our ears and eyeballs accelerating that distancing process? Our minds aren’t hard drives with data caps, but maybe they are like boundless sheets of paper with words and images etched onto them. Maybe they are relatively spare in some places and what’s communicated there is obvious, but in others, the places we return to most often, the words and images are crowded or even on top of each other and the information is obscured or hard to decipher.
Or, coming at it another way: try to think clearly of your impression of Barack Obama three years ago as opposed to the one you have now. It’s basically impossible because between three years ago and today, he’s been continually becoming to you what he is in this moment, headline by headline, interview by interview, photo by photo. The infinite versions of him run together.
This muddle is why it’s sane-making to dog-ear moments in time for yourself. (I think I’m accidentally explaining why I’m a writer, here.) I remember when Tony Parker eclipsed Chris Paul because I remember noting that it was important. It isn’t, really, but the remembering is the thing that matters. If I watched basketball for decades and didn’t have a decent record of what I’d thought and felt about it, that makes me not much different from a cow blankly chewing its cud. Most of what passes over us doesn’t register and the present warps and obliterates the past, but we at least have what we’ve cared to hold onto. I’ve got Tony Parker’s short, shining apex. You’re carrying around something, too. It’s real and it’s yours and it’s all you have to anchor you.
Other Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New York Knicks | New Orleans Pelicans | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards