The most accomplished player in the history of Georgia high school basketball announced Monday that he would play collegiately three time zones away. He’d been recruited hard by the flagship university of the state he’d dominated, but Tony Parker declined to remain, to use his phrase, “a hometown hero.”
Then Parker said this: “That would have been the easy way out.”
If you’re Mark Fox, who coaches the Georgia Bulldogs, you’re surely wondering if there will be an easy way. Fox has signed two of Parker’s Miller Grove teammates, and through force of will he elbowed his way onto a short list that was essentially a Mount Rushmore of college hoops. And still: No sale.
“They got in there,” said Norman Parker (no relation), who’s president of the AAU Georgia Stars, for whom Tony Parker played summer ball. “Just to be in that lineup sends the message that Georgia is getting there.”
Trouble is, recruiting comes with no consolation prizes. When Parker is teaming with fellow freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams to restore the UCLA Bruins to national eminence, who lifts Georgia? And if the Bulldogs can’t convince a gifted and determined young man who grew up 60 miles away that the road to glory can run through Stegeman Coliseum, what hope is there?
We’re constantly reminded that this state produces top-shelf basketball talent. On Monday we were reminded why coaching basketball at this state’s flagship university is among the more difficult jobs in the land. To have signed Tony Parker would have put UGA on the map. In the end, Parker chose a school where his chosen sport isn’t considered a nerdy little brother.
The caps on display on the stage at Miller Grove told the tale: UCLA( 11 national titles); Duke (four titles); Ohio State (one title, plus two Final Four runs in the past six season) … and Georgia, which has won seven NCAA tournament games in its history, one this century. (Kansas, with three NCAA titles, was apparently eliminated before the caps were arrayed.)
And the world of college basketball is changing in a way that doesn’t augur well for a program trying to establish its bona fides. The big-name recruits are bonding around big-name schools. Said Norman Parker, whose Georgia Stars have sent 11 players to the NBA: “These young men gravitate to each other and are going with each other – maybe not to become the next Fab Five, but [in UCLA’s case] a Fab Four.”
Georgia’s hope was that Tony Parker would want play near home, but for an athlete who steeped in the AAU system distance has become less of a determinant. “He’s so oriented to travel,” Norman Parker said. “If he had to get on a plane and fly to Germany tonight it wouldn’t bother him.”
Don’t think that friendships forged along the AAU circuit can’t override physical mileage. All the best players know one another, and they’ve taken to clustering in search of an NCAA title. (Kentucky’s recent championship is already the new model.) Nor did it hurt that UCLA hired Korey McCray, who was CEO of the AAU Atlanta Celtics, last summer as an assistant coach.
Said Norman Parker: “I’m sure that connection helped. [McCray] was a pipeline directly to the [Tony Parker] family – that’s my guess … They didn’t hire [McCray] for his looks.”
But here’s the cruel part: UCLA would have had a splendid recruiting class without Tony Parker. Georgia needed him badly. To have paired one McDonald’s All-American (guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who just completed his freshman season) with another in the massive Parker would have suggested that Fox is becoming a major player in a majorly bountiful state. Moot point now.
Said Tony Parker: “I’ve done a lot for [the state of] Georgia, and Georgia has done a lot for me. It’s time for me to broaden my horizons.”
As for the flagship university of the state Parker will leave: How should it feel? Proud to have come so close in a field of heavy hitters? Or frustrated to see a big-timer walk away?
“It’s a little bit of both,” said Sharman White, who coached Parker to four state championships at Miller Grove. “You hate to see talent leave the state, but Georgia came a long way. It was not in this conversation six months ago, even three months ago.”
Someone suggested that Parker bore the look of a player who could have had a transforming effect on the Bulldogs. “Coach Fox is a great coach, and he’s going to get that guy [eventually]’” White said. “It’ll come real soon.”
Then White said: “If he’d have gotten Tony, it would have been monumental.”
By Mark Bradley