Popovich prods Spurs with memories

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By Jeff McDonald

For teams across the NBA, the first day of training camp is a day of rebirth, a time for new beginnings and new hope, a prelude to 82 games of untapped promise.

It is a time when every team is undefeated, and every team — except maybe for the one in Charlotte — can consider itself a contender.

Yet before coach Gregg Popovich would allow his Spurs to talk about where they hope this nascent season is headed, he first wanted them to reflect on how the last one ended.

So before players were released to fulfill media day obligations Monday, Popovich convened the season’s first team meeting, then cued up footage from last June’s collapse against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.

“He wanted us to be fired up,” guard Manu Ginobili said, “knowing we were very close, and we let it go.”

For a Spurs team that had won 20 games in a row before losing its final four last season, the film session made for painful viewing.

For All-Star point guard Tony Parker, who came perilously close to suffering a career-altering injury to his left eye not long after the playoff ouster, it was a relief to be able to watch anything at all.

After three hours of exams, Parker has been medically cleared for full participation when training camp opens this morning. He will not require the protective goggles doctors prescribed for his stint at the London Olympics in August.

Parker suffered a scratched cornea in a June 15 bar fight in New York between hip-hop stars Drake and Chris Brown and their entourages.

According to reports, Parker was an innocent bystander in the melee. Still, he said the incident helped him “put life in perspective.”

“You just think of stuff different,” Parker said. “In life, stuff happens, and you just learn from it, and you try to be more careful.”

Popovich says he naturally frets about the health of his players when they break for the summer, especially those who participate in international competition.

“Tony’s situation was scarier,” Popovich admitted.

The Spurs return 13 players from last year’s team that tied for the NBA’s best record at 50-16 and came within two wins of returning to the Finals for the first time since 2007.

Few are as important as Parker, who was the team’s leading scorer and assist man in what was an All-NBA campaign.

Parker’s positive medical evaluation has allowed Popovich to breathe easier — and has allowed Parker’s teammates to declare open season on the 30-year-old point guard.

Leading the needling has been puckish captain Tim Duncan, who has gigged Parker about everything from his “chic” choice of eyewear to the June incident’s effect on the Spurs’ goody-goody reputation.

“We’re trying to get street cred,” said Duncan, who in July signed a new three-year, $30 million deal to resume his role as team provocateur. “That’s what this team’s all about.”

Once Parker is done dodging the slings and arrows coming from the Spurs’ Hall of Fame-bound power forward, the mission will be for him to repeat what Popovich often has called his best professional season.

“That’s what he’s getting paid to do,” Popovich said. “He’s got to be committed and disciplined enough to repeat what he did last year. He knows what we expect out of him.”

After finishing a career-best fifth in the league MVP voting last season, Parker believes himself up to the task.

“I think it’s a great challenge to do the same thing,” he said. “I feel like the next three or four years are going to be the best basketball of my career.”

Before Parker and the Spurs could get too far ahead of themselves, Popovich pulled them back as only he can.

The scars of what slipped away against Oklahoma City remain fresh with his players. He hopes they never fully get over it.

“I think we all still feel (disappointed), and that’s good,” Popovich said. “We’ve got to use that.”

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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