Modern Moves: Tony Parker’s floater


An undissolved bit of vitreous gel floating in the back of the eye is the medical definition for a floater. The gel casts shadows in a person’s field of vision. These shapes are both present and absent. Tony Parker’s floater is a similar blip; something hidden in plain sight.

San Antonio’s point guard of the last 16 years has made a living in the most crowded of spaces. Slipping through the cracks in the defense, he is lost in a performance. He adapts the shape of his body as needed. He is both Houdini and Baryshnikov as he snakes through what Hubie Brown calls the painted area.

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He is not necessarily looking for a clear lane to the basket, but if the opportunity presents itself, he takes it. If a looming post player stands in his way, he will settle for a particular spot on the floor. The 74-inch Parker is not afraid of mountains. The small engine number nine screeches to a halt and releases some long lost password holding access to a den of thieves, or the dark web. The mystery with Parker is not so much did he score but how did he get the shot off in the first place. Is that a floater or a bit of vitreous gel casting shadows on the court?

Tony Parker’s signature shot braves the gap between Tim Duncan’s dial up connection and Manu Ginobili’s unbridled mania. The point guard’s vaunted quickness and underrated handle allow him perpetual access to the lane, but his lack of height and hops questions the certainty of his actions once he arrives. He’s too small to back down his opponents, so he counters the world’s size and strength with acid rain.

The shot is a teardrop tattooing the scoreboard. The shot will make him a star in his youth as he battles John Stockton, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. The shot will preserve him into old age as he fends off the likes of Chris Paul, Mike Conley and James Harden. Like an inverse Matthew McConaughey, he will daze and confuse, dribbling a tightrope between his fading quickness and his cunning maturity. He will stretch his offensive game over the years, but his game will only stretch so far. He is like a hummingbird whose body and skillset limit his resources. He is far from good at everything, but his goodness at this one shot nears perfection.

Whether in the open floor or the half court, Parker can wheedle his way to within two feet of the basket or, if he can’t make it that far across the chessboard, he can still release his floater from eight feet, maybe even 10 or 12 on those nights when he’s all touch. In this way, he’s playing a false game of chicken with the man guarding him and the other post defenders. His ability to hit from anywhere in the lane leaves defenders in limbo. Do they wait near the basket? Do they step forward to meet him? The floater is a parachute, and Parker can bail on driving all the way to the basket at any moment.

His entryways into the lane are plucked as if from a choose-your-own-adventure book. He creates space with a hesitation dribble. He turns his defender’s hips with an over-the-top crossover. He moves laterally with a push-out dribble, only to attack again. Maybe he passes the ball to a wing player before running curls through a thicket of screens. He is a 90-foot blur sprouting into something so fragile as a second-grade bean plant. The road to the floater is more rugged than the actual shot, which registers in the eye like a lady’s pistol in a card game Western.

If a pathway into the lane proves impassable, Parker immediately starts seeking another. He is a hydra; he sprouts again and again. In olden times, when big men ruled the earth, reposting a seven-footer was a common courtesy. Parker feels and probes the defense with the same determination as a Wilt or a Kareem; only he racks up more mileage in doing so. He cuts round the baseline or curls through the lane from underneath, tracing figure eights ad infinitum in the half court.

But, when not flying at full throttle, Parker trots the ball across midcourt, and with his left hand, he motions a bartender. Then Timmy or Pau or LaMarcus (it’s so difficult to keep track of the server’s name) will set a screen near the top of the key, and Parker executes that underrated crossover of his, which is really just him revving his engine before switching gears. Then he leans into his trajectory. He takes full advantage of the defender whose hips are turned because he either slid under the screen or is simply too slow and too big to track this winged motor. The ball’s rhythm is now tied to a paddle with elastic. Parker is abuzz amidst scrambling timber and hesitant limbs, and then the ball is in the air. Some corny rock song from the 1970s plays and the world’s collisions are undone by Marvel Studios’ love for slow motion and very little blood.

The shot is a pinprick, and yet Parker conquers the post with it.

He will slay enemy runs with this shot and swing entire Playoff series with this shot. And yet almost all the floaters he lofts will fall within Tim Duncan’s shadow or disappear in discussions about Gregg Popovich’s halftime adjustments. They are the architectural pillars. The floater is sporadic poetry. Despite the points, Parker remains small.

San Antonio fans want to hold him to the light and study the texture of his dust-particle wings. Those watching from Miami or Memphis want to burn him over a candle wick. He is a mosquito; a single swat would render him a bloodstain.

And, in a way, this slight state renders him a most successful assassin. He blends into his surroundings. He either neglects or forgets to play defense. He stores his energy for another attack, and the transition is always unnerving, from flatfooted to full steam ahead. You see him driving, and you swear either a layup or a turnover — maybe an embarrassing block — is what the future holds.

Sometimes the floater is a runner in the lane. Parker’s legs splay out in chaotic leaps, but more often than not, the shot is something studied and not felt. He has noticed something in the defense that makes his floater the only worthwhile shot on the court —the best option out of a Hall of Fame triumvirate.

Watching Parker in repetition allows one to see that the floater’s execution requires mastery over the entire body, and this mastery ebbs from the ground up.

The shot, which is strangely similar to a jump hook, requires Parker to slam on the brakes. He is, after all, too small a guard to back down his defender. Fortunately, his talent for speeding up the game is equaled by his ability to slow down his own body. He careens into the lane and then stops. The suddenness is both subtle and alarming. The viewer’s eyes sway forward with the momentum that is now lost to some unlived timeline. Parker should have been there — but he isn’t.

In slow motion, you notice he never flicks the wrist. The floater, while on the verge of the playground, is not given to YMCA recklessness. Parker’s wrist lofts a shotput, but his frozen frame resembles a grocery store clerk placing inventory on the top shelf. He stands on an invisible stepladder. The legs are not wildly spread, but steadily ­contained within the margins of his shoulders. He is bottled.

Sometimes precipitation arrives with a short hop. Sometimes Parker takes the allotted two steps. Occasionally he jump stops all the way from a coaching manual. But he delivers the most pleasing finishes out of a calculated spin move, where the defender is left mimicking a lamppost from Singin’ in the Rain.

Even when the spin move fails, Parker hesitates and pivots. He morphs into an aging Kevin McHale or a young Tim Duncan. In these moments, the floater acts as a coda to a maneuver rarely seen anymore, the up-and-under. Amidst all this variety that transpires as Parker initiates his motions toward the basket to the moment he bails on the layup, the point guard always manages to right his torso. When he releases the shot, he is always within a few degrees of ninety. From his feet, through his legs and spine, to the unfolded wrist, he is in control of his own body.

The floater is a concoction of rehearsal time and Parker’s imagination. He commits to it so often the shot is somehow omnipresent and perpetually absent, and even though other players with larger frames and longer arms are more suited for its delivery, their size makes it a last resort. Parker, on the other hand, is a saboteur. He boards the plane knowing he will have to jump, and the flight of his body mimics the ball’s trajectory.

On occasion, Parker’s teammate Kawhi Leonard has implemented the floater. In his hands, the shot is much easier to understand. His large frame holds a magnifying glass over what Parker’s likeness to a moth has managed to keep hidden. Anyone can do this. Somehow, though, this exposure renders the shot clownish as Leonard shoves the ball toward the rim, treating what looks like an acorn in his hands as if it were a bowling ball. Meanwhile, even on the attempts when Parker flails on the ground his floater never lands in the realm of slapstick. Melodrama maybe, but never slapstick.

Next: The Encyclopedia of Modern Moves

Quiet and full of death, the floater nestles in the nylon, and Parker lies on the court like he was cut from a movie poster for Anatomy of a Murder. After a while, he will roll over. He will hold his ankle or his knee. He will wait for a teammate to lift him off the ground. Maybe he grins, but only so he can eventually grimace. He looks like a kid who knows everything and nothing at all. He winks like this just occurred to him. He is bottling water and selling lightning. You either see it or you don’t.