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Spurs’ Tony Parker returns to lineup with support from friend Thierry Henry

Retired soccer star was on a plane to see Parker three days after injury

“Tough months with a lot of recovery, patience and mental strength” were the words Tony Parker used in his announcement on Sunday that he will make his long-awaited season debut for the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night. The veteran point guard also thanked his fans, family, friends, the medical staff and the Spurs for their support in his recovery from a quadriceps tendon injury he suffered in last season’s playoffs.

One friend whom Parker has been particularly thankful for in his support from the moment the injury happened is fellow Frenchman and retired soccer megastar Thierry Henry.

“He’s like a big brother, one of my best friends,” Parker said. “It’s great to have a friend who experienced the same stuff as you and supports you. Throughout my career, he’s always been there for me.

“When I got hurt, he came to see me three days after. He took a plane and came to support me right after my surgery. It’s pretty nice to have friends like that.”

Along with being close friends, Parker and Henry are perhaps the most revered basketball and soccer stars, respectively, in France’s history.

The 40-year-old Henry played soccer on a legendary level for Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, FC Barcelona and the New York Red Bulls. The striker is Arsenal’s all-time leader in goals, and the famed club has a statue honoring him outside of Emirates Stadium in London. Henry is also France’s all-time leader in goals and won the 1998 World Cup and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Euro 2000 with his native country. Earlier this month, UEFA published a Team of the Year All-Time XI that listed Henry and soccer’s current two biggest superstars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, as the forwards.

Parker described Henry simply as “big time.”

“He’s a big star. Soccer is the No. 1 sport in France,” Parker said. “He was with the best in the golden generation for France when we won the World Cup in 1998 and the European championship in 2000.”

Parker is a four-time NBA champion with the Spurs and the 2007 NBA Finals MVP. The 16-year NBA veteran is a two-time FIBA Europe Player of the Year award winner. The six-time NBA All-Star also played for France on two Olympic teams and in seven FIBA EuroBasket Tournaments.

Henry gave former NBA player Tariq Abdul-Wahad respect for being the first Frenchman to make it to the league, but he said Parker took French basketball to “another level.” The NBA opened this season with 10 players from France, but none more accomplished than Parker.

Thierry Henry and Tony Parker attend the men’s final on Day 15 of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 8, 2014, in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Jean Catuffe/GC Images

“He’s done so much [for French basketball] that you can’t even imagine,” Henry said. “Before it was like, ‘Can we just get a French guy drafted?’ Now we are talking about a guy who is a future Hall of Famer, they are going to retire his jersey [in San Antonio], four rings. … This is just a joke, really. When I say it, it doesn’t sound right. In France, it’s normal now. There are French guys in the NBA. Well done, Tony.

“Nowadays, they are going to the moon. Only special people go to the moon. You got to train, and this and that. Tony is on the moon, and he lives there and he is going to leave his flag there. This is something that you can’t start to understand or think about. It’s ridiculous.”

Henry was born and raised in the Les Ulis suburb of Paris and became a huge fan of former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and former Boston Celtics star Larry Bird and their teams’ rivalry in the 1980s. It wasn’t easy for Henry to watch NBA games during his youth because they were rarely on television in France, and when they were it was in the wee hours of the morning. Henry was also a fan of former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan and former Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson.

While a renowned soccer star, Henry attended his first of many NBA Finals in 2001 to watch his beloved Iverson and the Sixers lose the series to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers. Henry also has served as an NBA Ambassador, including being on hand for the 2017 NBA Africa Game in Johannesburg, where he was recognized by the fans more than NBA stars Dirk Nowitzki, DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry and the rest of the players were.

“Tony would have loved to be a soccer player. And in a way, I’m living through him those basketball moments,” Henry said. “I always remember waking up at 4 or 5 [a.m.] to watch the Finals. And sometimes now I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m at the Finals watching the game.’

“But I’m thinking about the time when I was 7, 8, 9 years old watching the Finals or just seeing some highlights. Then you talk about the game with your friend. ‘Did you see the game? Did you see this? …’ But you didn’t see anything because you weren’t allowed to stay up. My love of the game goes bigger than what you think.”

A mutual friend of Henry and Parker’s called the soccer star in 2001 to tell him that Parker was wearing a Henry jersey. Henry was quite honored and became interested in meeting Parker because of their French connection and also because he “loved the way he played, leaving it all on the court.” Parker and Henry connected through the mutual friend and became close quickly.

Thierry Henry (left) poses with NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs after Game 4 of the 2007 NBA Finals on June 14, 2007, at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Chris Graythen/NBAE via Getty Images

Henry has been to numerous Spurs games, including several NBA Finals, since becoming friends with Parker. Even the ushers at AT&T Center in San Antonio know Henry now. While Henry makes several business trips a year to the United States, he usually finds time to trek to San Antonio to spend time with Parker.

“As you can imagine sometimes in sport, there is respect as a mutual athlete when you meet each other,” Henry said. “A friend of mine called me and said, ‘You would never guess who is wearing your jersey right now.’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Tony.’ I said, ‘I love the guy.’ My friend put us in touch, and ever since then we never looked back.

“The way he sees the game, the way he sees life, the way he behaves, his values, the way he is on the court is pretty much the way I am, so we clicked on that. If I’ve ever needed something or he ever needed something on and off the court, we have always been encouraging and helped each other.”

Parker ruptured his left quadriceps tendon last season during San Antonio’s 121-96 win over the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals. He was lost for the remainder of the playoffs for the injury-plagued Spurs, who also lost All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard and veteran forward-center David Lee, who recently retired, to injury during the postseason. Without Parker, Leonard and Lee, the Spurs lost to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the 2017 Western Conference finals.

Parker is 35 years old and well-accomplished, but the injury didn’t cause him to contemplate retirement despite the rehabilitation required.

“I was frustrated because I was playing so well and the team was playing well,” Parker said. “We were getting ready to play the Warriors in the conference finals. It was just frustrating. Never in my mind was I sad or thought I would never come back. People were saying that, but I wasn’t even listening. It was most frustrating for me because I couldn’t be there in the conference finals. But in my mind, I was coming back.”

Tony Parker talks with Thierry Henry during a practice on Feb. 23, 2016, at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles.

Chris Graythen/NBAE via Getty Images

Shortly after his season-ending injury, Parker received a visit from Henry in San Antonio to give him a lift at the start of his rehab. Henry’s supportive move strongly touched Parker.

“It means a lot. Your real friends are always there for you for good times and bad times,” Parker said. “It’s always in bad times that you see who your real friends are. That was very nice of Thierry and his family to come out for three or four days and just come support me.”

The trek from London to San Antonio is long and far from easy for Henry. But Henry said it was important for him to support Parker through his trying time.

“I don’t want to talk too much about it because it’s humbling to talk about his situation,” Henry said. “But all I can do as a friend was to support him. And that’s basically it. I hope it was enough. But it’s never enough because you want him to be out there helping his teammates, especially when it happened in the playoffs.

“He went down, and it was Kawhi after that. It is what it is at the end of the day. But the most important thing is now he can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Parker will step out into the light Monday night when he makes his season debut against the Dallas Mavericks. Leonard is still out with a quad injury, and it’s uncertain when he will make his season debut. The Spurs, however, have a healthy LaMarcus Aldridge and added veteran free-agent forward Rudy Gay. They are 12-7 without Parker and Leonard.

“We are pretty much the same team,” Parker said. “Having Rudy Gay will help us. The way the league is playing and going small, Rudy will be great because he can play 3 [small forward] or 4 [power forward]. … We had a pretty good season last year. This year, the West is very, very strong. We are going to have to be ready to battle.”

With Parker back on the hardwood, don’t be surprised if his buddy, Henry, will soon be back at a Spurs game watching his brother, whom he has supported through the championships and the pain.

“It goes beyond what people think,” Henry said about his friendship with Parker. “We became friends, and it’s not because he loves soccer and I love basketball. We don’t really talk about the game. We talk about everything else. If he needs anything at any time, I will be there. And I know he will do the same for me.

“There is a mutual respect of what we have done and what he is still doing because I stopped playing. But we are still brothers.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.