PARIS — A mid-winter evening in the capital of France. Hundreds of young basketteurs are pitting their bodies and minds against one another in a special showcase tournament.
Packed to the rafters, the Jean Jaures Gymnasium sits only a few stops away on the Parisian metro from where the fully-fledged leviathans of the NBA will duel on Friday night when the Milwaukee Bucks meet the Charlotte Hornets in the league’s first-ever regular season game in the land of Napoleon, Marion Cotillard and Henri Matisse.
Some on the floor here aspire to be leaders, others performers, a few to express themselves as great artists. With few exceptions, they all dare to imagine becoming the next Tony Parker, the subsequent Rudy Gobert, a successor to Nicolas Batum, local boys made good with whom they can readily identify.
“They’ve given us a dream, the desire to maybe realize it one day,” Leonard Bigiaoui says, one of the teens hitting the court in this Nike-sponsored Paris Ring event.
“They’ve really set an example to follow. You see them out there as something to aspire to.
“The American stars are also well-known. You see them on commercials, on TV, on video games. But frankly, it’s the European players who you notice. Luka Doncic in Dallas. The French guys like Gobert and Batum. It’s them who you aspire to be like.”
Parker retired last summer, but, still the face of French hoops, he was not the first to arrive in the NBA draped in the tricolore.
Strictly speaking, Bob Cousy — born in Manhattan to French immigrant parents — boasts a historic claim. But the modern surge, in reality, began when Tariq Abdul-Wahad was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 1997, to be followed since by over 25 compatriots, of whom eight have suited up in the current campaign.
However, Parker, by dint of landing four NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs and leading Les Bleus to international success, was the figure who truly put France on the NBA map — and who, in parallel, put basketball on the map in France.
“Having Tony and Boris maybe opened the eyes of the NBA scouts that maybe France was a good place for NBA players,” Batum says. “We’ve had a lot of guys coming through since then and having success.
“You have Rudy Gobert who I’m pretty sure will be an All Star in Chicago in a few weeks. It shows France basketball is in good shape.”
Those trailblazers altered trajectories quite dramatically.
“It changed everything,” Francois Lamy says. “The fact that Tony is so magnetic helped. He attracts attention and he likes people and he likes to share his experience.
“He was open about his success, what it brought him and what he could give back. And he shared his recipe for success.”
Lamy knows Parker better than most. A former player-agent, he was recruited by the six-time All Star and EuroBasket MVP to become his general manager when Parker purchased Lyon-based club, Asvel Villeurbanne.
Not only are they shooting for championships in both the French Jeep Elite League and the EuroLeague. They have upscaled Asvel’s youth academy that attracts teenage talents from all around Europe.
Generations past ran through its doors with largely domestic ambitions. Parker, Lamy believes, unknowingly altered the mindset of those who followed behind.
“Tony was probably the first one to transform dreams into objectives for French players. Seeing that someone who isn’t a monster athlete — a regular player, a guard — could succeed in the NBA made it look possible for a lot of players.
“He was the first one to announce his objectives. For him, the NBA was never a dream. He said early on, ‘I want to play there, it’s my goal.’ We could witness his journey and it was quickly successful.”
It brought scouts to pore over the French League to identify the next Gallic delicacy capable of wetting appetites across the Atlantic.
Hard to believe now with Doncic’s dominance, but Parker was once compelled to demolish the myth that Europeans could crowd the paint but were off-color in their ability to run a team.
The ecosystem here, believes the French Basketball Federation’s director Jacques Commeres, has won credibility for the manner in which the best talents are identified as early as 13 and brought into regional youth programs, then filtered again to collate them at the Paris-based INSEP — France’s national Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance — where Parker and Diaw were teammates long before later linking up in San Antonio.
“The impression of our players,” Commeres says, “is that they have a good attitude, good behaviour, a positive team spirit. Also I think our athletes have similar values to Americans now.
“Other countries say we are similar — our defense isn’t as good as Americans maybe. But we are very aggressive in our playing style and we value the same styles of defense and shots.”
Ideal fodder to fill draft boards, with Sekou Doumouya the latest arrival last summer when he was drafted 15th overall by the Detroit Pistons out of French League club Limoges.
Next up, probably, is 18-year-old Asvel guard Theo Maledon who has attracted both NBA scouts and praise from Parker.
It is flattering that the best teens here accrue an inflated value, Lamy claims. But at times, the dream sold of earning fame and fortune in North America is fused with a lack of realism, and at a high cost.
“I saw it as a problem when I was an agent and even more now on the management side,” the Asvel GM says.
“In France, it’s become almost an industry to push players down that route, almost excessively. I don’t think it’s helped some kids to have them pushed towards that NBA dream, bringing them out early when they’re not ready.
“Some of them get lost because they don’t realise that if you are good enough, NBA teams will find you. You don’t have to go to them. They’ll come to you.”
But the hands will keep being raised in the air. The French League remains attractive with leading players able to earn up to €250,000 ($280,000) per season with top teams like Asvel attracting over 5,000 fans per game.
Once, the youth shot for achievement on home soil. The last two decades have seen the ground shift. Even though NBA Primetime occurs while France sleeps, the attention and awareness of the public is wide awake.
“Because in the last century, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of the NBA,” Commeres says.
“Today, the NBA is on every computer and smartphone of the current young players. They see the NBA. The watch the best American players. All the young French kids watch the NBA and the best players of the league and they want to be them.
“In particular, they look at the individual technique and athleticism of the French players. They study it and copy it, that’s for sure.
“But across the world, the NBA has raised the participation levels globally thanks to their marketing efforts.”
Bucks-Hornets in Paris can inject a little more. Gazing into the stands at the AccorHotels Arena, Batum points to seats which might be filled by a Parker clone who might prolong these heyday of French hoops.
And he said: “If you have a dream… it might be crazy to say ‘I’m French but I want to be in the NBA’.
“Especially when I was younger, they said: ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do it.’
“I say to those guys: ‘If you want to be in the NBA, stick to it and you never know’.”