NBA: France's love affair with basketball -- on and off court

Story highlights

  • French NBA stars rallied after Paris attacks
  • Four-time NBA champion Tony Parker is the most decorated French player
  • NBA's penetration in France coincided with popularity of Air Jordans and other athletic gear
  • French players make up a small but growing presence in NBA

(CNN)Before Joakim Noah and Nicolas Batum faced off on court at Chicago's United Center on November 13, the two members of France's national team had more pressing issues at hand.

Both players were frantically checking on their families before taking on their roles for the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets. Noah's father is former French tennis champion Yannick Noah, while Batum's sister lives near the site of one of the attacks; both of them, it turned out, were safe.
It's been a difficult time for the NBA's French diaspora following the Paris terror attacks this month. Ten French citizens -- 11 if you count Noah (though he is classified as an American by the NBA) -- play in the world's foremost basketball league and most were vocal about their compassion for the victims in their homeland, a reaction which pleased senior basketball executives back home.
    "I was comforted and happy that the majority of French NBA players were so quick to react to the tragic events that shook Paris and our nation," Michel Rat, a director at France's National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance (INSEP) told CNN. "Their reactions, through written messages or strong gestures, showed us the true emotion of these players."
    Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz wore sneakers decorated with the French flag. Kévin Séraphin of the New York Knicks sported a buzz cut featuring the Eiffel Tower as "La Marseillaise" played at Madison Square Garden. Other players like Alexis Ajinca of the New Orleans Pelicans tweeted messages of hope.
    NBA arenas glowed in France's blue, white and red stripes before games, showing solidarity with its French players and fans while emphasizing the country's role as a pivotal basketball nation.

    Evolution of French basketball

    France provides the most NBA players from outside of North America this season, yet, when Rat first arrived on the INSEP campus in Paris' leafy Bois de Vincennes in 1958 as a student, there was no such thing as a French NBA player.
    "We had our American," he said of French basketball in the late 1950s, "Martin Feinberg."
    A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Feinberg was one of the first Americans to play hoops in the French leagues after 1945 with famed Paris Université Club (PUC), long considered the elite of French basketball. "He taught us," said Rat, by infusing a more technical American style of play to the game.
    It was an era when American culture enticed French youths and basketball benefited. Despite the country's long history of playing hoops -- the first European game was held in Paris in December 1893 and French teams were at the forefront of European competition in the 1930s and post-World War II period -- it remained a hidden sport, one widely played and highly regarded, but not popularly consumed.
    Yet, certain aspects revved up young kids across France like Rat, particularly an early form of sneaker culture.
    "We had French sneakers like the Busnel," he explained, a shoe named after one of the sport's great players. Robert Busnel, a long-serving president of the French Basketball Federation (FFBB), was credited with modernizing the French game and opening it up to foreign players in the 1960s.
    But such French-brand shoes paled in contrast to U.S. imports. "Everyone was crazy for Converses," recalls Rat, who joined PUC in 1959. "They were American products, just like in music. We were crazy for it."
    The late 1960s ushered in the American colonization of French basketball. Young post-collegiate U.S. players, many of them African-American, infused new dynamism onto Gallic courts and helped revive the game, a legacy that influenced later generations of aspiring "basketteurs."
    Terry Lyons, former vice-president of the NBA's international communications team, witnessed firsthand the sport's subsequent overseas growth. The start of league broadcasts on French television in 1984 was key.
    "If you were going to make a timeline of the NBA's international popularity or success or improvements, (broadcasting) the game on television is the single most important factor," he mused. "The internet is probably the second most important factor."
    Romain Molina, a French native who now plays hoops for Ronda in the Spanish league, grew up in a small village near Lyon. For him, the major turning point for basketball in France was when Canal+ began broadcasting NBA games.
    "When I was young there was a TV show Wednesday afternoon with a game and highlights, commentated (in French) by George Eddy," Molina recalled. "This guy, a former American player in France who became a journalist, had a huge impact on young players -- even the Tony Parker generation."
    Through Eddy and Canal+ young French kids dared to dream.
    "So many young players wanted to dunk like Kobe Bryant or crossover like Allen Iverson," Molina said.

    Basketball infiltrates French pop culture

    The NBA's brand of athleticism was a pivotal point. France began to change its basketball game -- like many other countries in the 1990s -- and started to produce athletes who could do more than shoot.
    It wasn't just the style of the NBA game that was attractive to young French players. Simultaneously, a fan base was constructed through France's basketball-centric publications, particularly 5 Majeur, Maxi Basket and Reverse Magazine.
    Such deep delves into NBA competition and culture baptized new generations and imparted the fashion, music, and sneaker culture that surrounded the sport in the 1980s and 1990s.
    "It was the fashion and the cool stuff being worn, the change in the length of the shorts, the cool warmups, and certainly Michael (Jordan) that took it to a totally different level," Lyons said, referring to the six-time NBA champion and undisputed dunk king. "It was so cool."
    Such adulation went against the grain of stereotypical French snobbery towards American culture, an on-again-off-again phenomenon. French kids, it turned out, wanted to "Be like Mike" too.
    The strong influence of NBA fashion on French youths continues to this day, according to the NBA's managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Benjamin Morel.
    "There is a distinct sneaker culture in France and in other European countries," said Morel, who grew up in France. "Certain makes of sneakers are especially iconic and transcend modern culture in France."
    The Converse All-Star, which first raged during Rat's era as a player in the 1950s and 1960s, remains a stalwart. It has now "become part of people's everyday wardrobe," said Morel.
    And of course, there are the Nike Air Jordans. "You will routinely find French sneaker-lovers eagerly waiting for the next pair of Jordans to go on sale or waiting online at all times of the day to purchase a limited-edition pair," said Morel. "Sneakers, and indeed NBA clothing in general, such as caps and jerseys, have increasingly become fashion items."
    France's affection for NBA fashion rapidly converted to on-court success.
    In less than 20 years, France has become the third-largest supplier of international talent in the NBA's history, with 23 players who have made it into the league.
    Tariq Abdul-Wahad (born Olivier Michel Saint-Jean), a 6-foot 6-inch guard who excelled at San Jose State, became the first France-born player in the NBA when he hit the court for the Sacramento Kings in November 1997. Abdul-Wahad played six seasons in the league with Sacramento, Denver, Orlando, and Dallas, and was joined in 2000 by compatriot Jerome Moiso.
    But it was the 2001 arrival of 19-year-old Parker in San Antonio that put French hoops on the map.
    Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti was a young executive with the Spurs in 2001, offering him a unique perspective of the French incursion. "The generation of players led by Parker, (Boris) Diaw, (Ronny) Turiaf and the Piétrus brothers (Mickael and Florent) was incredibly influential," he said.
    According to Presti, the group paved the way for more French hoopsters to infiltrate the league.
    "When a strong core of young players is developing in unison, as was the case in INSEP or the French junior national teams, there will be a greater importance placed not only on seeing the present-day prospects, but also forecasting future generations," he said.
    What also made a difference was being able to watch the likes of Parker, Diaw and Mickaël Pietrus play for the French national team at normal hours, according to Spanish league pro Molina.
    "Only the hardcore fans wake up for a traditional NBA game," he said.

    Leaving home

    Like other young men before them, French NBA players left home to chase their dreams in the U.S. The cadence of their arrival persists into the 21st century, with most leaving their mark.
    FFBB president Jean-Pierre Siutat is proud of such accomplishments. "We have players who have very important roles on their teams," he said of Parker, Batum and Diaw.
    The country's younger generations are also emerging influencers. Morel pointed to Gobert, Evan Fournier and Joffrey Lauvergne. "Their success in the NBA but in particular on the national team, has further helped to grow the popularity of basketball and the NBA in France," he said.
    Earlier this year, the young phenomenon Gobert explained the internet's role in spreading the sport's popularity — and stoking the dreams of French youths.
    "Many people in France watch the NBA or follow the NBA every day on their apps and on the internet," he said. "It is way more accessible for people in France. It just became more part of the culture."
    France's NBA players remember where they came from and who helped provide opportunities for them to improve and excel. Several invest in their home clubs, such as Parker with ASVEL, Batum for Le Mans and Caen, and Diaw in Bordeaux.

    Fier de cette team...fier de ce public...fier d'être français. 🇫🇷

    A photo posted by Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) on

    Many players hold camps in metropolitan France as well as the overseas departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana, regions that provide strong players for French teams and leagues.
    That this "golden generation" is a multi-ethnic mix representing the France of today is also an important factor. They are often children of former players or elite athletes. As an example, Gobert's father, former France international Rudy Bourgarel, is an Afro-Frenchman from Guadeloupe.
    Gobert "had a fantastic season," remarked Rat. The younger Frenchman cracked the Jazz's starting five and stunned with defensive prowess. He then gave Les Bleus a considerable lift last year during EuroBasket 2015, where France finished third.
    "We are stupefied," Rat enthused of Gobert's quick progression. "For the French, this is exceptional."