Gonzaga Basketball's French Connection

Sixty years ago, Gonzaga recruited the tallest college basketball player in the country from France, a nation not known for basketball. Over the years, the Zags have helped change that.

|
Mar 22 2018, 6:20pm

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime March Madness darling Gonzaga is known for its international flair, but within that, there is something of a French accent that often gets overlooked. The connection began in the 1950s and continues today, with standout sophomore Killian Tillie. The Parisian born 20-year-old is a leading scorer and the West Coast Conference tournament's most outstanding player, a key linchpin to the Bulldogs’ march to the Sweet Sixteen. He's joined this season by fellow Frenchman, 17-year-old redshirt freshman Joel Ayayi. But Tillie's exploits might never have happened if another 20-year-old Frenchman, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, had not stepped onto campus in 1957.

The youngster from Épiais-lès-Louvre, north of Paris, was recruited by renowned scout Jim McGregor, who first saw Lefebvre at a European tournament in the Netherlands. But his lanky 7'2'' frame wasn’t the only thing that stood out. There was also his basketball pedigree—or lack thereof. According to French Basketball Federation (FFBB) archivist Daniel Champsaur, Lefebvre was discovered by the federation’s then-president, Robert Busnel. “Busnel hoped to find a deterrent weapon for the French game,” Champsaur told VICE Sports, referencing the era’s quest to find tall players to make France competitive against hoops powerhouses in Eastern Europe. “The problem is,” Champsaur continued, “Lefebvre had no basketball experience.”

The young man’s remarkable transformation into a basketball player began during the 1955-56 season, when Busnel personally trained Lefebvre at the National Sport Institute (INS), the predecessor of today’s famed sports school INSEP. Lefebvre played the following season with the French side Chorale Roanne Basket before his introduction to McGregor. The American scout ultimately sold Zags coach Hank Anderson on the untested Frenchman. The 1957 US arrival of the “Eiffel Rifle” attracted reporters on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and Sports Illustrated featured him in its December 9, 1957 issue. Despite the furor, the Frenchman returned home after just two seasons with Gonzaga. “He missed France,” said Vincent Janssen, a member of the FFBB's Commission on Heritage and Legends who is compiling a study on Lefebvre and detailed the player's rise.

Jean-Claude Lefebvre Photo courtesy of Musée du Basket

He played with the French national team, but according to Janssen, basketball in France “didn’t really change because of Lefebvre. He didn’t really bring the American training [back home]." And while he drew attention from the press, he didn’t transmit knowledge about the college game, either, nor the passionate culture surrounding it. “It was a medium totally unknown,” Janssen said. At the time, basketball was a “confidential” sport in France—one learned in school gym classes but not consumed, heavily reported on, or commercialized due to a lack of a professional league.

Instead, it’s the Zags’ modern-day French cagers who have helped popularize and internationalize the NCAA back home. The NBA’s expansion and commercial growth since the 1980s renewed interest more generally in the sport of basketball worldwide, including in France, whose hoops culture dates to 1893. As pointed out by French basketball agent Olivier Mazet, who reps New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina, this revival and success benefitted both international players and the NCAA.

“The [French] public began to discover the NCAA right after they began to discover the NBA,” he told VICE Sports. Young kids who dreamed of being the next Michael Jordan wondered how to get to the league and saw that many European players drafted in the NBA first honed their craft at US universities and colleges. “The easiest path to go to the NBA at this time, people realized, was to go to college,” Mazet said.

The first proof of this was Tariq Abdul-Wahad, then known as Olivier Saint-Jean, whose two-year stint at Michigan in 1993-95 was heavily covered back home. His experience demonstrated that the NCAA was basketball in an entirely different stratosphere and, after the Sacramento Kings made him the first Frenchman to play in the NBA in 1997, a conduit to the association.

But the real game-changer was Ronny Turiaf’s tenure in Spokane. The future NBA champion signed with the Zags after completing training at INSEP. From 2001 to 2005, Turiaf made a name for himself on campus, on the court, and back home, a legacy reinforced by his later NBA and national team accomplishments. The two-time All-American earned numerous collegiate accolades, and was recently inducted into the West Coast Conference Hall of Honor. Mazet credits Turiaf with helping to put college hoops firmly on the radar. “Step by step,” he said, “everybody started to more closely follow the NCAA.”

For Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who many—including Mazet—praise for the Zags’ overseas scouting and recruiting efforts, Turiaf provided the foundation for the program's modern-day French accent. “He’s obviously very passionate about Gonzaga,” Lloyd told VICE Sports of Turiaf. “[He] had a great career at Gonzaga and a great career at the NBA, so he had a name.”

Aspiring French ballers became familiar with the school and its brand of basketball. Washington Wizards center Ian Mahinmi originally committed to play with Gonzaga but wound up being a surprise pick for the San Antonio Spurs in the 2005 NBA draft. ALM Évreux Basket’s prodigy Mamery Diallo transferred to Gonzaga for the 2005-06 season but was sidelined by injury. Mathis Keita played two seasons with the Zags (2010-12), overlapping one year with Parisian-raised Guy Landry Edi, who played his junior and senior years with the Zags (2011-13).

But it wasn’t just young basketballers who took note of the NCAA’s sports culture. Laurent Tillie, head coach of the French national volleyball team and a former Olympian, was also intrigued and admired the sport-study format. He himself never played college volleyball—“I was too old,” he told VICE Sports—but his interest in the US system translated into a desire to let his sons experience it. The oldest, Kim, played basketball for the University of Utah, middle son Kevin was a two-time NCAA volleyball champion with UC-Irvine, and now the youngest, Killian, is a star with Gonzaga.

Like others before him, the youngest Tillie trained at INSEP prior to his 2016 arrival in Spokane. The transition to the US was fairly smooth and he soon adapted to his new surroundings, his teammates, and Gonzaga basketball. “He was quickly integrated,” his father said, although there were a few adjustments. “What’s hard is the academic-training rhythm.”

Tillie has in turn helped facilitate the transition from INSEP to Gonzaga for Joel Ayayi. The younger brother of the WNBA’s Valeriane Ayayi, he hasn’t notched official playing time during his redshirt year, but is working on his game and physicality, as well as his English. While Ayayi found Gonzaga the best fit overall, he has acknowledged the importance of his fellow Frenchman. "To have Killian with me, that’s a plus,” he told BasketUSA.

Tillie, part of the Zags’ starting five, is upping his game in the postseason and the French are discovering the special US enthusiasm for NCAA sports through his exploits. “For us, it’s really exciting,” the elder Tillie said. “What’s incredible is the fervor, the passion. I think that even in the NBA this passion isn’t quite the same.”

The French may be paying more attention to the NCAA this, but Lloyd has long had his eye on their players as good fits for Zags basketball. Their athleticism, combined with a European understanding of the technical game, translates into high hoops IQs, he said. “That’s something that really works well at Gonzaga with how we play. It’s a natural thing for both sides.”

The team’s basketteurs past and present speak to the program’s embrace of basketball as a global sport. “We’ve made our mark and made a pretty significant impact on getting international players,” Lloyd said. And the 60-year legacy of Lefebvre as one of the team’s first overseas players only reinforces that pedigree. “It’s pretty cool to think about.”

Follow Lindsay on Twitter @Lempika7