High Hopes and Olympic Hoop Dreams in France

As France's elder statesmen of basketball—Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Mickaël Gelabale—near the ends of their careers, Les Bleus are dead-set on defending their EuroBasket title and getting a bid to Rio.

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Sep 16 2015, 4:45pm

EPA/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

Two down, two to go. After prevailing in what local media described as the "game of a generation" over the weekend—the French sports press was exceedingly hyped up for what wound up being a lopsided win over Turkey—the French national basketball team moved on to the semifinals of this year's European Championship on Tuesday, defeating Latvia, 84-70. As Les Bleus mount a convincing defense of their EuroBasket title, the team and its fans have more to celebrate than victories on the court.

For Camille Eleka, who plays for the French League's Caen Basket Calvados, Saturday night's Round of 16 win—particularly its record-breaking 26,135 spectators, the largest crowd ever for a European basketball game—was a spectacular sign for his sport's future. "That's never been seen before in Europe," he said of the unsurpassed number of fans who crowded into Lille's Pierre Mauroy Stadium, a covered soccer arena. Eleka incredulously recounted how the crowd "sang 'La Marseillaise' together and created chants together all the time." Such an occurrence is very rare in France. "It was the first time that the guys, even those in the NBA, had seen [something like] it," Eleka said.

Michel Rat, the former director of the Federal Basketball Center at INSEP, the National Sports Institute, agreed. "There was an exceptional ambiance, that I have never known until then," he said. Rat knows a thing or two about EuroBasket matches: he played at the 1959 tournament held in Istanbul, a time when France last dominated the European scene. Then, Rat recalled, "we played in a football stadium, but it was not covered—it was in the open." The enclosed stadium certainly helped, but it was the unprecedented supporter turnout on Saturday that effectively made French fans the sixth man.

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This year's EuroBasket is the first truly 'European' tournament in the event's long history. Originally, the European Championship was a means to unify basketball-playing countries in the 1930s; it was resurrected in 1946 to heal the war-ravaged Continent. Until this year, the tournament had traditionally been played in a single country, but after FIBA announced in June 2013 that Ukraine would relinquish host duties due to the political situation in its eastern provinces, organizers quickly cobbled together a transnational schedule. France, Germany, Croatia, and Latvia co-hosted the group stages. The final phases are unfolding this week in France.

The tournament's two finalists will automatically qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games—high stakes on a continent well-stocked with strong national teams. Nicolas Batum, the Charlotte Hornets forward and French national player, told me earlier this year that EuroBasket is "the toughest one for me." Yet, he excitedly predicted, this tournament "will be one of the biggest basketball events ever." So far, the event has lived up to his prediction.

For spectators in France, a ticking clock for the home team and its most beloved players has heightened the drama. it is highly likely that French basketball's elder statesmen—San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker and Boris Diaw; Mickaël Gelabale, who played for the Seattle SuperSonics and Minnesota Timberwolves; and France vice-captain Florent Piétrus—will retire soon from international play. Their goal is to finish with a strong performance at the Olympics, and they're aiming to win a bid through EuroBasket. To reach the finals on September 20, Les Bleus must first face off against their bête noir, Spain, in the semis. If they fail to win, the team still has an Olympic chance, but they'll have to win a spot through a gantlet of qualifying matches in the next year.

France would much prefer the tournament's shortcut to Rio, and Les Bleus' younger generation is rising to that challenge. Saturday's game was marked by strong performances from the team's younger players, particularly the Orlando Magic's Evan Fournier and Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert. "Batum and Gobert are obviously the stars of the next generation," French-American basketball commentator George Eddy said, but for now, he continued, everyone has the same purpose: "to help the Tony Parker and Boris Diaw generation finish in a beautiful way." The young stars will help, but after Tuesday's quarterfinal, there were no doubts that "Le Patron" Parker and "Le Captain" Diaw were still the ones at the wheel.

Defending the championship trophy and a trip to Rio are necessary for basketball's growth in France, where it competes with more popular sports like soccer, rugby, and tennis, for television broadcast markets. Paris was abuzz Tuesday night for the Champions League match between hometown team Paris Saint-Germain and Malmo, rather than Les Bleus' do-or-die quarterfinal. Winning helps in this competitive media market; it helps when the team doing the winning is full of recognizable stars.

Those faces are not just recognizable to French hoop heads, either. This "French Dream Team" has more NBA players on it a EuroBasket 2015 roster. All year long, the French Basketball Federation drummed up interest and support by promising, "They will all be there." And so they are: Parker, Diaw, Batum, Gobert, and Fournier are joined by Denver Nuggets' Joffrey Lauvergne. (A seventh NBA contributor, New Orleans Pelican Alexis Ajinça, forfeited nine days prior to the tournament's start due to injury.) The inducements for French NBA players were too enticing to bypass. Participation ensures a player is considered for the team's Rio roster, should France qualify. More tantalizing, for many, was the opportunity to play a major international competition on home soil.

This team has been called "the golden generation." Photo by EPA/Emmanuel Dunand/Pool

The last time France hosted EuroBasket was in 1999. Parker's generation were teenagers, then; the youngest players on the 2015 team were barely seven years old. Still, that tournament was a turning point for French hoops. Les Bleus' fourth-place finish fell shy of the team's objective and left them off the podium, but stimulated French interest. "The stadiums were full for all the games France played in," Eddy recollected.

The tourney attracted new fans—and future stars like Batum. "I started following the national team," he said, "when we had the EuroBasket in France with the semifinal." That team qualified for the 2000 Sydney Games, where they narrowly lost to the United States in the gold medal game. It was the dawn of a new era for French basketball, and Les Bleus have built an impressive collection of EuroBasket and World Cup medals over the last decade-and-a-half; along the way, France has become the third all-time supplier of international talent to the NBA. The Parker generation would dearly love to confront the United States again in an Olympic final.

But while Les Bleus are good, it is perhaps just as important that its most recognizable stars are so personable and likable. The French sports press, who are admittedly the same people that hung the Game Of A Generation label on that FIBA quarterfinal game against Turkey, has dubbed this the "golden generation." "These are millionaire or multi-millionaire stars," Eddy said, "who show a lot of humility and accessibility to the public that doesn't exist with soccer stars"—who, in France, have not always been so highly regarded.

"The people can see the French team defending their title," Eleka said. "It is very good for the popularity of the sport." Moreover, it can help drive new fans to watch the domestic league. "Perhaps they will go watch pro matches," Eleka hoped.

Today, basketball is France's second most played team sport, and while it may never challenge soccer for ubiquity, it is growing. This can be felt as far away as the French Antilles, where former French international Patrick Cham is a coach and coordinator of the Pôle Espoir in Guadeloupe. The region's most promising young basketballers train there, and the island has been an important part of France's basketball renaissance. "The young are quite interested in the European Championship," he said, "especially because there are two native Guadeloupians"—Piétrus and Gélabale—"and two others with Guadeloupe origins, Gobert and Ajinçca."

Today's Les Bleus are what Eddy calls, "a beautiful snapshot of what French culture is today." There are Caucasian players, Antillean players, players with one or both parents from sub-Saharan Africa; Fournier's maternal side hails from Algeria, and Parker's father is African-American. In a country that has its fair share of tensions over issues of race and immigration, it is no small thing to see a multicultural mosaic representing the nation and highly respected, if not followed, by the public.

"If the team wins and brings everyone together," Eddy predicted of EuroBasket 2015, "that can only be something considered positive."