The lunch took place at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, but it may as well have been a Parisian bistro. At various tables sat Victor Wembanyama, from Le Chesnay, a suburb near Versailles, and his entourage: the “Wemby group,” including his family, his agent, his coach, and the president of his former club, Nanterre 92. Bilal Coulibaly, a native of Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, and his family were also there. Rayan Rupert, from Strasbourg, and his mother Elham rounded out the list of French attendees.
They were jet-lagged (all of them had recently flown in on the same plane from Paris) but excited. In just a few hours, the three French basketball stars – and one other, Sidy Cissoko, from Saint-Maurice, near the Bois de Vincennes – would walk across the stage at Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2023 NBA draft.“The atmosphere was amazing,” Frédéric Donnadieu, president of Nanterre 92, the basketball club where the young Wembanyama got his start, recalls of the afternoon in Manhattan, an annual NBA draft event reserved for the class’s most promising players. “They all dealt well with the pressure of the event.”
The players had reason to be confident. That night, Barclays Center rang out with French names. Wembanyama – whose height, wingspan, and raw talent have turned him into an international phenomenon – was selected first by the San Antonio Spurs. His former teammate and close friend Coulibaly was chosen minutes later, at seventh, and immediately traded to the Washington Wizards, while Rupert and Cissoko were both picked up in the second round, by the Portland Trail Blazers and the Spurs respectively.
While the selection of Wembanyama with the top pick was a first for French basketball, the presence of French players each June in New York City has become a regular occurrence. According to the Associated Press, this was the third time four French players were selected in the draft, and the second consecutive year. Overall, more players are selected from within France than any other country outside of North America. Donnadieu attributes this trend to a growing basketball culture in France and a physical, fast-paced style of play similar to that of the NBA. “Basketball [in the U.S.] is like soccer in France, so it’s normal that [the NBA] would be inspiring” to young French people, he says. “And the French players’ profiles are interesting for the NBA, since they’re very athletic and there’s a strong culture of teamwork.”
Like Donnadieu, Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, author of the just-released Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA, doesn’t think this global success is due to chance alone. France is often referred to as the “51st state of basketball,” she says. Strong youth development; a focus on éducation – or well-roundedness – in the French sense of the word; and a cosmopolitan demographic base that includes African, Eastern European, and Balkan immigrants make the country a powerhouse for developing talents. “When you look at the French players who are exported to the NBA, the WNBA, and the NCAA,” Krasnoff says, “they typically tend to be a little bit more multidimensional.”
The focus on youth development goes back more than a century, Krasnoff adds, and is a typical French-American story. In 1893, Melvin Rideout, a disciple of the basketball’s founding father James Naismith, was sent to Paris to inaugurate the first basketball court outside of the U.S. in an effort to internationalize the incipient sport. Located at a YMCA center at 14 Rue de Trévise, in the 9th arrondissement, the herringbone-patterned court is now being refurbished in preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
The NBA’s French Pioneers
It wasn’t until 1960 that a French pro made the trip the other way across the Atlantic. That year, Jean-Claude Lefèbvre was selected in the ninth round by the Minneapolis Lakers (later sold to Los Angeles), becoming the first French, and European, player to be drafted by an NBA team. He never played a game, however, after suffering a career-ending knee injury. Other pioneers followed. In 1997, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, a native of Maisons-Alfort, a suburb southeast of Paris, was selected eleventh overall. He played for four teams across his eight-year career, averaging just under 8 points per game and opening the door for other French stars, including Tony Parker (drafted in 2001) and Boris Diaw (in 2003), who both went on to win the NBA Finals with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.
Twenty-five years after Abdul-Wahad first stepped onto the court and more than a century since Rideout’s fateful trip to Paris, French players have become a common sight in the United States. Wembanyama and Coulibaly, the two rising stars of the modern NBA, prove that the country’s development strategy has worked. The two stars, 19 and 18 respectively, joined forces on the Metropolitans 92, a team in France’s Betclic Elite league (formerly known as Pro A). But the two had known each other for much longer than that, developing a close relationship while playing in the same youth league. “Wemby is more than a teammate,” Coulibaly told the press after his selection in June. “[He’s] like my brother.”
For Wembanyama, the role of his youth club – Nanterre 92 – in his development was key, Donnadieu suggests. At the draft, Wembanyama insisted on being announced as “from Nanterre,” where he played between the ages of 10 and 17, and not Levallois-Perret, where Metropolitans 92 is based and where he has only played one season. Nanterre, the suburb just west of Paris that was recently the site of weeks of protest after a 17-year-old of Algerian descent was killed there by police, has become somewhat of a basketball bastion.
In just over a decade, Nanterre 92 has gone from a family-run, rec-league team to a top-level team that has sent several players to the NBA, and now a number-one pick. The city also fields a youth league, a wheelchair basketball section, and a competitive women’s team. (While fewer French women have played in the WNBA overall, proportionally, French women are equally represented.) “[The city] has become a brand,” says Camille Ducrocq, a 27 year-old Parisian journalist and longtime Nanterre 92 fan. “When you think of Nanterre, you think of basketball.”
Wembanyama, the once-in-a-generation talent “made in Nanterre,” has already begun to live up to his big name (and stature). When France-Amérique visited the NBA Store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in central Paris, Wembanyama jerseys had been sold out for weeks. On a Thursday in July, Paul, from a suburb south of Paris, was there window-shopping with his father and sister. While his favorite team remains the Golden State Warriors and his favorite player Stephen Curry, the 15-year-old who plays point guard for his local basketball team is already joining the Wembanyama bandwagon. “I think he can give new life to French basketball,” he proclaims. “I hope he’ll make it and live up to the hype.”