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Why France is considered 'ground zero' for basketball in Europe

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Why France is considered 'ground zero' for basketball in Europe
Children play basket-ball during a summer camp near in Cannes (Photo by YANN COATSALIOU / AFP)

It's often thought of as the all-American sport, but basketball is also huge in France - it's the country's second favourite team sport with over two million players nationwide, and predictions that it will continue to grow.

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The first basketball game on French soil was played in 1893 - just two years after the sport was invented - and since then it has grown into a national obsession, with a little help from the American NBA, the Catholic church, hip-hop and pivotal moments like the 1992 Olympic 'dream team'.

These days, it's the second most popular team sport in France, according to French Federation of Basketball, with over 2.5 million casual and registered players nationwide, following football in first place and handball and rugby in third and fourth respectively.

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France now counts at least 4,000 local clubs, 14 million fans, and claims the title of country outside of North America with the most players in the NBA. Basketball has become one of France's favourite sports, and it is slated to only become more and more popular, particularly after Frenchman Victor Wembanyama became the NBA draft's number one pick in 2023 and the French free-access sports channel, L'Équipe, announced a €2.5 million deal to bring more professional basketball to French televisions.

But it's been far from a straightforward journey - basketball has waxed and waned in popularity until the 1990s when it took on a new place in French society, particularly for young people of colour in France's multi-cultural suburbs.

Basketball in France over the years

"France is ground zero for European basketball", Dr Lindsey Sarah Krasnoff, historian and author of the upcoming book "Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA" told The Local.

Basketball, considered by many to be 'all-American', was actually invented in 1891 in by a Canadian: Dr James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) International Training School.

It travelled via the YMCA to Paris just two years later, where the first match on European soil would take place at the Rue de Trévise in the city's 9th arrondissement. The very same court remained in use for over 130 years, before closing its doors in 2023 for renovations. 

The YMCA continued to play a large role in the proliferation of basketball in France, particularly during World War I when it hosted American soldiers, who brought with them an interest in basketball, which helped spread the sport amongst the local French populations.

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After the conclusion of the war, the YMCA helped to organise the Inter-Allied Games, for allied soldiers and military personnel. Basketball was one of the sports played, which allowed for a much wider introduction to the sport for more French people.

By the 1920s, the sport was becoming part of French institutions, particularly the Catholic church. Local parishes across the country often had basketball associations (les patronages), especially in small to medium sized cities. It would be via these associations that basketball would grow in France during the inter-war period, which also saw an increase in interest among women and the growth of the female team.

Sociologist and lecturer at Université du littoral - Côte d'opale (ULCO), David Sudre, has also studied France's long history with basketball, as well as the uniqueness of the sport in l'Hexagone.

He explained: "In the inter-war period, France developed its own unique style of basketball called 'ripopo', which differed in its approach to offence and defence".

Sudre said that the French style bore some resemblance to football, but "unfortunately was not very successful". 

Both Sudre and Krasnoff noted that one difference between French basketball and versions of the sport elsewhere was that it was predominantly played outdoors, at least until the post-war period.

"Americans started to come to France to teach and play basketball after World War II, and they brought their techniques with them", Sudre said, noting that one of the most important Americans to come to France for basketball was Michael Ruzgis, who went on to coach the French national team and help them secure a silver medal at the 1948 London Olympics. 

However, the version of basketball many currently know - one influenced by the NBA - did not make its way to France until 1984 when the country began to broadcast league games on the channel Canal +. 

The channel added George Eddy, an American basketball player in France, as a commentator. In a profile piece on Eddy, the New York Times called him "the man most responsible for introducing France to the NBA".

Eddy's sportscasting was described as "exuberant", with commentary passed along through strongly accented French and occasional English terminology dropped in, which would become his trademark.

Experts also point to the 1992 Olympics - and the USA's 'Dream Team' - as a pivotal moment for basketball in France.

"This was the first time American style basketball was broadcast to the general public. Before that, you had to pay for a Canal + subscription to see NBA games, so not everyone had access", Krasnoff said.

After the 1992 Olympics, a new generation of young people, witnessing the prowess of stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd, were inspired, leading to the dissemination of basketball-centric media and magazines.

"It was an explosion of the NBA", Sudre said. These magazines, such as 5 Majeur, ran cover images of stars like Michael Jordan. The French discovered not only the big shots of the NBA and American tactics of play, including the art of 'trash-talking', but also the cultural elements that came with it: sneakers, affectionately referred to as baskets in French, rap music, and players' jerseys. 

One of those people was a young Tony Parker who, aged 10, watched the Dream Team's Olympic feat in awe.

Parker later became an NBA all-star player and the first French person to be inducted into the NBA's Hall of Fame, pushing even more young French people toward the sport. 

He told French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche in 2012 that this was a defining moment. "It was the Dream Team games that made me want to make a career of it. Seeing all those legends together made my head spin (...) So I gave up football for good".

Tony Parker, playing for the French team, during the 32nd European Championship for Men (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / FIBA / AFP)

The culture of the cain-ri

"Basketball in France is very cosmopolitan, and as the sport has evolved over time it has been more open to outside influences - whether they've been from the US, Africa, or other European countries. You see this more in France than you do in other European basketball cultures", explained Krasnoff.

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"This has everything to do with France's longterm status as an immigration destination", the author emphasised.

And there is one area in particular where the sport has resonated in France: the suburbs, or les banlieues

Sudre wrote his doctoral thesis on the connection to basketball and American culture in the suburbs of Paris, specifically on the Cain-Ri, a hybrid cultural identity claimed by young basketball fans of the multi-cultural, multi-racial working class suburbs.

"Cain-ri is a completely French term. It is an identification with American culture, but it is fully French. It is the shortening of 'americain' into 'ricain', which in verlan (France's 'backwards' slang) becomes cain-ri. This word only exists in France and only defines one specifically French population", Sudre explained. 

READ MORE: Verlan: France's backwards language you need to learn

"For these young French people, particularly those whose families originally came from the West Indies and Sub-Saharan Africa. They identified with how the NBA showed a model of Black success and representation, which is less visible in France.

"If you look at the politicians in power in France, most are white men, similar to the United States. When you look at who holds power in France, these posts are mostly not occupied by minorities.

"Many people from the cités (housing estates) in France, even though the context is entirely different, felt a connection to the ghetto described in American rap music (...) Both R&B and basketball became popular because the best-of-the-best in both categories were Black people. It allowed for a pride in their social class and in their race. 

"For the first time, they were able to see people with their same skin-colour winning (...) what sets basketball apart from rugby or football is the fascination with individual stars. People can have their own heroes".

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Part of Sudre's research looks at the phenomenon of 'hip-hop ball', where he analysed the pop culture connections to basketball that helped popularise the sport, and vice versa. Similar to the United States, rap and hip-hop were two genres that increased significantly in popularity during the 1990s and early 2000s.

From Nike Air Jordan sneakers to player's jerseys, the clothing style of basketball caught on in France, especially in the banlieues. The French basketball website TrashTalk also analysed the sudden influx of NBA references into French rap during the 1990s, one example being the French hip-hop group 2Bal who used the popular refrain 'Boomshakalakala' in 1996, as a reference to Shaq. 

Now, such references to NBA players and basketball are common in French rap and hip-hop, and even within French slang. 

A common greeting for young people is the 'check' - what English speakers might refer to as a fist-bump, pound or dap. This has been transformed into a verb in French (checker), but it originates from a defensive move in basketball. 

Basketball across France

Much of the basketball played in the suburbs of Paris, Lyon and Marseille is referred to as basket libre (free basketball), meaning the players have not joined any associations or clubs and are thus not counted in the French Basketball Federation's official figures. 

A large portion of those counted in the over 600,000 registered players across the country are in smaller towns across the country. 

Daniel Champsaur, the head of archives for the French Basketball Federation, explained that there is a different basketball tradition outside of the suburbs of the big cities.

Most of the teams in France's top professional basketball league, the BetClic Elite, are based out of small to medium sized built up areas, such as Pau in southern France or Le Mans in central-western France, rather than the large cities.

"The basketball club in Limoges is emblematic of this. There is no competition from a local football or rugby club, and there is a historic connection to basketball that dates back to the Catholic patronages", Champsaur explained.

"The NBA still has an influence in these areas, but there is also a long-standing basketball tradition". 

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Sudre concurred: "It is not only Black French adolescents who love the NBA - it's all basketball players in France. The representation of basketball in the media in France has for a long time only been the NBA. It has been hard for people to follow local French teams". 

That could change in the coming year, however, after the signing of a contract between BetClic Elite and the French sports channel Équipe, which will bring more domestic professional basketball to televisions across France. 

On top of that, there is a new French star on the courts of the NBA - the young Victor Wembanyama, the NBA's number one draft pick for 2023. 

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"All signs indicate that it will continue its ascent in popularity, particularly in media recognition", Krasnoff said. "I would be shocked if there is not an increase in the number of kids who register to play basketball in this upcoming year".

Are you looking to attend basketball games in France? You can find the list of clubs and upcoming games for the Betclic Elite (the men's top flight games) as well as ticketing information here. Most clubs have tickets starting at €15, available at the door.

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