The French national basketball team won bronze at the FIBA Basketball World Cup – their highest finish ever in the tournament. With the country scheduled to hold the next European championship, French basketball officials are hoping to build on the success, and to perhaps convince high-profile French NBA players to put on the blue uniform.
French basketball attained yet another milestone a week ago when Les Bleus beat Lithuania, 95-93, to win the bronze medal at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Madrid. It was the first time ever that France medaled at the tournament, and its best performance since 1954, when the team finished in fourth place. The bronze medal match capped an eventful week, beginning with the announcement that France will host the first and final rounds of EuroBasket 2015. While the tone was sobered by Les Bleus’ semi-final loss to Serbia, it did not detract from the stunning 65-52 quarter-final upset of their bête noir, Spain. The twelve month-long winning streak that began with the September 2013 EuroBasket gold medal has placed basketball on the map at home, no easy feat in a country where basketball has long been an outlier sport.
Throughout the twentieth century, basketball occupied an odd place within French culture and society. The sport was esteemed yet never terribly popular. YMCA educators first introduced France to basketball in 1893, the first European nation to receive the game. The game was attractive because it presumably introduced republican ideals of democracy, fair play, and team work to its players. But basketball was stigmatized by its association with the Protestant-backed YMCA. This was a liability in an era of intense public debate over the role of religion in public life in a traditionally Catholic country. The arrival of U.S. doughboys in 1917 helped revitalize the sport’s image and attracted more players. Basketball was never as popular as football, but France did become a European basketball power, crowned by its silver medal win at the 1948 London Olympic Games.
By the mid-1950s, French basketball’s fortunes looked promising, and promised a way to uplift a population pessimistic about the country’s future. In a report following the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, French officials expressed concern that, “too many young French have the sentiment – founded or not – of living in a time of decline. The best among them would like to prove French continuity and vigor in international competitions.” In order to do so, the report identified areas of athletic investment to produce medals. Basketball, the report noted, was “our favorable Olympic sport,” as it “is the most intelligent team sport,” and well suited for the French psyche. The report urged “absolute priority” be given to basketball ahead of the 1960 Rome Oympics, as well as fencing, rowing, track and field, and swimming.
Yet basketball fell victim to the overall decline of French sports in the 1960s, marked by a lack of medals, titles, and victories. Between 1964 and 1984, France failed to qualify for a major international basketball tournament, though it was a regular participant in the European Championship (EuroBasket). Part of the problem was the national youth crisis: French youths preferred doing things other than playing sports. Another issue was the poor perception of basketball. It was considered a sport of the elites and rural Protestant areas. Even by 1984, Dr. Marcel Robin wrote in Basket-Ball Magazine, basketball was still viewed as “a sport for seniors or reserved for the very gifted elite.”
A confluence of events in the 1970s and 80s began to turn basketball’s fortunes. The 1975 Mazeaud Law legislated sports into French culture and created funding for athletics, especially at the youth level. In tandem, the Fédération Française de Basket-Ball (FFBB) implemented improved youth detection and training programs. An influx of American players into the French basketball leagues helped change youth’s perception of the game, as did the broadcast of NBA games into French living rooms after 1984 by Canal +. The largest boost in the sport’s popularity came with the 1992 appearance of the U.S. Dream Team at the Barcelona Games. The FFBB reaped the rewards of the Dream Team’s dominant performance as more youths shot hoops in an effort to emulate their heroes Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. The number of officially registered French basketball players jumped from 386,200 in 1991 to 432,600 in 1992. This was nowhere near the number of registered football players that year (1,891,200). Still, basketball enrollment has continued to increase, reaching 475,500 in 2012.
More French played the game, but homegrown stars were needed to sustain its growth. As Le Monde asked in 1993, “Where is the Platini of French basketball?” The emergence of French players in the NBA began in 1997 with Tariq Abdul-Wahad (né Olivier St. John) and has continued ever since. Tony Parker’s stunning run with the San Antonio Spurs and subsequent “Parkermania” has done much to revive the game in France. However, the national team and its results have the unique ability to fuel basketball’s relevance in French culture. Despite supplying the most international players to the NBA since 2007, France has until recently had difficulty translating the successes of its youth development programs into wins at international tournaments. Thus the milestones attained by Les Bleus over the past year are significant for the game’s future.
Basketball still has a ways to go in terms of capturing French attention but the new culture of winning may change long-held perceptions. The French quest to medal at this year’s World Cup, an objective set by the players and captured through the FFBB’s “Bleu, Blanc Tour” YouTube series, has reinforced the public’s high regard of their national team. According to a poll conducted by Touluna/Sport.fr on September 14, 70.5% of respondents had a positive opinion of Les Bleus. Remarkably, the team’s success comes despite a roster depleted of its most well-known talent due to personal decisions or injury (Parker, Alexis Ajinca, Joakim Noah, Nando de Colo, Ian Mahinmi, Kevin Séraphin), some at the very last minute.
Many also point to France’s selection to be host of EuroBasket 2015 as a potential turning point. As Les Bleus captain Boris Diaw told French sports daily L’Équipe, hosting next year’s tournament “is good for French basketball and its development.” So, too, would having a winning French team at the tournament, featuring some of the best French players. Parker and Séraphin have declared themselves willing to play next year, should coach Vincent Collet call.
Even Joakim Noah, who has not suited up for Les Bleus since EuroBasket 2011, is under pressure from his father, former tennis star Yannick Noah, to rejoin the national team. Noah père recently told SudOuest.fr that he missed being with the other players’ parents in the stands, cheering on Les Bleus. “I take great pride in finding myself on the other side,” he said of his wish to join them next year. “I’ll yell at Jo, ‘Come on, shit, do this also for me!’”
Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is an historian in the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. She is on Twitter at
@lempika7. All views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.