September 25, 2000: The French national basketball team was in its final game in the Group “A” preliminary round of 2000 Sydney Olympics Basketball Tournament. France was sporting a 2-2 record, besting both China and New Zealand but losing to both Lithuania and Italy. And as luck would have it, though in a bad way, they were going up against the mighty Team USA, led by the likes of NBA superstars Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton and Ray Allen, who were carrying a perfect 4-0 record after obliterating their opponents. It was really a foregone conclusion that France would be their fifth victim in their quest for another basketball gold medal.
But it would only get worse. With just 16 minutes to go in the second half of what would be a 106-94 thumping of France, Team USA’s Vince Carter, who just won the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest seven months ago, stole a pass from almost the midcourt line. Going for a sure rim-rattling dunk, he was confronted by Frédéric Weis, a gangly, 7’2″ Frenchman trying to hopelessly draw an offensive foul just a few feet from the basket. Carter dribbled once and leapt. He amazingly leapfrogged over Weis, scraping the Frenchman’s head for balance, and viciously slammed the ball for two points. The whole Sydney SuperDome shook in awe. And though they eventually got the silver medal in the tournament, France was unabashedly posterized for the whole world to see.
But notwithstanding this unpleasant moment for the French flag, things stared to look up for basketball in France. It began with the 2001 NBA drafting of sensational point guard Tony Parker by the San Antonio Spurs, who then won a string of championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Parker was also adjudged the Finals MVP in 2007, wiping off the sour taste of that Weis debacle and paving the way for the NBA to fully recognize the wealth of talent coming in from France.
Boris Diaw of the Charlotte Bobcats, whose versatility was showcased while playing for the Phoenix Suns from 2005-2008; Ronny Turiaf of the Golden State Warriors, who took part in the 2008 NBA Finals playing for the Los Angeles Lakers; Mickaël Piétrus of the Orlando Magic, who helped the Magic reach the 2009 Finals; and Joachim Noah of the Chicago Bulls, who was instrumental in the Bulls’ tough stand against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2009 Playoffs, are some of the notable players that elevated the French flag in terms of playing in the NBA. Not to be forgotten, though, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, born Olivier Michael Saint-Jean, was the first French-born player to ever play in the NBA, suiting up for the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks from 1997-2005.
So, in surmising these players, it can be truly said that not only with their sheer talent but also with the passion they bring to the game, they are worthy enough of playing basketball at the highest possible level. And even with that “le dunk de la mort” almost a decade ago, France clearly got some serious game.